We have noticed with sadness that nowadays men suffer dreadfully because their mind is fragmented. Imagination, which is only one of the mind’s activities, is overindulged and dominates men’s lives, leading some to hardness of heart due to pride, and others to mental illness. According to the teaching of the Gospel and the Scriptures, the mind works naturally only when it is united with the heart. Mind and heart are naturally joined together when the fire of contrition is in the heart.
Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart.
I’m certain that my experience of prayer is similar to that of most of my readers – a struggle to pray with a scattered mind. To read of the return of the mind to the heart is to know how far my prayers are from where they should be. It is also a realization that to “love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind,” is virtually impossible in such a scattered state. We lack the wholeness to make such an offering.
The desire of my heart is to not forget that there is such a thing as a mind united to the heart. My desire is to settle for nothing less. There is an emptiness in theology when it remains only a recitation of ideas and a fantasy of the imagination.
Thus, when I speak of a fullness (as I often do in my writings), I speak of something that belongs to God and can only come to man as a gift. There is a fullness in the sacraments of the Church, though in our scattered state we approach that fullness only with faith – with a hope for what we do not yet see. There is a need for steadfastness in that hope – a steadfastness that refuses to turn aside for something less.
We have been promised heaven – indeed I believe the union of mind and heart is a place where that promise begins to be fulfilled. Thus I will not turn aside for something else – whether argument or curiosity. For the fantasies of our scattered thoughts are not the stuff of reality – only the stuff of delusion.
There are moments of clarity – even for those whose most common experience is a scattered state. These moments come as flashes – sometimes in the Liturgy – sometimes in prayer – sometimes in very unexpected places. The flashes themselves are gifts – small insights that call us to remain steadfast and not to turn aside from hope.
In a very few cases in my life, I have had the pleasure of meeting someone whose thoughts were not scattered – who were wholly present – mind and heart. In each case it has been an encounter with humanity bordering on fullness – not something that overwhelms but something that welcomes and makes all things around seem brighter and more truly alive. I would not dare to say that I was encountering a saint, for God alone knows such a thing. But I have met those who were clearly moving in that direction in a way that we rarely see.
I saw it once in a woman who was a hospice patient. She had been homebound and bed-ridden for better than six months. I noticed that every day a constant stream of friends passed through her home. It was unusual. Generally when someone is sick for a prolonged period, vists become fewer as people readjust their lives and turn their attention elsewhere. It is sad but true. However, in this case just the opposite was happening. I cannot say that her friends were of such great quality that they never left her – but rather that she was a person of such good heart that people continued to visit because they always received more than they gave.
She was not Orthodox, but she was curious about my faith. What I was able to share with her was received with gratitude and with an understanding that immediately seemed to grasp the heart of each matter. I discovered that my visits to her (as her “hospice chaplain”) were themselves unusually frequent. I always left with more than I had brought.
She died perhaps eight years ago. As a priest, I have kept her name in my prayers of remembrance for the departed. I pray for her, for I hope that she will remember and pray for me.
She was a fullness in an unexpected place. God’s grace appears where it appears. But the reality of it all is the heart of the matter for me. She, like several others I have known, was real and not a fantasy. She was a largeness of life that defied explanation apart from God. In such a life the mind is not scattered but brought to where it should remain – united to the heart. From such a heart love flows in a manner that draws the hungry souls of all around. And the fire of contrition burns in all who remain in its presence for arrogance and pride are reduced to ashes in such a holy furnace.