Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

The heart

By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published March 26, 2018

It has been a rough winter here. Eight monks—almost a third of the community—came down with the flu, and several other monks became sick with non-flu-related illnesses. All have fully recovered now, though there is still some coughing, wheezing and sniffling. But the worst is hopefully over.

In the midst of it all, I ended up in the hospital for two days. I was feeling chest pains and Father Augustine, our abbot, thought it best that I take a ride with him to Piedmont Rockdale Hospital. We went to the emergency room, and I was admitted right away. I was expecting to stay for only an hour or so but was told that I would be spending the night. Augustine stayed for a while and then headed back to the monastery.

I was put through one test after another, including an ultrasound examination. That is the test where this goo was spread on my chest and with a kind of wand, the doctor moved it across the goo and watched the activity of my heart on a monitor, which was next to the bed and connected to the wand. I could hear the beating of my heart and a soft rushing sound and wondered if that was the sound of blood coursing through my veins. After that test, and a lot of other tests, it was determined that my heart was in good shape and that the cause of the pain was probably related to something else—perhaps a severe case of indigestion or stress.

Since then, I have been thinking a lot about the human heart, hospitals, monasteries, human weakness and human kindness. And not necessarily in any particular order. It is more like a blend. A blend that has a beat.

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Here at the monastery, we strive to see the essential. We live in a little world of religious symbols that surround us, calling us to be mindful of what we can see—each other—and what we cannot see—God.

We believe that a loving God has made a home in the human heart, and so we strive to see his presence in all who live. In the hospital is a little world of health symbols—medical terminology, charts and graphs and little lights and sounds that can access and assess the beating of the heart. Trained medical personnel monitor the pulses and beats that keep us alive and hopefully healthy.

They, too, strive to better see what cannot be seen with the eye alone.

They also have hearts beating within them. During my brief stay in the hospital, I felt the life of their hearts through the kindness of the nurses and doctors who cared for me. I was and am very grateful for them. Through their kindness, I experienced a sense of my monastic life and their clinical life finding a common ground. Our different worlds share a desire to find, to better see the heart that is life, and to learn from it and even listen to it. I have heard the “voice” of the heart here as it speaks to me through the psalms, the Mass, the monks and the kindness of those who come here. And I also heard it speak again through the kind care of the staff in the hospital.

The voice of God has no words. It is something like the soft rushing sound I heard on the sonogram, the steady pulse of life. It is something like a nurse whose name is Debbie, whose kindness eased my anxiety in a new and unfamiliar setting. It is something like the sound of Augustine’s red truck, an unmistakable and familiar sound because I have heard its rumble so many times here and I heard it in the parking lot as he came to pick me up and take me home.

And it is definitely like the sound of his voice when I climbed into the truck, and he looked at me and smiled and said, “Did everything go okay?” I assured him that it all went well. And off we went, toward home, leaving behind one heart search and heading for another.

Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery web store at