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)
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
These quotes are among the best known (ancient and modern) Orthodox statements on the heart of man and reveal the fundamental character of our spiritual struggle. There is not even a hint in these statements of human beings having a “legal” standing before God or that the Church should have any concern with such notions.
Man, as a fallen creature, is better described as diseased or broken (St. Paul uses the term “corrupt” phthoros in the Greek). Thecorruption which St. Paul describes is again not a legal term (as “corrupt” often means in modern English usage) but refers instead to a corruption that is similar to the rotting of a dead body. Indeed it is death that is at work in us that manifests itself as sin in our lives. The death that is at work in us is our falling back towards non-existence, or nothingness, whence all of creation came. God alone is the Lord and Giver of Life and true existence is only found in communion with Him. That communion is made possible through Christ Who became what we are, that we might become like Him.
It is the heart, the very core of our existence, that the Fathers dwell on when they look at the work of sin and redemption in our lives. Thus Orthodoxy is extremely “realist” in its understanding of the spiritual life rather than being concerned with legal standing or “debts owed,” etc. It is possible to use such relational language in a metaphorical manner, but the truth of our problem is to be found in the very character of our existence: Is it being transformed into the image of Christ or is it falling deeper into corruption and death?
This concern for the reality of our existence changes the focus and understanding of every action of the Church. Thus in Baptism, the focus is our union with the death and resurrection of Christ and the Gift of the Holy Spirit given us in Holy Chrismation. St. Ignatius of Antioch (2nd century) referred to Holy Communion as the “medicine of immortality.” Penance (confession) is occasionally described by the fathers as a “second baptism,” meaning that it restores the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
A priest hearing confession listens intently for the state of the heart (if possible) rather than simply categorizing and subjecting to legal analysis what he hears. Indeed, it is considered a sin to judge someone whose confession you are hearing. As a good pastor, however, a priest must always be concerned with the state of the heart within any of those for whom he is responsible before God. He cannot change anyone’s heart, but with whatever skill God may have given him, he can counsel and nurture each soul towards the path of healing in the heart and, most importantly, he can pray constantly for his flock and for the heart of each of its members.
By the same token, it is important for every Christian to pay attention to his own heart. Christ makes this abundantly clear when he interiorizes the commandments on murder and adultery, warning:
You have heard that it was said to the men of old, `You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment… (Matt. 5:21-22)
You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matt. 5:27-28).
It is not that our outward actions do not matter, but that they are only manifestations of the state of the heart:
The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks (Luke 6:45).
Most of my writing in this blog (as well as my preaching and teaching in the Church) concentrates on this inner life. Learning to open our eyes to the source of our actions and the absolute need for the grace of the Holy Spirit in order to change our hearts is the most fundamental understanding in our daily life before God. There are a myriad of other things to think about in our faith, many of them serving as religious distractions from the essential work of repentance. It is easier to argue points of doctrine than to stand honestly before God in prayer or confession. Doctrine is important (what Orthodox priest would deny this?) but only as it makes Christ known to us. But the knowledge of Christ that saves is not the knowledge one gains as mere information – but rather the knowledge one gains inwardly as we repent, pray, forgive, and humble ourselves before God. The promise to us is that the “pure in heart shall see God.”
Doctrine is not known until it becomes united to the heart in a continual act of communion with God. Thus, if we are honest, we will profess ignorance and pray for true knowledge.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
A quote from St. Silouan:
The heart-stirrings of a good man are good; those of a wicked person are wicked; but everyone must learn how to cambat intrusive thoughts, and turn the bad into good. This is the mark of the soul that is well versed.
How does this come about, you will ask?
Here is the way of it: just as a man knows when he is cold or when he feels hot, so does the man who has experienced the Holy Spirit know when grace is in his soul, or when evil spirits approach.
The Lord gives the soul understanding to recognize His coming, and love Him and do His will. In the same way the soul recognizes thoughts which proceed from the enemy, not by their outward form but by their effect on her [the soul].
This is knowledge born of experience; and the man with no experience is easily duped by the enemy.
God grant us such true knowledge and the healing of our hearts.
No wonder my heart hurts so much… it’s crowded in there. The violent do, indeed, bear it away. Another excellent post, Father.
Amen, Father. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
well said father stephen.
I don’t often visit your blog, but whenever I do, I am pleased with what you write. This was an outstanding entry. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with the world, Father Stephen.
Loved this posting for many reasons. It spoke to me, as I sit here with some quiet time with God on this Sunday morning. I always try to perform a ‘heart check’ before I decide to act. Am I coming at this person with the right Godly, and honest motivations? Am I representing the kingdom of which I’m a citizen?
“It is the heart, the very core of our existence, that the Fathers dwell on when they look at the work of sin and redemption in our lives.”
“Most of my writing in this blog (as well as my preaching and teaching in the Church) concentrates on this inner life. Learning to open our eyes to the source of our actions and the absolute need for the grace of the Holy Spirit in order to change our hearts is the most fundamental understanding in our daily life before God.”
Can we not say that this is the Heart, the very Core of the message of Jesus in both His words and actions?
That indeed you are pointing, in your very Ministry, at the call within, the task within? For each of us.
Words can never express what this means to so many. Myself included. And, oh, so desperately does the world need this message!
“But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
Just as the line dividing good and evil cuts through the human heart, so too does this post leave its mark there… ouch.
Father, there are no other blogs that I read that are so practical and so relevent as this one. It makes me think that the silliness that goes on in order to be “relevent” to the culture should be discarded and we should instead look to the great men and women who have, as you say, “united [doctrine] to the heart in a continual act of communion with God”.
Thank you for this post.
Father, my comment is a bit on different topic… related, but not exactly the same.
> just as a man knows when he is cold or when he feels hot, so does the man who has experienced the Holy Spirit know when grace is in his soul…
Regretfully, that touches my wound: I don’t think I know when the grace is in my heart. And I don’t think it’s never in – but I do not feel it. That might mean I never had it, which can be true; though I think I did have it and did feel it very much at least a few times. But then so many times I have not felt anything even after the Communion… my thought was that it’s there, I just don’t feel it. At the same time I do realize I can be mistaken very well and maybe I really never had His grace in since I’m sooo bad. And that means I’ve been going wrong way all this time, or walking on a treadmill instead of the Way. And that’s a very bitter and worrying thought.
One difficulty for most of us is that our inner life is very untrained. We “feel” with emotions or thoughts but do not know how to recognize the experience of the heart and distinguish it from these other things. There is no easy way to point this out. It takes some time and a good confessor – and we should be patient. I do not think it strange that one does not feel anything in particular after communion on many occasions (even most occasions).
I always assume the grace of the sacraments. God has promised us grace in this manner. I notice that things blow “hot and cold” within me depending on a wide variety of things. Sometimes my own actions or thoughts harden me towards God – sometimes I find myself inclined towards God (certain actions and thoughts are helpful in this as well). On a practical level I try to keep things simple:
1. Pray. Regularly. Pray as much as possible with attention to what I am saying and as much as possible mean what I say and say what I mean.
2. Forgive. As far as in me lies to forgive everyone for everything.
3. Practice mercy. As much as possible, seek to be kind and to show mercy towards others as I would want mercy shown to me.
4. Trust in the goodness of God. As much as possible to give God thanks at all times and for all things.
Even the smallest efforts in these directions, by God’s grace, can have very large effects.
Lately I have been trying to add a fifth thing:
5. In all things, talk to God and not the evil one. God is kind and merciful and so are our conversations with Him. Conversations with the adversary are always dark – he condemns us when we fail and tempts us when we don’t. Conversations with him simply pull us down. In conversations with God – even when we have no sense of His presence or feel utterly bereft of grace, we can say, “Have mercy.” He does and He will.
May God help you.
Also, a last thought. The words of saints (like St. Silouan) can sometimes contain more mystery than we can digest. If something resonates and makes sense that is good. If something is troubling, let it be. Don’t struggle too hard to understand something that seems difficult or puzzling. We have to let some things be.
“Conversations with the adversary are always dark – he condemns us when we fail and tempts us when we don’t. Conversations with him simply pull us down.”
That hit right home. Especially because the adversary talks with my own voice.
he’s a ventriloquist.
The more I experience, the more I am convinced that the healing of my
heart is the very goal of my life.
Fr Stephen, I really like that idea of the enemy being a ventriloquist. All the more reason to direct my own voice to Christ Himself.
My godfather, also a priest, said something similar when he was exhorting me at baptism. He said that we can grow frustrated if we continually throw gutter balls, but we must always focus on Christ, the kingpin, as opposed to focusing on the gutter. Even though I am still working on my spiritual bowling, I try to keep the focus on the kingpin.
Thank you, father! 🙂
First, thank you for your excellent blog – you set the standard.
Second, I have heard the Solzhenitsyn quote before but, man, it cuts one down. Simple and precise.
Fr. James Coles
Thank you for your very kind words. Wherever the standard is set – may God raise it higher.
Thank God for giants like Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky who give such insight and verbal flight to the faith. The truth is so great that no poet does it justice – but I am so grateful for those who have such gifts. And Solzhenitsyn’s was a gift bought at a very great price indeed. We are very tiny men, quoting giants and musing on their words.
This is a beautiful article, father.
I’ve only just come across this blog recently, and I love what I’m reading.
I’m a Coptic Orthodox Christian living in Egypt, and let me tell you that we lack this kind of teaching very much these days.
We are drenched in a legalistic understanding of Scriptures that is anything but Orthodox, and I for one feel very grateful when I come across real Orthodox teaching somewhere.
Thank you, and God bless.