One of my favorite movies is 1984’s “Places in the Heart,” starring Sally Field, Ed Harris, John Malkovich and Danny Glover. It is set in Depression-era Texas where Field plays a young woman suddenly widowed when a young black boy who’d had too much to drink shoots her sheriff husband and then himself and thrusts her into the role of provider for herself and her two small children. She is helped in her efforts to raise a crop of cotton, and to bring it first to the cotton gin for extra prize money, by Glover’s character – a drifter – and the blind “Mr. Will,” played by Malkovich. It was through this movie that I first heard the hymn “Blessed Assurance,” one I’ve loved singing ever since.
The movie is full of pain and tragedy although, thankfully, it ends on a positive note. I’m not sure if the saying I’ve associated with it ever since was featured in text in the opening credits or not, but the words I remember go like this: “There are places in the heart that do not yet exist; pain must be in order that they be.” I take this to mean that the sad truth about human existence is that our hearts can be expanded – new places created – through painful events.
In searching the Internet for that phrase and its attribution, I’ve learned that it was written by French author Leon Bloy and that mine is not the correct version. In truth, Bloy wrote:
Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence.
The writer who set me straight says that Bloy’s wisdom reminds him of something said after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by President Kennedy: “My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”
I’m also aware of a passage from the 30th Chapter of Isaiah that the Jerusalem Bible translates in this way:
When the Lord has given you the bread of suffering
and the water of distress, he who is your teacher will hide no longer,
and you will see your teacher with your own eyes.
Whether you turn to right or left,
your ears will hear these words behind you,
‘This is the way, follow it.’
What this says to me is that if God emerges as our visible teacher after we experience suffering, then God is first our invisible teacher through the disguise of that very suffering.
Oftentimes, a sticking point for unbelievers is the inability to understand how an all-powerful God could allow suffering. Yet it’s my opinion that a human coming to an understanding of suffering is like a dog coming to an understanding of calculus. We’ll never have the capacity to reach that level of perspective. From my limited perspective, though, wisdom isn’t the only by-product of suffering; it is in suffering’s pressure cooker that we develop compassion and humility as well.
The reality-bending final scene of “Places in the Heart” is unforgettable. In that scene the congregation shares the bread and wine of Holy Communion, and all are present in that feast – from the hard-working heroes of the story to the now-dead drunk who shot the sheriff and even those who in their racist fury beat Glover’s character to try to prevent his success. All are at this table of forgiveness – those who suffer and those who caused that suffering – for we all contain both aspects. This is the humbling truth of human existence, we all fall short and we are all still loved just the same and the suffering we experience along the way can give us new places in our hearts of more forgiveness, more compassion and more love.