Guard your heart

Guard your heart

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ JesusPhilippians 4:7

Occasionally a question keeps lingering in the back of your head, when you tried but didn’t find a satisfying solution. You move on to other things and forget you even asked. Until, some day, you read something, or hear something, and suddenly you realize: “Aha! Now the pieces are falling together, the picture becomes clear.”

That happened to me. A few years ago, the phrase “guard your heart” came to mind, impressing its importance to me, although I didn’t quite know why or what it meant. I talked about it with good friends, but never really came to a satisfying conclusion, and so it slid to the back of my mind.

The phrase comes from Proverbs 4:23. The verses afterward seem to indicate that it’s about keeping your behaviour and thoughts “pure”. Don’t concern yourself with “worldly” things. But when I searched for the meaning of ‘guard your heart’, I wondered also if it might mean some form of self-protection. I identified with the girl from Song of Songs 1:6, who wrote: My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept! I figured that the vineyard could be symbolizing my heart. Where I had been mainly concerned about what “other people” thought important, I now wanted to focus more on my own soul.

Recently, these words ‘guard my heart’ resurfaced, when a friend sent me a piece from a book, containing a beautiful poem from the Eastern tradition:

The Woodcarver

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood. When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits.
The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:
“What is your secret?”

Khing replied: “I am only a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.

After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days
I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.

“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
Had vanished.
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.

“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
and begin.

“If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.

“What happened?
My own collected thought
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits.”

Chuang Tzu

When I read the phrase “I guarded my spirit, did not expend it on trifles” I immediately sat up straight! Eureka! That was it! This process of becoming quiet in order to create is very recognizable. First one must get rid of all the stress and fear and uncertainty, basically everything that distracts, only then can you be free to explore and develop. No, I do not have the habit of fasting for a week, but I too have my rituals to find stillness and focus.

The best thing about the imagery in this poem is that the heart is no longer something passive, not something to be left unsullied, not a vineyard where thieves and weeds are unwelcome, but a lively spirit, ready to go in all directions, that you can gently protect, focus and direct so that it can come to a real encounter.

It is a well-known poem, there are several blogs on the internet that use it as illustration. I found it in Chapter 6 of: A Hidden Wholeness by Parker J. Palmer, where he explains how one can use a poem or painting as a conversation starter. A piece of art helps discuss deeper things without any fixed direction, because everyone sees or hears something different in it. Just as I see in my own life now, because “guard your heart” has already acquired three different meanings over time. Perhaps there are more that I will discover later, but I already like these, and enjoy how they complement each other.

Finally, let me end with the bible verse I put above: “The peace of God will guard your hearts in Christ Jesus”. The woodcarver chose a path of asceticism to find stillness, and I have some experience with that myself, but my spirit thrives especially under kindness. It’s God’s peace that helps to guard my heart.