11/11/2013 08:32 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Opening a Heart of Flesh to God, Each Other, Our Selves--A Novice Surfer's Prayer

Less than three years after I chose to live as a Christian back in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, I was living in the student quarter of Paris at twenty-one, completing my French major by studying at the University of Sorbonne. A perennial insomniac, I wandered the streets of the Latin Quarter at night and, as I always do in my travels, found myself once again drawn to churches. One night after little more than a week or so since moving there, I followed the lights and a few people into La Basilique du Sacre Coeur in Montmartre, where I was struck, aghast, at bloody open-hearted statues of Jesus and Mary pierced by arrows and swords--images and ideas I'd never encountered before as a U.S. Protestant in a very iconoclastic modern Presbyterian congregation led by the son of Quaker missionaries, where our only decoration was a bare wooden cross. Confused by the brutal agonies of these images, I prayed and reflected as my theological mind reflexively does in such moments, stricken instinctively, empathetically by a deep visceral grief shared with the open-chested images.

At first, I could just grieve and recoil from the images in shock, but my mind and heart couldn't entirely turn away. I couldn't even leave the building or so much as wander from the images, even though my eyes looked away while I struggled mentally. Some American Protestant Christians had even told me that such devotional art in churches was wrong, an idolatrous sin, even blasphemous. Yet I am a visual thinker more than a verbal one, and religious art has always moved me to prayer as it did this night. The images brought back words spoken by God to the ancient Hebrew prophet Ezekiel, words I had believed a promise but now seemed more like a warning: I will take your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 11.19, 36.26). Until confronted by these images of self-giving suffering love, I had never considered what that promised new spirit and new heart of flesh imply - tenderness, vulnerability, raw and defenseless exposure to suffering. Why would God incarnate and the Queen of Heaven, the Bearer of God (as the Catholic artists and believers in this church understand Jesus and Mary) willingly expose themselves to such suffering? Why would God allow these two pure hearts of gracious, unconditional love to suffer - with Jesus' heart crowned by thorns, lit by a scorching flame, and Mary's heart and body pierced by arrows or swords (as I would continue to see her depicted all over France)? I wept to absorb this paradox that I instantly felt viscerally, as my own heart was thus transformed - willingly perhaps or maybe in reaction to abrupt shock: The heart of flesh (humanity, mortality,earthiness) that is open give and receive love is also, in the very practice and definition of opening and being tender, naturally also vulnerable to being pierced by sorrows. The only way to avoid tragic grief is to keep the heart of stone. But then, that heart can't be penetrated by love nor enflamed by the Spirit. To be open like these hearts were open is to have a heart that can be scorched at the edges and pierced by the arrows of the pain of human relationships as well, but that is the only way to LOVE as God does.

But HOW does one actually surrender one's heart so fully, so openly, day after day -- rather than clinging to the stoniness that seems to offer protection from unbearable pain? I have finally learned through recent life crises and losses that for me, surrendering to my awkwardness at it, knowing that I can't do it perfectly, is the only way for me to love so wholly. I have learned that I love and pray just as badly as I surf - joyously but as a clumsy novice at all times. I grew up on the shores of Lake Erie in Cleveland after all, not on the Pacific Ocean near Los Angeles, where I live now. So of course I never learned to surf, though I always loved the ocean like I've always loved God and other people - from a safe distance, with a kind of fearful and tentative admiration. Just as I encountered the Sacred Heart back in Paris years ago, I vicariously thrill at others' immersion in a reality that scares me when I delightedly watch them surf, in the same way as I love to pray and meditate with people whose beliefs and practices are totally different from mine. I'm always a learner, a beginner, and outsider -- but a joyous one, just so grateful to be there that I happily forget to be self-conscious about it. In my very limited personal experiences with surfing (only two so far), I utterly wiped out almost every time. Yet I raucously enjoyed it anyway, emerging breathless from the waves that knocked me off my balance, my nose and eyes stinging with salt water and my laughing mouth bitter from the ocean's minerals. From anyone else's view, I suppose I've failed at surfing so far just as I've often failed to surrender fully to the open tenderheartedness of a constantly authentic spiritual life, but even my failed attempts seem to make me childishly, goofily happy. And that is what open-hearted, prayerful loving is like to me. Maybe I'm not successful at it by anyone's outside, objective criteria. But it feels so REAL to me--and truly loving, joyous and connected to God, to others, and to myself in the deepest way--to dive into love in any clumsy way I can. I echo the insight my former colleague and longtime friend Bill Yarchin, a Hebrew biblical scholar and surfer, once shared with me about his own sense of connection between surfing and living a life of open-hearted faith -that both require a simple, open trust: "Perhaps it's not so much a set of skills, this spiritual life, as a way of being. My hope is that, despite my ineptitude, my life somehow reflects that way."