A heart of infinite capacity

(Wikimedia Commons / Nheyob)

Have you ever noticed those signs on elevators that say something like, "Capacity: 1,200 pounds"? I remember one time when, upon looking at the sign and noticing that there were just two of us on the elevator, a friendly fellow passenger said, "Well, I guess we're safe."

Thinking myself witty, I replied, "You have no idea how dense I am." We chuckled together, we two strangers.

Capacity. When I served as a formator in my religious community, I would often talk about our formation program as being designed to build capacities: capacity to live together in community, capacity to make prayer foundational to everything we do, capacity for healthy communication and conflict resolution, capacity for living the vows.

We build capacities for particular skills by engaging in endeavors we might not necessarily choose naturally. For example, I understand that Olympic swimmers spend many an hour doing "dry training." Weightlifting and distance running don't necessarily translate directly into what will be happening in a pool, but they build muscle that increases both stamina and speed in the water. The capacity for strength and endurance is broadened through these experiences, despite the fact that a casual passerby might wonder why Michael Phelps is running laps around the track rather than swimming them in the pool.

The same holds true for building spiritual capacities. I remember a wise sister-mentor cautioning me as a novice, "Don't ask for humility unless you're ready to receive it!"

Ah, yes ... the prayer to be more humble comes quickly and perhaps naively, but when the answer to the prayer comes, I find myself wishing there were some other way!

In reality, though, how else could we build a capacity for patience, humility, generosity or all those other virtues, unless we have opportunities to exercise those virtues over and over and over again? Being healthy, happy and holy consecrated women and men doesn't just happen automatically with the profession of religious vows.

Living together as a diverse community, sustaining a life of faith even through the darkest times, having a craving for silence and solitude when life is at its loudest and most crowded — all of these represent capacities that must be built, strengthened and tended.

I have been awed by some recent experiences that have demonstrated this for me. At the start of the new year, I received the joyful news from my niece that I have another grandniece. My heart filled with an expansive, exuberant joy at the news of the first girl coming to a family with three older brothers. Oh, the capacity of the human heart for joy and the most tender love!

Then, within twenty-four hours of her entry into this world, that little bundle of joy was whisked away into the neonatal intensive care unit for reasons that were to remain unclear for three full weeks. The heart's expanded capacity for joy provided room for the pain, sorrow and fear that quickly rushed in to coexist with it.

I have long known that love is a package deal, complete with overflowing tenderness as well as overwhelming vulnerability to pain. That part was no surprise. What caught me up short, however, was the sheer capacity of a single heart to hold equal portions of joy and pain simultaneously.

Similarly, a community celebration last week that originally promised to be a pretty routine birthday dinner (fun but not uncommon) proved to be anything but your run-of-the-mill party. My capacity for delight was expanded far beyond my heart's previous boundaries by an evening of laughter, surprise and great exuberance. The space this experience opened up in my heart for delight provided an additional capacity for its companion, gratitude.

Love and pain, delight and gratitude. Deep experiences of the former allow for increased capacities for the latter. And in all this, the human heart has an incredible capacity to endure.

So, when it comes to virtues like forgiveness, generosity, patience and the like, why is it that I so readily find excuses for being lacking? "I wish I could be more forgiving, but I just don't have it in me." "I so admire you for how generous you are with your time; you are really something else." "I could never be as patient as you; I'm too much of a live wire."

Pawned off as compliments, these kinds of statements are actually something quite different. When I hear myself uttering or even thinking them, what I'm really saying is, "I just don't want to put forth the effort required to forgive, to be that generous, or to have that much patience."

In other words, I don't want to do those capacity-building exercises. I just don't want to! Under the guise of admiring someone else's hard spiritual work, I let myself off the hook for doing my own. And I'm smaller-hearted for it.

The greatest motivator for these kinds of capacity-building spiritual exercises is the Heart of Christ. The Sacred Heart, open and broken at the same time, has an infinite capacity both to love and to endure the pain that loving entails.

An open heart is a heart broken open; and a broken heart is opened up to fuller loving. Package deal.

I asked my high school students once, "If you knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that the person you were head-over-heels in love with was going to absolutely break your heart into a million pieces somewhere during the course of your relationship, would you still marry him?"

The debate that ensued was lengthy and heated. Is love worth it? Would someone who truly loved you ever hurt you? Is forgiveness an absolute requirement of love? Can true love recover from genuine heartbreak? Of course, the answer to all those questions is an unequivocal yes.

The statement I always waited for in that classroom, however, was the one that inevitably came: "Well, you can never know ahead of time that that would happen, so the question is moot." And there was the teachable moment.

I would articulate as tenderly as I could the truth that every human heart instinctively intuits: "Oh, but we can know. And the truth of the matter is that anyone and everyone we genuinely love will, at some point in time, almost certainly break our hearts. That's the deal. That's just the deal."

Love is, indeed, a package deal. May our capacity for it grow deeper with every passing day.

[Virginia Herbers is an Apostle of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She has master's degree in pastoral studies and has ministered in education at both the elementary and high school levels in Connecticut, New York, Missouri and Taiwan. She currently serves as the vice-provincial for the United States Province of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart.]

Check out Horizons, featuring reflections from younger sisters.