Spaciousness of Heart
Updated: Aug 13
"In the end, when we knock persistently in prayer, it is the door of our heart which always opens".
Surprisingly often, when I say that I am Italian, I find people who immediately associate my country with a series of very old movies from the 50s and 60s portraying the endless squabbles and the loyal friendship between a parish priest and the communist mayor of a small village of Northern Italy, set in the aftermath of the II World War. The mayor, called Peppone, is the leader of the local branch of the Communist Party which at the time was the most powerful and capillary grassroots organization in Italy. The parish priest, Don Camillo, is honest and goodhearted, but also opinionated, often impetuous, and completely sold to the political stance of the Catholic Church in Italy which at the time actively campaigned for the Christian Democrats and preached fire and brimstone against the godless communists. This was still the case in the village where I grew up in the 80s in the South of Italy and just as it happens in the film, I remember well how despite the intense political animosity, communists and churchgoers alike would lay aside their disputes during the patronal feast and rival to carry on their shoulders the statue of Our Lady, or St Anthony, for the colourful street processions. Controversies could be very heated and yet by and large people from the two factions respected each other, were committed to the wellbeing of the village, and capable of uniting forces when hardships required it.
The characters of Camillo and Don Peppone, and the memories of my childhood, always come back to me when I try to visualize one of the most endearing and yet endangered of all virtues – and also one of the most beautifully named, that is magnanimity. The meaning of this word is slightly watered down in its usual usage: we say that someone is magnanimous to mean that she or he is forgiving especially towards a rival or less powerful people. The etymology of the word suggests much more – it comes from the Latin words magnus which means big and animus which means soul or heart. I like to translate it as “spaciousness of heart”. It makes me think of our heart as a house which we have enlarged, decorated, made as comfortable as possible, so as to give hospitality to people, make them feel at home. Magnanimity is the hospitality of the heart extended to anyone we meet in our lives, without judgment, generous, and free. The more we grow in magnanimity, the more we truly care for every human being, see the positive in everyone, however different they might be from us socially, economically, racially, politically, and culturally. We are entitled to our views of course, we have the responsibility to hold them in the public square and even engage in controversy when necessary. Yet this should never prevent us from remaining caring, cordial, and welcoming even with those we disapprove of.
The patriarch Abraham is a model of this attitude. We see him practicing hospitality in the literal sense to an exceptional degree when three men happen to pass by his tent at Mamre and he runs to meet them, begs them to stay, and offers them food. He did not realize immediately that these were angels who visited him in the name of Yahwe – but when he becomes aware of this, rather than expecting a reward for himself, he displays a surprising level of magnanimity in the passage from the book of Genesis which we have just heard. He is aware that Sodom and Gomorrah deserve blame for their shocking behaviour. The people of these cities defile hospitality and are mired in one of the most appalling forms of toxic masculinity typical of some ancient societies, that is gang rape of women and men alike, to assert power and shame enemies. And yet Abraham seems to be aware of the extent to which even something as appalling as gang rape can be driven by a mimetic collective impulse that often impairs the freedom of individuals. Put people, especially men, in a pack and they become capable of the worse things, behave in ways in which none of them would individually – such is the power of our urge to belong and our fear to become ourselves the targets of group violence. This is why Abraham intercedes for Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of individuals – there might be 50, 45, 30, 20, 10 individuals who break rank, take the risk of following their conscience, can be rescued from the mire of ethical blindness.
Abraham is remarkably daring and persisting. He exemplifies the page of the Gospel in which Jesus praises persistence in prayer: we should never tire of keep asking, searching, and knocking. The main problem in our prayer is how easily we give up, get discouraged when we do not feel listened to, how little we dare to ask, and how unable we are to recognize the ways in which the Father gives us the “good things” he promises to his beloved children.
There is an irony however in using this episode of the life of Abraham as an example of the persistence in prayer recommended by Jesus in the Gospel. Jesus says “Ask and it will be given to you” (Lk 11.xx) and indeed Abraham obtains a positive assurance from God – and yet in the end Sodoma and Gomorrah are destroyed. One might argue that this happened because God found less than 10 just people in the cities – and yet we know that there were just people in these cities, namely Lot and his family – and in any case the point of Abraham’s bargaining was that devastation is not the right way of dealing with evil. Jesus agreed with this as we see in a curious page of Luke’s Gospel in which the inhabitants of a Samaritan village refuse to give hospitality to Jesus and in a nod to the episode of Sodom and Gomorrah, the disciples James and John candidly (and not very magnanimously) suggest that Jesus should just simply “tell fire to come down from heaven and destroy” the village. We are told that Jesus rebuked them and simply looked for hospitality elsewhere (cf Lk, 9.51-56).
Is then the promise that persistent prayer always obtains what it begs for misleading? Can we really believe in Jesus’s assurance that if we knock the door will always be opened?
I believe that there are at least 2 ways in which we can answer positively to these questions.
The first is suggested in the puzzling way in which this page of the Gospel ends. Jesus says:
“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
What the Father always gives in answer to our prayer is his Holy Spirit – which, according to Paul, knows the depths of God and comprehends God’s thoughts (cf. 1 Cor 2.10f). This means that in answer to our prayer, we are given deeper and deeper insights into the way God acts in history and in our lives and learn to want what he wants, as we ask in the Lord’s prayer: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. Receiving the Holy Spirit is learning to desire from the heart what God desires.
Then, there is yet another way in which persistence in prayer benefits us – and here we go back to magnanimity. Praying increases the spaciousness of our hearts. We often start praying full of impatience, defyingly, wanting what we ask for straight away. Prayer however elicits from us trust, perseverance, long-suffering. It teaches us acceptance, helps us to let go of our short-sighted perception of things. We start praying preoccupied by our needs, our problems, our wishes – and slowly, imperceptibly, our heart shifts – and at one point we discover that we do not want anymore the coming of our kingdom but of God’s kingdom, not the fulfilling of our will, but of God’s will, not just our own individual fulfilment over and above everyone else’s, but our good as part of the good or the whole of humanity.
In the end, when we knock persistently in prayer, it is the door of our heart which always opens. We might even reach a point where we trust so much that God wants our good and knows what we need more than ourselves will ever do, that, like Abraham, rather than praying for ourselves, we pray for others first. Prayer then will definitely have been effective because it will have made us better, more altruistic persons – it will have made us truly magnanimous.
 “For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God”.