I had the privilege two weeks ago to be in Detroit, Michigan, together with my wife, and to speak at the Faith of Our Fathers Colloquim – an event to share Orthodoxy with with interested Anglicans and others. Those who spoke were mostly, like myself, former Episcopal priests who had been received into Orthodoxy at various points in their ministries. I was not assigned a theological talk, per se, but asked to share the story of my journey, which I glad did. Some of that story can already be found in the archives of Ancient Faith Radio (they are on my blogroll) when I gave them an interview last year. This latest talk, along with all the others at that Colloquium, can also be found at Ancient Faith Radio.
I listened again to some of the talks, including my own (it’s always just a bit painful to listen to yourself), and was struck by a phrase I’ve used many times over the years in describing my conversion to Orthodoxy, and which I had used again in that presentation. In the mid 1980’s I encountered an Orthodox woman who had formerly been an Episcopal nun. I was more than a bit curious to hear her story since the idea attracted me as well. I listened to her share her own story, and she then began to question me. I had been a reader of Orthodox theology since college in the early 70’s, and had a lot to say on the subject.
When I finished she said, “Stephen, you think a lot. Someday you’ll think with your heart, and then you’ll be Orthodox.” I was cut to the quick at the time and had very little idea of what she meant. But I never forgot the phrase.
In time (to collapse the story) I learned what she meant – and the result was an attraction I could not deny or delay. I have thought many times since then about the phrase and its meaning and particularly what it means in my life. For one, I do not think that simply “joining” the Orthodox Church automatically makes you “think with your heart.” Indeed, I have met many Orthodox Christians who did not “think with their heart,” and I am aware of numerous times in the present when I myself do not “think with my heart.” Indeed, I have come to believe that it is a very difficult spiritual discipline.
But what do I mean by the phrase?
First, I do not mean by “the heart” anything that is merely sentimental or emotion based. Rather I am referring to the very core of myself, to the place where a person has communion with God. It is the very center of our being. Though there are some who place a great emphasis on the actual organ of the heart – this I am too inexperienced to speak about.
Of what I am certain is that intellect alone, reason alone, is not the same thing as that which flows from the heart. Indeed, I believe that without a right heart, reason will be useless in our search for God. The heart is described in many ways in Scripture. Christ says that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Matt. 12:34-35). We are also told in Scripture that the “sacrifice of God is a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51). It is the very core of our character and the place we must learn to dwell.
In doing theology, it is possible to have opinions and even strongly held doctrines that are largely matters of assent, like the principles of mathematics, but still not flow from the heart.
My journey into the Orthodox faith was a journey towards the heart – to come ever more often to the place that is the heart and to pray there, to behold God there, and to offer praise and thanksgiving there. I mistakenly thought for years that I could read Orthodox books and “learn” and “borrow” from Orthodox teaching. But this never carries you properly to the heart, indeed it can yield a delusion that is far more serious than unbelief itself.
I found giving assent to the teachings of Orthodoxy to be easy, even completely natural. But the actual act of becoming Orthodox, of making my confession and yielding myself up to the Church and to God to be extremely difficult. And this, I believe, was the issue of the heart. This was, at last, the movement away from my head and towards my heart, the “thinking with the heart,” I had been told about so many years before.
And the same process continues, day by day. I can see the same proclivities within myself, to allow myself to become cold, to take refuge in thought rather than prayer, etc. But I at least know now that there is another way and, by God’s grace, manage to find my way there more often.
Thus I am learning, ever so slowly, to “think with my heart,” and to become, ever so slowly, Orthodox. May God have mercy on us all.