From a plain wooden bench at the top of Ganier Ridge, a popular and challenging hiking trail, I examined a rock that I chose from the Heart Tree collection about a third of the way up the steep ascent. Several weeks ago, I first selected a rock when a friend shared about the tree, which I had never noticed stood guard over hundreds of heart-shaped rocks. “You can take or leave a rock or just enjoy them,” she explained. “It’s an honor system. You don’t move or rearrange or judge them. You just take what you need and leave what you can.”

I was touched with the beauty of the simple practice — the loveliness of watching for a heart-shaped rock on the trail, of carrying it close for a while, and eventually of laying it among the gnarled tree roots for it to speak to another seeker. What a wonderful concept: honoring the hearts of others and of self.

I kept the first rock in my car a week or so until I was ready to return it to the Heart Tree. Each subsequent time I hiked, I stopped to notice the rocks and pray for those who had found, picked up, or left one. Today I needed another selection.

This heart is larger than the first one I chose, and I thought with gratitude that God gave me a big heart — one that can be generous, kind, and compassionate for the hurting souls who cross my life and ministry. (It was enlarged by pain and God’s presence and healing; certainly not by anything of my own doing.)

As this heart-shaped rock lies smoothly in my palm, it has an appendage on its right side — an outcropping. How fitting. My massage therapist often comments that my right hand, shoulder, and the right side of my face carry my body’s painful energy. Frequently, she holds my hand as she begins to massage the fingers, and my eyes spill hot tears I wasn’t aware were brimming. This heart rock juts prominently with those stabs that constrict my muscles and tighten my jaw.

My twice-weekly treks up Ganier Ridge the last two months are yielding clarity about my heart, especially now that I’m aware of the Heart Tree and intentionally stopping there each time. In an unfolding process of painful realizations, I’m seeing that more days than not, I fail to honor my heart and the God-heart in me. I let the great divides in our country and churches drive me away from God instead of toward divine love. Rather than living with compassion and openness, I close my heart to those with whom I disagree, or I betray it by not speaking up for what I believe.

More personally, I let the issues of complicated relationships or ministry challenges rob me of joy. I become burdened with loneliness, fear, and unrealistic expectations. I entertain what feels like a heartful of sorrows and longings until I become heartsick. Worse, I doubt God’s sufficiency to embrace my heart, and I turn to false soothing that only hurts it. I rationalize indulgent selfishness, or I nurse resentment. I focus on my wants until I only see scarcity rather than the extravagance of God’s provision. I can be so full of the heart of Marnie that there are few arteries left for the heartbeat of God.

As I continued hiking Ganier Ridge with the protrusion of the heart rock digging into my palm, I felt discouraged and ashamed by the state of my heart, as well as powerless to change it. Searching for some sign of encouragement, eventually I spotted a familiar owl landing on a branch high above the trail. This beautiful setting is always trustworthy to yield what I need, and at that moment Loving Wisdom spoke to me.

“You’re learning important things about yourself, dear one. You have choices about your heart and you get to make them. If you’re willing, I’ll help you choose love and joy and things that honor your heart and the hearts of others.”

“Really, God?” I answered. Immediately, my heart eased with the hope of that promise.

Next, God whispered a surprising invitation. “What if you saw this season of heart pain as a gift instead of an anguish? The things you view as failures are simply windows into your heart’s needs. I long to meet them, and I will, just maybe not in the way you presently desire.”

What if, indeed. What if I chose gratitude for the surrender and acceptance my heart is learning? What if I nurtured my heart and protected it from piercings of doubt, indulgence, or regret? What if I lived from the best in my heart and forgave myself for what I see as its worst? Wouldn’t the heart enlarge with those choices? Could it become vibrant enough to resist the doubts, attacks, and temptations? Become grateful enough to pump God-life into me and into those I encounter?

With renewed energy, I stepped back onto the trail, and my feet moved in steady cadence to God’s final message of the morning: “You are not alone. I am always here.”

Ah, such a gift for my throbbing heart!

Marnie C. Ferree