anatomy, Bible verses, physiology

The Frank-Starling Law of the Spiritual Heart

In cardiac physiology, a very important law is the Frank-Starling Law discovered by physiologists Otto Frank and Ernest Starling.  Frank and Starling first described a phenomenon in the mechanics of the heart where the heart’s muscle fibers inherently change its power or contractility depending on the volume of fluid in the ventricle.

The amount of volume in a single pump of the heart from a ventricle is called stroke volume. The Frank-Starling Law says that provided all other constants remain the same, the stroke volume of the heart increases (and therefore the contractility of the heart increases) when more volume (called the end-diastolic volume) in is the ventricle.

Catch that? No?

Basically, when more blood is in the heart, more force is used to push it out to keep the blood supply in balance throughout the body and maintain homeostasis (overall bodily balance).

The Frank-Starling Law describes how the body (and in this specific case, the heart) stays in balance. The heart, like the whole body, is in a constant state of paradox. The heart needs to be stiff enough that it can contract and send out blood to the whole body, yet it needs to be soft enough to allow blood to fill the ventricles. When the heart is too soft or too stiff, it cannot properly supply the body with its needed blood.

So too the Christian life is in a constant state of paradox. We are sinners, yet we are saved. We are weak, yet we are strong. We are this, yet we are that. We live in a paradox, and we need to be balanced.

Like our physical hearts, our spiritual hearts needed to be stiff yet soft.

The paradox of the two can be seen in the Psalms. Psalm 122:7 states “his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord,” yet Psalm 51:17 claims “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

Even the apostles in the various letters of the New Testament continue the soft-stiff paradox. St. James proclaims in James 5:8: “You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.” St. Paul, writing to the Hebrews warns of a hard heart, saying in Hebrews 3:8: “Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness.” Instead, St. Paul seems to encourage a soft heart, writing in 1 Timothy 1:5: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”

So, what are we supposed to have? A soft heart, open and vulnerable? A stiff heart, firm and steadfast?

We need to have a Frank-Starling heart. We need to have a paradoxical heart with the balance of both.

Today, I think we live in a world that glorifies a stiff heart and almost vilifies a soft heart. We live in a world that tells us to stand by our principles, so to be even open-minded to a new idea or led to believe a different idea is to be viewed as a weak minded.  Around the Christian world, singles are told all the time to “guard your heart,” keep it safe, hide feelings to protect yourself and others.

Um, what? How is trying to understand someone’s point of view and changing your mind weak? Doesn’t that make you strong for weighing a bunch of points to find the most truth? And how is allowing yourself to be vulnerable weak? Don’t we all hide behind various masks of ourselves, so how is revealing our true self weak?

Open-mindedness and vulnerability sound more courageous than sitting in a safe corner of the world where nothing can hurt you.

C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves dismisses the idea of completely safe guarding your heart. As he wrote:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

– C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

To love is to be vulnerable, to be soft, to be open to pain, to possibly endure suffering. Love requires softness in our spiritual heart. A completely stiff spiritual heart does not allow the full volume of God’s love to enter it. God needs room to work.

And so in His infinite wisdom, He allows suffering. He allows hurt. He allows heartbreak. He allows the unexpected to break into our comfortable routines to open us up just a little more to His love.

As Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once said,

Sometimes the only way the good Lord can get into some hearts is to break them.

– Fulton Sheen, as featured in Through the Year with Fulton Sheen: Inspirational Readings for Each Day of the Year complied by Henry Dieterich

As difficult as it has been, I thank the Lord for breaking my heart. I learned from a young age to shut down and hide my hurt, and over the course of years, I built myself up to have a very stiff heart. Tears were for the weak. Emotions were for the irrational. Heartbreak was for the ill-prepared.

But that hurt built up in the walls of my spiritual heart like atheroscelortic plaque builds up in the vasculature of the physical heart. Parts of my heart were dead. Other parts were dying. Like a person undergoing an active myocardial infarction (a heart attack), I needed an intervention. I needed someone outside of me to reopen the blocked vessels of my heart and bring new life into the deadened areas of my heart.

I needed (and still need) a savior.

In cardiac catherterizations for acute myocardial infarctions, even the most skilled practitioner is unable to restore life to necrotic cardiac tissue. Tissue that is merely damaged can be healed over time, but deadened spots will remain dead. Our Divine Physician is not limited by death, however. He can restore the blackest, most necrotic, most abandoned, most forgotten, most buried, most shameful, most hurtful, most deadened spots to new life.

But healing hurts. Healing requires tears. Healing requires letting all those buried emotions come to the surface. Healing requires acknowledge the full depth of heartache and suffering. Healing requires allowing ourselves, our whole selves, to be seen by our Divine Physician.

As a nurse, I cannot help a patient who denies their symptoms. I cannot run tests for a heart attack if I don’t know he or she is experiencing chest pain. I can see the objective signs like the sweat, the distress, the abnormal heart rate. A skilled practitioner would be insightful enough run the appropriate tests, but denial delays healing and allows preventable damage to take place. The Lord knows our whole self without us needing to tell Him, but we need to acknowledge our pains in order to allow ourselves to be healed.

Does this mean we have to let our emotions dictate our every action, regardless of our illogical and irrational those feelings are? Does this mean we need to be crying, wallowing messes of people, so hurt by every passerby’s rude comment, so torn apart by any little distress, so crushed by a seemingly unfruitful prayer?

A physical heart that soft would not have any stroke volume because it wouldn’t be stiff enough to push any blood out. Yet, a physical heart equally stiff and hardened would not have any stroke volume because it’s wouldn’t be soft enough to allow any blood to fill it.

Either heart, completely stiff or completely soft, would makes us feel short of breath, anxious, pain in our chest, or have feelings of impending doom. Our body is in a state of distress when the heart is not pumping out blood to supply the rest of our body with the nutrients it desperately needs to live. When the heart is pumping at its ideal, the body is in homeostasis. The heart beats steadily, breathing is easy, organs are bathed with the blood they require, the body is at peace.

Same with a spiritual heart.

When we allow our hearts to become too soft or too stiff, we slowly become anxious because our spiritual body, our soul, is not at peace. We need spiritual homeostasis.

Just as the physical heart needs to be soft yet stiff, so do we. We need balance. We’re supposed to have both a stiff heart and a soft heart. Pure vulnerability is scary just as steadfast faith is scary, but for our spiritual hearts to be in their most ideal spots, they need to have both.

We need to live in the spiritual paradox. As Proverbs 3:5 states: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” 

If you allow the Divine Physician to guide your heart, and He will soften it and stiffen it as it needs to find its spiritual homeostasis.

The Lord designed your physical heart, and it is a bafflingly amazing pump, better designed and more effective than anything the human mind could ever create.

He knows what He’s doing when He shapes something out of nothing.

Allow Him to shape your spiritual heart as well.

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