We often hear the Old Testament adage about God turning our stone hearts into hearts of flesh in the Lenten season. For the longest time, I had no idea what this meant. Surely I didn’t have a heart of stone? How would it become more flesh? It took the love of God–through the love of a friend–to create that transformation in me.
I didn’t grow up in a very communicative family. Feelings were not something we really ever talked about or addressed. Getting mad at each other was usually resolved by ignoring each other for awhile and then talking again. This is the same attitude and process that I brought into my friendships in middle and high school.
In high school, I had a few friend groups which made it easy to be prideful and not have to resolve fights. Whenever I felt that I had been wronged, I would vent about it to a different friend group. I was not one to apologize or to even admit that the fight could’ve been caused by anything that I possibly did wrong. I was protected by the pride that surrounded my heart of stone.
When I got to college, nothing had really changed except that my friend groups merged and there wasn’t really a different place to go if something went wrong. My sophomore year I got into a fight with one of my close friends. A lot of gossip and hurtful words had built up until our friendship broke. I knew it was my fault but refused to face it. It was hard to talk about since our friend group knew most of us and had been following the drama. Summer came and we went our separate ways, not speaking.
When we returned in the fall, things were still icy. Our friends did their best to hang out with us both separately as much as possible. At one point, my roommate took me aside to try to talk to me about it. She wanted me to really reflect on what had happened and what blame was on me and what a way forward would look like. I remember her saying something like “This isn’t just her fault. We both know you have things to apologize for.” That comment cut me deeply. It was like a fist hitting my stone heart and breaking it open. The flesh, raw underneath, was struggling to come out.
The thing about my college friends is that they are incredible people. They love in a real way. I was used to superficial and distrustful relationships, easy to break and easy to move on from. This conversation with my roommate helped me to realize that these relationships were different. No one was walking away from me or wanting me to leave. They truly cared and wanted to help me grow into a better person. Things were hard at the moment, but that wasn’t a reason to let go.
Eventually this friend came over to our apartment with my other roommate. My roommate had warned me beforehand, in case I wanted to avoid the situation. She mentioned that she hoped that I would stay and that our friend was hoping I would too. Another fist to the heart of stone, breaking it further open. She came over, we worked on homework, they hung out, and I did my best to participate as least awkwardly as possible.
Things went as smoothly as they could have. I eventually went up to my room to get ready for bed and was surprised to see an envelope on my pillow. It had my name written on the front in my friend’s handwriting. She had somehow snuck up to our room during that afternoon and laid it there. I opened it to find a letter. She wrote about our friendship, about missing our time and talks together, and ended with a blanket apology. She was sorry for everything and was essentially taking the full weight of responsibility for our fight, for our brokenness. In that moment, I realized the true weight of my own responsibility in the situation.
The tears came and came. As each round of crying began, I could feel another layer of stone being removed from my heart. Jesus asks us to love our neighbors and to lay down our lives for our friends. Here it was, happening to me, happening for me. My own sin was being absolved in the name of friendship.
The thing that I most realized moving forward with this, and all of my relationships, was that it wasn’t enough to apologize and to move forward. This gift of friendship required a transformation, a conversion. I could no longer work from the place of pride, the place of blamelessness if this moment was to have truly meant something to me.
“To love another person is to see the face of God.” This is my favorite line from one of my favorite stories of conversion and sacrifice, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. God had chosen to transform my own heart of stone through the work of another. He reached his loving and merciful hand out to me through a conversation, a hope and a letter. He laid down his life for me on the cross so that my friends could have the strength to lay down their own pride in humble service and love for me. I still struggle sometimes with this pride, this need to preserve myself by casting blame on others, away from me. However, I now have a point of reference to go back to, a call that beckons me back to this moment.
This journey through Lent is about this transformation. Like Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, we must allow the mercy we receive to actually transform us. We must let this mercy move us to be better, to be merciful ourselves and to love others moving forward. We must let our hearts of stone be turned into hearts of flesh, hearts that feel the movements of God’s mercy, hearts that seek God, and hearts that carry his sacrifice to our neighbors. Only with hearts of flesh are we capable of laying down our lives for our friends.
Victoria Mastrangelo is a wife, mother of three, and high school theology teacher in Houston. She loves to read, research, write, drink coffee, and travel. Her dream job is to be a perpetual student. She is a contributor at FemCatholic and can be found on instagram @vimastrangelo.