Monday, July 14, 2014

Sod of the Heart
Icon by the hand of Antonios Fikos
"And in his sowing, some fell along the road: and the birds came and ate it...[To] all hearing the word of the kingdom and not understanding, the wicked one comes, and snatches what was sown in his heart: this is the one sowed along the road."--Mt 13:4,19

The sowing of the seed in our hearts is not of our doing: what we have control over is what soil we have prepared.  The sower sows freely, and without His sowing our preparation of the soil is ineffective: "How can one believe without hearing?  And how can one hear without a preacher?"  Therefore we must prepare the soil of our hearts well, not letting it become like a road.  Hear what St. Cyril of Alexandria says: "A wayside is almost always hard and unbroken, because it is trodden down by the feet of all those who pass that way, and seed is never sown there.  No sacred or divine word, therefore, will be able to enter those who have minds that are hard and unyielding, for it is by the aid of such words that the joyful fruits of virtue can grow."

I find a parallel to this type of soil in sod, a bothersome type of ground found in the Great Plains, where I grew up.  Sod is a thick layer of grasses that holds together strongly: so strongly, in fact, that early settlers used it for roofing, for it was that impenetrable.  Needless to say, the task of breaking the sod was toilsome and exhausting.  Even with good tools, the chore was immense.  Thankfully, after the sod was first broken, the ground was much easier to work thereafter.

The heart of the man exemplified by the seed sown on the road is like sod: impenetrable without strong tools.  It is that man's task to work on breaking the sod of his heart so that he can receive the Word of God.  Many may let the sod sit, forever being impenetrable to God until they are thrown into the fire.  Some, though, may work the sod but grow exhausted from the effort.  Thankfully, the Lord will assist in the task if He is asked.  Is not He the One Who promised to give us natural hearts to those with stony ones?  If we can on Him, He will assist our preparation, though some effort must be made on our part.
 St. Cyril of Alexandria

A hardened heart is a frequently-mentioned obstacle in Scripture: just think of Pharaoh, whose heart, Scripture says, God hardened.  In discussing even this parable, Jesus refers to the Word spoken through Isaiah: "For fattened has been the heart of this people."  The word used (ἐπαχύνθη) most accurately means "thickened" or "thickened with excess fat."  Through modern medicine, we now know that such fattening can also cause a hardening, as in atherosclerosis (literally, "gruel hardening," as the plaque building up in arteries is referred to as atheroma, a "lump of gruel").  Thus Isaiah and Jesus lamented how the peoples' hearts were fattened, thickened, and hardened.  And what is the cause of this hardening?  "No one's heart was created stony by God, but it becomes such from wickedness" (Origen).  A more general idea would be "Every man makes his own plagues" (St. Gregory of Nyssa).  How does Scripture say, then, that it was God Who hardens men's hearts?  “God has mercy on one and hardens another by a single operation…it is not his purpose to harden, but…he acts with kindly intent, and…the hardening follows as a result of the substance of evil present in the particular evil person" (Origen).  Think of God's action as hose spraying water on a driveway: if the driveway is warm, the water cleans it, but if it is too cold, the water creates ever thicker layers of ice, hardening the road.

Let us not have hearts of sod, frozen hearts, hardened hearts: let us work to soften our hearts, to chip away the ice, to break the sod.  For assistance, we can beg the Lord, for He is always waiting to help.  We are like men trapped in a house with a frozen door.  The Lord comes to the door and asks if He can help break the ice and free us from our prison.  The door may be broken in the process, but He will give us a new door, a more perfect door.  The righteous man begs the Lord to assist him, and he uses whatever tools he has in the house to chip away the ice.  The wicked man tells the Lord to leave, and he may even spray water at the door, to thicken the ice.  The Lord is a respecter of free will, so He will not break and enter the house without our permission: He always offers.  Let us accept the Lord's offer of assistance, and let us work with Him, that the sod of our hearts my be broken and that we may worthily receive the seed of the Word, bearing fruit thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold.

Upon my heart lies a mat of sod:
Batter this ground, O Three-Personed God.
Unveil the rich soil that lies beneath
So my heart bears fruit, Your laurel wreath.
 Icon by the hand of Athanasios Clark

Nota Bene: The quote from St. Cyril is from his Sermon on the Parable of the Sower §41, as found in The Bible and the Holy Fathers for Orthodox, compiled and edited by Johanna Manley (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1984), 220.  The quotes from Origen are from his On First Principles III.1.14 and III.1.10, as translated by G.W. Butterworth (Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1973).  The quote from St. Gregory is from his The Life of Moses, translated by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson as part of the Classics of Western Spirituality series (New York: Paulist Press, 1978).

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