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JAMES BEHRENS: The more your heart gives, the more you will receive

Religion has been a lifelong source of many things for me. I spent nearly all my formative years in Catholic schools. I was raised in a Catholic family and when I was growing up, most of my friends were Catholic and came from similar backgrounds.

I guess you could say that I am an example of "womb to tomb" Catholicism. I hope the tomb part of that phrase is a good distance away.

My experience as a Catholic has been many-faceted. The church has inspired me, guided me, frustrated me, annoyed me, confused me, enlightened me, delighted me -- sometimes all in a single day. Well, it is a relationship. The church is people and we roll and tumble together.

The church has given me a mystery that is alive, that is life-giving, and that is something that I have learned to receive as well as give away. In fact, its true meaning comes clearer when I have known those times in life when I gave it away. That mystery is the sacred heart of Jesus.

I can remember looking at holy pictures when I was a kid. One of them had an image of the heart of Jesus, pierced with thorns, and even though I could not really understand such an image, it did say something to me at a level deeper than words. I brought to it things I knew, things I was aware of, things that seemed to all blend together in that image. Suffering and love, redemption and forgiveness, hope and sorrow.

I also knew that all these things had a lot to do, if not everything to do, with the ways of human love.

As the years passed, I met all kinds of people. My world view broadened and all kinds of people found their way into my life, into my growing sense of what the word "Catholic" really means -- universal in scope, full, embracing all people.

The heart of Jesus seemed to grow, seemed to invite me to understand more and more what it is and where it is and what it meant to me.

I am still finding that out. It is a journey that has brought me to a place where I see the heart of Jesus in ever new places and people. Looking back, I find that heart in places that I never thought of at the time.

In the midst of all the rising and falling of the seas that is the church, that is its history and my own history, there has always been the warmth and goodness of human kindness. I have seen it in hospitals and prisons, in mansions and alleys, in slums and in gated communities.

I have known the warmth of people who befriended me via the wisdom of religious traditions very different from my own. I have known the kindness of strangers and the kindness of lifelong friends. Even the humble creatures of this earth -- cats and dogs, horses and all kinds of animals -- have taught me that the kind grace of companionship is shared among so many living things.

So, I am grateful for all the good days and not so good days given me by the church, by people. It has not been an easy ride, but it has been a good one.

I have been blessed with a heart not really my own. Yet the more I give it, something good comes back to me. Something like a living mix of life, meaning, purpose, hope. Like those things I saw in a holy card so many years ago, and had to live life in order to understand it and, to my astonishment, receive it.

Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Highway 212 SW, Conyers. His email address is james@trappist.net.