St. Macarius is famously quoted:
The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. (H.43.7)
This, of course, only opens the mystery of the heart – it does nothing to explain it. There is this capacity within us – whether witnessed by the depths of repentance or the darkness of cruelty that is simply described as heart. Somehow, the language of modern psychology, even the clinical complexities of the DSR, fail to do justice to this most essential of all aspects of the human.
As a priest, I major in the heart.
I know that whatever it is that ails a parishioner, the answer lies within the heart. There is no absence of grace – God is not willing that any should perish. We, however, are not so generous – even with our own selves. We cannot expect the heart to act in its own self-interest (at least not in its own long-term self-interest). And, strangely, God’s approach to us is not to appeal to our self-interest. The Kingdom of God calls to the heart to empty itself and look to the interest of the other. The heart will only find itself if it loses itself. Wooing the heart to this place of self-effacement is, indeed, the great mystery of the faith in the course of our daily lives.
In the Mystery (as the Eastern Church most commonly terms the sacraments) of Marriage, we bring a couple into the presence of God, whose own love and whatever else has brought them together, and crown them with the crowns of martyrs. We pray for them and invite them to take up a life of martyrdom that is synonymous with marriage. And this is, in fact, no different than the life we initiate at Baptism. That both Mysteries include a “dance” – circling three times around a table in the nave (or around the font) is simply because both are journeys through life. Both are journeys led by the cross and destined to lead to the Cross – the ultimate place of self-abandonment.
But in every step of the dance, in every day that is lived, the mystery of the heart seems to govern at least part of every step. Each step will be met by grace (else who could walk?) but the shape of the step will be marked to some extent by the heart that meets grace. Darkness will bring its own stumbling, staggering either towards more light or deeper darkness. A broken and contrite heart can bring the poignancy of a dance that only God could choreograph.
I find that when I pray for others it is not the mystery of grace that strains my prayer – but the mystery of other hearts. What will prayer bring? What will the heart of another do with the grace it is given? What mystery surrounds the pattern of the dance that this life now displays before us? I find little solace in the complexity of my own heart, nor in the opaque riddles of others. Solace comes finally only in the constant goodness of God’s grace – a grace that never draws back nor turns away from the hardness we present. This grace and its goodness crushes the heads of dragons, including those that lurk in the darkest places of the heart. It also kindles a fire where we thought no flame could burn. May paradise consume us!