36 Bend my heart to your instructions, not to selfish gain.
Psalm 118/9 (New Jerusalem Bible)
In an era where English was used in a more elegant fashion the translator might have written "incline my heart" or possibly "sway my heart". What is at issue here is a change of direction in our life's journey and our willing acceptance of a guiding force or power to be the focal point of our heart compass. To talk about a heart swaying is to acknowledge the always real possibility of first bending one way and then bending back upon oneself to return back whence we came, and beyond, upon the road we so need to abandon. To talk of an inclination is to consider that whatever weaving goes on the final destination towards which we aim remains constant. Simply to bend suggests the adoption of an awkward and difficult to retain posture. Which may not be entirely inappropriate for the plea that David is making here is for assistance in doing something that we cannot do ourselves alone.
The word "heart" is rich with meaning and evocative power in the context of Sacred Scripture and Christian tradition, the Orthodox talk of "prayer of the heart", the Catholics of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Blessed John Henry, Cardinal, Newman chose as his motto cor ad cor loquitur, "heart speaks unto heart." The heart is the true centre of a person. It is their essence, that within them which points always towards the true, because it is always itself true. In fact, the mystics would say that it is God Himself since only He is ever true and pointing towards truth so that our own heart, the wellspring of our individual life, is God. He is within as well as without. This would mean that heart speaking to heart is not two hearts but one which nonetheless in a divine paradox is not a monologue but a fruitful dialogue. The mystery at work here is that of a unity of being containing a multiplicity of persons. We are each within God and He within us so that we are one. We are each created uniquely by the One to abide within Him in just the fashion that we are suited to and no other. Our individual personhood is not lost in unity, it is fulfilled.
When David, then, talks of our heart being bent by God towards God He is not referring to that in us which is always inclined in that direction. He is talking of the imagined heart, the simulacrum of a heart, that we create and establish as a pointless image for our eyes to gaze upon and our desires to follow. This is ever bent in an awkward posture since we have created it, however unconsciously, with the express purpose of turning ourselves away from the light which disturbs us and towards the gloom where all is cool and not at all challenging to our sensual desires. In a sense he is asking that we be un-bent.
To the contemporary mind bending to instructions conveys the unpleasant, apparently pointless, image of the individual exchanging freedom for servitude. Of all the illusions we cherish that of absolute individual autonomy is perhaps the most precious to us today. We demand our rights a hundred or a thousand times before we place the same pressure on ourselves to fulfil our obligations. Or, at least, we appear to since the world only functions as well as it does, and we within it, precisely because so many of us fulfil our obligations and discharge our duties a hundred or a thousand times more frequently than we evade them. In truth most of us most of the time do the right thing because it is what the heart impels us to do even while our head, our vain imaginings, pushes us in a different way. What David is praying for here is just this, to unite our thoughts and our imagination to our heart. The instructions we seek are the words which will express to our mind what the heart already knows to be true.
It is, nonetheless, the case that when we come under these divine instructions that we constrain our actions or potential actions and must do real violence to our desires for selfish gain. We embark upon a path of struggle. It is a commonplace of spiritual writers to say that in service is our real freedom but we cannot pretend that this is any other than a freedom which is experienced as a constraint, a gain which feels like a loss. The wound that Original Sin has made in our natures allows us to desire as good things that which harms us and to experience as harms those things which are good. This is why David calls upon the assistance of the good God to make this submission to instructions, without Him we cannot follow the path that leads to happiness. He it is that strengthens us to see that submission, service and self-forgetfulness, those paths that lead away from the pursuit of moment to moment pleasure, is the one road that leads to happiness. If we seek pleasure alone we do not seek happiness, if we seek happiness who knows what pleasures we shall find along the way?
Among the distractions from that one road which assail our heart are those pointless images of which David speaks. It may be a metaphor for the things which blind the eyes of the heart, but, there are too very many actual images, pointless and aimless, which attract and hold the eyes in our head. It is an often used cliché, sometimes employed even by the fiercest of those partisans of absolute individual autonomy, that we are "bombarded with images". And it is true but not the whole truth. Frequently, daily, hourly, we choose many of those images with which to bombard ourselves. We choose what pictures will distract us. We choose what images will strengthen our resolve to commit actual sin and give us new and varied pleasures of selfish gain. It is not a wholly free choice but a choice it certainly is. Whether it be the Shopping Channel or the Pornography Channel it is a means to reinforce the inclinations we wish to reinforce and drown out the heart voice that calls for us to gaze upon that beyond images which contains all images as realities. The Children of Israel rebelled by creating out of their own resources a Golden Calf to worship. I heard an Anabaptist theologian defining worship is "giving your undivided allegiance to". Like the rebellious Israelites we also give our allegiance to what we produce out of ourselves which is a roundabout way of giving our allegiance to ourselves alone. They are pointless images because they are as insubstantial as our own ego's which a moments careless driving or a day's illness can destroy utterly.
So what we need is life and, moreover, a life which will endure the greatest of traumas and disasters and triumph even over the apparently final drama of death. David asks for that single word of God which is life itself. He did not know what that word was when he asked for it. He did know that there was just such a word and that God would one day speak it and liberate His people by it and through it. And He did. The word is Jesus and praised be His name.