Abba Macarius said, “If we remember the evil that others have done to us, we shut down our ability to remember God.”
There are many ways to misunderstand the Christian faith – certainly far more ways to get it wrong than to get it right. One of the deepest misunderstandings of our culture is the popular concept of Christian morality. The history of this is its own complex story – how Christians ceased to know the inner life and created an externalized form of Christianity. When I think on these things it seems to me that reality is often quite the opposite of what people imagine to be the case.
It is imagined that a Church which engages in a great deal of ritual (such as the Orthodox) is concerned only with externals – when, in fact, it is precisely in such a Church that the inner life receives the most attention. Ritual is not an end – but a means.
On the other hand, it is imagined that Churches which disparage ritual are inherently more concerned with the inner life, when nothing could be farther from the truth. There is a psychology of moral thought – but no proper understanding of what actually constitutes the inner life. Christ did not die in order to introduce us to psychology.
Rightly understood – the moral life is an inner obedience to the commandments of Christ through union with Him. In the teachings of the fathers such an inner life is not a matter of following rules, but is a manner of seeking true existence. To live out of communion with God is to live a false existence – one that is verging on non-existence.
This raises the importance of the inner life and the state of the heart. To be angry is more than breaking a rule – it is a breaking of communion and a dalliance with death. To remember the evil that others have done, as St. Macarius has noted, is to hinder our remembrance of God. In the words of St. James, “The anger of man does not work the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).
The same could be said about other sinful states of the heart – envy, lust, greed, etc. These are not actions or thoughts which violate rules – but states of the heart that violate our very existence. Between conformity to the image of God (by grace) and hell – there is no middle ground.
Those who have known this and understood it in their deep heart – have spared no effort to find salvation and healing in Christ, who alone can restore the heart to its proper state. The ritual of the Church is nothing more than learning how to rightly honor those things that should be held in honor. It is a gradual resetting of the heart.
No amount of analysis, study or meditation can substitute for the proper healing of our heart – nor can the intellectual acceptance of certain ideas. Such an “inner life” is still life on the surface.
St. Macarius offers this statement on the heart:
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)
Photo: Met. Kallistos Ware blessing the congregation at the entrance to the tomb of Christ.
The quote by St. Macarius is so true! It is also an indication of how wrong we are to believe we are better than others and ignore that someone who has done wrong is capable to find healing and salvation, whilst us, who might perceive ourselves as righteous are also capable of letting the “dragons” lay waste on our hearts!
Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for such an important reminder. It’s easy to be focused on the rules and stay distracted from the state of one’s heart. This is just exactly where our enemy wants us to be.
Thank you for this clarification and reminder.
Thank you Father for this post, it was much needed for me at this time. A question for you though: How do we begin to forgive the evil done to us, and to repent of our resentment, when that evil is as serious as murder or abuse? Practically, how can we even begin to cleanse our hearts of these things and find God in the midst of the dragons of the heart?
I am reminded by what our priest instructed us to do on forgiveness Sunday. Ask forgiveness of each other but do not offer it to each other in response to the asking.
My forgiveness is a weak, ephemeral business, rooted mostly in the passions, unlike the forgiveness of Christ which goes to the very root. Can I accept that God is at work, attempting to heal and redeem those who have wronged me, however hideous their sins and crimes may be?
In accepting that God is truly merciful to all I can begin to repent with the hope of forgiveness. If I do not beleive that God has forgiven someone else, why then should my heart acknowledge my own sin? Am I not rather likely to become the servant with the one talent who says “I knew you were a hard master…..”
Fr. Stephen, could you explain a little of what the heart is? I suspect that popular Christian culture has trivialized the word “heart,” just as it has the word “person.” So when you speak of the heart or the inner life, I think I lack the background to understand the word with anything like the fullness you intend it to have.
This is a wonderful post. I appreciate your defense of the Rituals of the Church.
To Reid about the Heart:
In the Glossary to the Philokalia I found the following, which may or may not be helpful – I hope it will!
Heart (kardia): not simply the physical organ but the spiritual centre of man’s being, man as made in the image of God, his deepest and truest self, or the inner shrine, to be entered only through sacrifice and death, in which the mystery of the union between the divine and the human is comnsummated. ‘I called with my whole heart’ says the psalmist, that is, with body, soul and spirit’ (John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, step 28). ‘Heart’ has thus an all-embracing significance: ‘prayer of the heart’ means prayer not just of the emotions and affections, but of the whole person, including the body.
In a 2002 interview in the journal Road to Emmaus, in which he also touches on prayer, Metropolitan Kallistos says “As to the question of the mind in the heart, I would not recommend people to start by thinking about that. I would say, start with the Jesus Prayer itself. Do not think about ‘Where is my mind, where is my heart?’ … Think rather about Jesus… Concentrate on the actual saying of the prayer and all else will follow from that in the way that God wishes and when He wishes.”
Jane’s quotes are quite good – I could not improve on them. Generally, it is the truest part of ourselves – but this is something that we do not normally know, because our true self is “hid with Christ in God.” Thus, as Bishop Kallistos says, we begin with prayer and keeping the commandments and calling on God – and being steadfast in the sacraments of the Church. In time, as we grow in Christ, we begin to know more and more of our true heart, or even, as Fr. Sophrony describes it, “the deep heart.” It is not the emotions, not our thoughts, but deeper than these. The great tragedy is that modern man does not know that he has a heart – our “anthropology” is extremely shallow in the modern world. We’ve become fairly reductionist, so that we have a caricature of what it is to be human. Christ is not only God, but is also the example of what it is to be fully human. Thus we turn to Him and call on His name, and He will make the heart known to us as we are patient and humble. And by patient I mean something that may well take years. This is rare patience in the modern world.
We begin by offering to God our will. As Fr. Thomas Hopko says, sometimes we have to say, “I want to want to…” Only grace can do these things in our hearts. What we have to learn is how to dispose ourselves to the grace of God. Thanksgiving, humility, patience – these are key.
Fr. Stephen and Jane, thank you for your answers.
How can one begin to learn real humility?
The best answer I could offer would be to begin by striving to give thanks in all things. Fr. Sophrony said that thanksgiving and humility are the same thing – to be humble is to live being aware that everything we are and have is a gift and not of our own making. When we refuse to give thanks we are wrapping ourself in pride and offering our judgment (and condemnation) of God’s gifts. It is a way that leads to death. I have known a man who gave thanks to God for all things – and I never saw him waver. It was a great and profound experience to know such a person. In hindsight I am amazed at the humility that allowed him to tolerate me, even when I was a young man, courting his daughter.
I wish you would collect all these posts into a book. (Oh, yeah, on top of being a priest, especially at this time of year…). I would bookmark this post!
I should add, in addition to many, many other posts.
I have a proposal sitting with Conciliar Press. It would not be all of these posts, but based particularly on the Two-Storey Universe series. Thanks for the encouragement. Perhaps one with simply the posts would be possible sometime as well.
Dear Father, bless!
Being a bibliophile, I will look forward to seeing your writings in print (on paper that is). So true what you say about it being a fallacy to equate formal Liturgy with externalism; I have many friends and family members who think this way as I once did also. I now know that true Liturgy, if approached correctly (and even many times when it is not) is what liberates me from externalism.
I’m running (stumbling, but running) to Pascha with joy, Father. Pray for me that I may cultivate a heart that is truly thankful in all things. Christ is in our midst!
I came to find this through a discussion with Protestants on the emergence movement, one in which I have been attempting to defend my own Latin Rite traditions, only to find an EO priest prove to me once again that mine is not the only church with Apostolic Authority.
This is the best defense of the Sacraments, and description of the orthodox Catholic life, that I’ve ever seen! Keep it up, and happy Pascha Fr. Stephen!