An excerpt from The Illumined Heart: The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation
Chapter 1 – The Central Question
by Frederica Mathewes-Green
You are holding a small book with an old-fashioned title. It might seem like a messenger from the past, or from no time at all, like one of those books you pull off the shelf at a musty old retreat house.
That’s pretty much what I’m aiming for. The shelves at your local bookstore are bulging with titles addressing urgent, transitory concerns, but this book intends a different pace. I want to examine a question that is more timeless and universal, one basic to the human condition, and to address it with more timeless wisdom.
That kind of wisdom is certainly not my own. I am too caught in my own time to attempt timelessness, not to mention having a pretty short stock of personal wisdom. But I hope to pass on, as accurately as I can understand it, a consensus that grew and flourished among Christians from the first century onward. This was a consensus regarding how to do the most important-perhaps the only- really important thing we can do: to live in Christ.
This is the early Christians’ wisdom, not mine. I hope not to say anything original. If I do, ignore it.
What is this human condition, this timeless question? To take the most global approach, we could say that it is the riddle of why none of us feel really at home in this world. We’re not consciously aware of this uneasiness every minute, of course; with enough entertaining distractions, we can hold it at bay. But still it’s there all the time, just under the surface, a murmuring unease. Almost unheard but still persistent, it rushes in the background of our lives like an underground river.
It can take different forms with different people. For some, there’s a vague, haunting feeling that we’re always disappointing others; for others, it’s that everyone else is always disappointing us. A lot of us feel like the whole rest of the world is in on a joke we’re not getting, and we just smile awkwardly and pretend to go along. Some of us are burdened life-long with guilt for a severe and genuine evil we committed. Others feel peppered daily by twinges over a host of minor offenses, pursued as by a cloud of mosquitos.
For all of us, I think, there is a recurrent sense of loneliness. Ultimately, we are alone, humanly speaking, on this hurtling earth. Even in the most jovial and affectionate of families-and I speak from blessed experience-there remains a melancholy awareness that each of us is still fundamentally alone, encapsulated in skin like a spaceman. Even when enjoying those whom we love most, we are looking through a pane of glass, and all the urgent longing of our hearts can’t break through.
We modern Christians have a ready and confident response to this dilemma. We say that of course this is so; it is because, as St. Augustine said, God has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together, as St. Paul put it. When we draw near God, and only then, do we find our place in relation to all the world. It is like going up the spoke of a wheel to the center, and when nearest him we find ourselves closest to everything else he has made.
Here is communion. In God’s presence we discover ourselves able to love one another, to be vessels of heroic love, even toward our enemies, even unto death. We find all creation in harmony around us, as responsive and fruitful as the Garden was to Adam and Eve. The peace that passes understanding informs our every thought.
It sounds pretty good, right? So why are we doing such a crummy job of it?
Why are we modern Christians so undistinguishable from the world?
Why are our rates of dysfunction and heartbreak just as high? Why don’t we stand out in virtue and joy? Does anyone ever say, “We know that they are His disciples, because they love one another”?
How come Christians who lived in times of bloody persecution were so heroic, while we who live in safety are fretful and pudgy?
How could the earlier saints “pray constantly,” while our minds dawdle over trivialities?
How could they fast so valiantly, and we feel deprived if there’s no cookie at the end of the in-flight meal?
How could the martyrs forgive their torturers, but my friend’s success makes me pouty?
What did previous generations of Christians know that we don’t?
That’s what this book is about.