Do I have a responsibility to rescue the ego-driven narrative of your life? Does the gospel of Christ exist to confirm your opinions and strengthen your arguments against the threats of a world-gone-mad? How should we evangelize the neurotic? I use the term “neurotic” lightly, under the assumption that we can all be described by the term to a greater or lesser extent. The ego, as used here, refers to a false-self, created by our thoughts and feelings:
Even though it is not really a “thing” at all, the ego slowly develops from childhood on, and is expressed as a story-line, complete with expectations (the “how things ought to be” section of our ever-churning imaginations), paranoia (“they” are out to get me, even when I am not quite sure who “they” are) and simple everyday self-centeredness (“I and my needs and opinions have to be heard, venerated and accepted by everyone else, or I am in danger of disappearing without trace”).
The problem we encounter with the ego is that it is often that part of ourselves which is presented to the world around us: the heart (nous), remains relatively hidden. It is largely the ego that we meet in argument (both someone else’s as well as our own). Such an encounter is the meeting of two figments of the imagination, an event destined for non-existence.
Sharing the gospel of Christ with another human being is not intended for the ego. The ego can be very “religious,” but not to its salvation nor the salvation of the heart. It is in the heart, the “true self,” that we meet Christ. Effective evangelism is the difficult task of speaking heart-to-heart.
Therefore hear the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside. But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles. Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful. But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty (Matt. 13:18-33).
The ego never understands. It judges, compares, even “tries an idea on,” but never understands. Understanding is a function of the heart. The ego is riddled with anxiety (its existence is often maintained by constant anxiety). Cares and deceit will rob it of any true planting of the word. In truth, there is no soil in the ego. The heart is the place where we have “root” in ourselves. It is the seat of understanding. There, and there alone, the seed bears fruit.
To speak to the heart requires a word from the heart. The famous visit of St. Vladimir’s envoys to Byzantium are an excellent example. The story is relayed in the Chronicle of Nestor:
Then we went to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices in which they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore we cannot dwell here any longer.
“We cannot dwell here any longer…” These are the words of the heart. The famous encounter in Byzantium was with beauty – but beauty in such a manner that “we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.”
My small parish does not appear to be a Church from the outside. It is plain. We have given much work to its interior, that we might worship God in beauty. A recent evening visit by a couple surprised me. Walking into the Narthex, the woman began to weep. “What is that smell?”
“Incense,” I answered.
“It smells like heaven,” she said. She went on, opening her heart and expressing a desire to know more about the faith.
There is no argument or explanation that rivals the simple odor of Divine worship. It is, of course, true that the couple had come to the Church searching. They were leading with their hearts.
Where the gospel is effectively preached, the heart is speaking, and the speaker is listening to hear the sound of the heart’s own door opening. The Elder Paisios famously offered this observation:
Often we see a person and we say a couple spiritual words to him and he converts. Later we say, “Ah, I saved someone.” I believe that the person who has the disposition and goodness within him, if he doesn’t convert from what we say, would convert from the sight of a bear or a fox or from anything else. Let us beware of false evangelization.
Our egos speak in order to hear themselves. We listen to our own “evangelization” and admire the argument and think ourselves to be “obedient” to the gospel, or to be doing a good work. God is so merciful that he takes words from us (using them like a “fox” or “bear”) and makes them into arrows for the heart. Those whose conversions follow such encounters are not the fruit of our efforts – they bear fruit despite our efforts.
Evangelization of the ego yields fragile converts. Their own ego-driven needs may create a great deal of energy, but with possibly destructive consequences. Fascination with fasts, feast days, cultural artifacts, correctness (the ego’s panoply) create a pastoral nightmare and a parish riddled with conflict.
True conversion (which happens over an extended period) occurs as we learn to dwell in the heart. Such conversion is an equal requirement within the Church. When it comes to life in the heart – we are all “converts” at best.
Follow-up: Speaking to the heart.
Icons do with colour what scripture does with words. And they do it better. Very well put Father, thank you.
Funny about incense smelling like heaven. I’m highly allergic to it and one reason I stopped going to church. Shame huh? What can you do? I surely can’t be there coughing and hacking away with every swing you take.
Father, that was insightful as usual. Thank-you!
Can I preempt a Reformed response to this post? They would say, quoting the Prophet Jeremiah, that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” How would you respond to such a usage of this text? This is the so-called “go to” text for the Reformed when it comes to distrusting the heart and establishing the complete, total and utter depravity of man.
The term “heart” has a variety of uses. As it is used in this post is only one “school” of usage (there are others that would use it as in Jeremiah). If the Reformed response depended on the same meaning for a word everywhere in Scripture (and for some within the Reform movement it does), then I would say that they were being silly. Reform anthropology is frequently much worse than silly.
Very touching post. Thank you.
Hello Blessed Father,
I am not sure about this. What about St Paul on the road to Damascus. That surely wasn’t slow over a period of time. Thank you for your thoughts. They are valuable.
What you mean Simmmo byTFS
I would say that St. Paul’s conversion begins on the road to Damascus precisely in the heart (“it is hard for you to kick against the goads” is God’s word to his heart”). And then St. Paul needed time before ever he began his ministry. That time also marks his deepening conversion…
Thank you for this wonderful post. You have encouraged me greatly through this, as I’m currently working out my own salvation, and learning to accept that it is a time-consuming, indeed lifelong, process. Please pray for me, a sinner.
Yes, some Reformed and Reformation groups do actually try to give a particular word the same meaning across the corpus of biblical literature. I wonder whether this falls out of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura and the scholastic/legal approach to scripture where particular terms have to be used consistently throughout the whole document – similar to the usage of defined terms in a legal contract – so that they conform to a particular interpretation or guide one to a particular interpretation (Calvin was a lawyer if I remember correctly).
Reformed anthropology… I think everything has been said about it. It simply isn’t orthodox.
So I’m new to this blog and have read this post and the “Story of the Self” posted a little bit earlier and have a question regarding this “ego” vs “heart” paradigm. I’m very confused as to how one is able to distinguish between the two, or how one is able to even speak about the “heart” in the first place. It seems to me that if it is the “ego” that is not only the product of our life narrative, but also the entity that creates that narrative – even the “heart” itself is a product of that narrative, one created and understood by the ego. At the end of the day, it seems that if this ego/heart relationship is an actual one, the heart is essentially what Freud would call the “unconscious” – it cannot be understood or contemplated (rightly, anyway) by the ego, and simply does what it does without our consent (consent, after all, is an ego-construct).
This leaves “me” feeling quite helpless: How am I to know it is my ego or if it is my heart who chooses sits down to pray and be silent before God? Can any act of “mine” really be considered an authentic response to God’s grace, or is the “acceptance of the gift of grace” simply an ego-illusion meant to keep me from true communion with God?
It seems to me that if within the context of this paradigm, God will save the heart if He wishes (which is the Orthodox tenet of predestination) but we play no role in salvation because the idea that we are “responding to God” is simply a religious ego-illusion.
This is for me, at the very least, maddening. How can we ever know if our consciousness is righteous or not? Can there be a litmus test to know when the ego has been destroyed and God has taken its place?
Forgive me, father, if this has been covered before in a previous comment thread. Yet I’m eager not just to understand but to put into practice the words of Christ, and if its true that my praxis is nothing but an extension of my ego-delusions, I fear that I am doomed to a life of hypocrisy.
this maddening confusion is the product of contemporary culture, as well as a “natural” to fallen humanity.
It is easily cleared away in a monastic setting of spiritual guidance and watchfull stillness. In a different setting however, it is also eventually -fairly slowly- cleared away through the combination of Grace and experience.
It is a fact that the Ego will try to infiltrate everything we do until our last breath, this knowledge keeps us contrite and humble even when God exalts us in Grace, so that we can say “Thine own of Thine own we offer to Thee”, (since ‘my own’ is 99.9% of the time sinful…)
If there can ever be any righteousness to my consciousness it will be a righteousness granted me by another: God.
It will indeed be mine, but it will freely be given to me as a gift I do not really deserve. That is also the ineffable beauty of our Father.
When we keep our inner attention constantly clinging onto the Lord, “hating” our egotistic self centredness lurking in the background as our constant default potentiality, then God does not remove the Grace which ‘activates’ the heart…
God is so magnanimous that he even accepts our ego poisoned praxis and slowly purifies this from the ego – in time and in proportion to our true good intentions – planted by Him.
(Your kids can never know how much they want to eat their healthy food to please you or to have their desert -especially when they are little)
There is also a different -simultaneous- path to this purification, through tribulations…
Besides, remember the spiritual law :
“a person rightfuly deserves the same amount of Grace as the amount of tribulation they can withstand with thanksgiving”
This is such a great post father. This especially struck me:
“True conversion (which happens over an extended period) occurs as we learn to dwell in the heart.”
I’ve been drawn to Holy Tradition for at least seven years now. At the same time it has often felt chaotic and frustrated for a variety of reasons. Half the time I end up not knowing if I ever really know anything at all. For a Ph.D. student, that can be very stressful!
But your post has me thinking about the long-term of it. Seven years. That would seem to contradict any idea that Orthodoxy draws me out of some egotistic reason. And perhaps all this confusion and frustration is simply the effect of my ego being in conflict with my heart.
Thank you for this post and your blog. And may God bless you richly.
Very good questions and to the point. First, though the answer deserves more than I can put in a comment – it is quite answerable. In the first place, not everything is a product of the narrative (not everything is ego-driven). The noisy thoughts and accompanying emotions can seem non-stop, but they do, from time to time, stop. The paradigm (to use your word) is quite experiential rather than just theoretical, and is part of the teachings of the Church fathers – though the ways and language with which this is describes varies from father to father.
A key to their observations is that the state in which we do not judge, are not critical, are not comparing, are accepting, etc. (as described in the article) is more than a state or behavior of the mind – it is more “ontological” if you will. It is a place of existence – and existence in a different mode – that can be entered into and from which we can live.
This makes the task of the spiritual life far different than merely trying to “tame” the mind. Indeed, the experience of the fathers is that in time, our mind can more properly serve in the manner it should rather than dominating, even falsely creating our existence.
This is just a beginning – but a short thought that might be helpful.
Father Bless…thank you for these powerful posts on finding our heart
Often I find my heart in my deepest wounds and brokenness…the emptiness and hurts in my experience of a life without God..all alone. Today’s blog post from Abbot Tryphon of the All Merciful Savior Monastary in Pudget Sound captures this thought very well:
Constructing A Foundation By Facing Our Weakness
When we face down our own weaknesses, we can begin the process of constructing the foundation for an intimate relationship with God. Ignoring those things that keep us stuck in the quagmire that is the ego, prevents spiritual growth, and the joy of being immersed in the Heart of God, remains but a dream. Confronting our weaknesses is the beginning of healing, because it is at that moment that we realize we need God’s help in order to be made whole. When we admit to our brokenness, and seek God’s help, we can be healed.
Love in Christ,
I found that this post spoke to some of my own struggles in sharing the faith with others. A good friend, Oratorian of St. Philip Neri priest Fr. David Abernethy, offered this commentary after I posted the article on FB:
FrDavid Sloan Abernethy: Jim, I read the article in find it very thought provoking. Sometimes the language used however has the effect of muddying the waters, especially when you begin to speak of concepts such as the ego. While this has become common parlance, h…ow it is used clinically and what the Freudian understanding of the ego would be is much different from how we tend to use it in daily conversation and how the author is using it in this article. He acknowledges that it is a simplified definition that he using of both the words ego and neurotic. I have done this myself, even having the background that I do, and it can be more confusing than helpful at times.
Yet I would agree with his evaluation of things as a whole in the article. The ego, the self, can take center stage in our proclamation of the Word, when in reality we are to be servants of the Word. R. Cantalamessa puts it with a greater clarity, I believe, that is helpful. The quality essential for servants of the Word is humility: “to disappear in the presence of the Word, to renounce one’s own glory. The true ‘servant of the Word’ is the one who thinks, like John the Baptist: ‘I am the voice of someone crying’. What, St. Augustine wonders, is the task of the voice? It is, so to speak that of taking the word or the thought that is in my heart and of conveying it on the wave of a breath through the air to the ear of the brother standing before me. Once this task has been completed, the voice has finished its job; it must fall silent, die away, while the word makes its regal entry into my brother’s heart to take up its dwelling there and bear fruit. The ‘voice says: ‘This, the Word, must increase whereas I must decrease’; the preacher says, ‘He, Jesus must grow and I must vanish.’
The Church does precisely this when, drawing the Word from her ‘bosom’ where it is kept, she cries it on the housetops so that it may reach the ears and hearts of all people and all may believe and be saved. For the hierarchy of the Church, to be ‘the servant of the Word’ means not to want to be the Word, but only the voice of the Word. It means, as St. Paul appositely observes, not preaching oneself but Christ Jesus as Lord.”
Thanks for the sharing.
Some reflection on the writing of these articles: One of the driving forces of my writing is to communicate the Tradition in an effective manner. My experience has been that many people read “spiritual” books and come away with very little or nothing. The content is there – but people can’t quite access it. My efforts are to ask, “What is the precise point that this wants to make?” And to ask it a lot – and to reflect on it a lot. And then to find ways to make it accessible and clear. My drive is to use images and language in a way that clarifies the point – often sacrificing precision.
The fathers did this as well. They took the terms of neo-platonism (which by their time had also become part of the cultural language) and re-defined them by their own usage. Had someone said, “No, but Plato did not use ‘ousia’ in this manner,” they would have been correct – but the language does not freeze at the point Plato used it. The same is true of Freud, etc. I’m not coining words here – the terms as used in these present articles are taken directly from quoted works of Abbot Meletios (who uses them in a manner they are much used in current Orthodox conversation on these things).
This last point is worth noting. It is a conversation that is taking place – a contemporary conversation rather than an academic exercise. And its goal is understanding – practical, living understanding. Fr David’s statement, “I would agree with his evaluation as a whole,” is an invitation to the conversation. There are now a couple of thousand readers who can enter the conversation through this series of articles. That is exciting to me.
These three comments spoke volumes to me….
It is largely the ego that we meet in argument (both someone else’s as well as our own). Such an encounter is the meeting of two figments of the imagination, an event destined for non-existence.
Sharing the gospel of Christ with another human being is not intended for the ego.
What, St. Augustine wonders, is the task of the voice? It is, so to speak that of taking the word or the thought that is in my heart and of conveying it on the wave of a breath through the air to the ear of the brother standing before me. Once this task has been completed, the voice has finished its job; it must fall silent, die away, while the word makes its regal entry into my brother’s heart to take up its dwelling there and bear fruit.
God is so merciful that he takes words from us (using them like a “fox” or “bear”) and makes them into arrows for the heart [of the person we’re trying to evangelize]. Those whose conversions follow such encounters are not the fruit of our efforts – they bear fruit despite our efforts.
One way to interpret the passage ‘the Heart is deceitful above all things’ is perhaps that the impurity of one’s own heart – the deceits it presents the inner seeker – are a true reflection of the seeker’s condition.
I think one of the Fathers said – and it is not uncommonly quoted – that the heart is a great city or kingdom, God and all the saints and angels are there, but also there are demons and dragons and traps and all kinds of snares. So if a man is a deceiver (and I the first, certainly) if he finds his heart deceives him, it is only reflecting what he has put in it. So in ‘lying’ it is actually telling the truth. Since it does not strive or connive, like a child, if it tells an untruth it is simply repeating what it has been given.
There’s also (I think) the problem of ‘heart’ sometimes referring simply to the spiritual or hidden part of man, which could include our concepts of mind, ego, memory, desire, zeal, etc. Given that case, it’s obvious that such a definition would contain all of the manner of deceits we carry with us regularly.
RE: reformed ideas, it was one stumbling block for my Wife and I, coming out of a protestant tradition, of not being able to assume -implicitly or otherwise – that even the same writer is using the same word with the same meaning at different times. To be presented with that reality severely undermines the Lockean tenets of the denomination I belonged to.
Lockean tenets undermined. 🙂
Indeed. Such notions of rationality are also mere constructs of the imagination. Salvation should be the real self in the real world and not an imaginary self in an imaginary theological system. The daily, living “laboratory” of monastic life – stretched through the ages – is part of the inner strength of Orthodox Tradition. The tradition is not a set of texts, or an abstract like the “magisterium” (as some use the concept), it is the enfleshed reality of life in the Spirit. That same reality exists in the parish as well – not as intensely – and more buffeted by cultural ephemera, but still there. Were such a life missing from modern Christianity – we might despair. But the gates of hell have not prevailed…
And I reckon that the lingering presence of it still is what calls people to the faith. I recall in my own time seeing people who were indeed upstanding people of faith – not merely dutiful but also humble – and that being a kind of signpost to me that said, ‘if not exactly this, something like it.’
On St Paul….you’re good. Real good. TFS
Your words ring a familiar tone within me, since I have struggled with much the same difficulty as you are now experiencing. You place yourself on the horns of a very difficult dilemma: on one hand (or horn), the Freudian opinions of our non-material nature; on the another, what appears to be a Calvinistic, TULIP-ian view of soteriology. If this be the case, it’s quite a recipe, and you have baked yourself (as it were) into a corner rather neatly.
In our western tendency to define and categorize everything–including our composition as human beings–we fall easily into the trap of dehumanizing ourselves. I have followed your same train of thought to this logical conclusion: everything is predestined; I have no choice in the matter; my responses to God are not real. So God is a monster, and I’m not really made in His image.
But God is not a monster. You are struggling very hard against a very potent, but imaginary, construct. Keep struggling. Grab your doubt by the throat and wrestle it to the ground and don’t quit. Find someone who will help you do it, if you can.
You write, “This leaves ‘me’ feeling quite helpless: How am I to know it is my ego or if it is my heart who chooses sits down to pray and be silent before God?”, and this your first question cascades into a series of other, equally difficult ones. The answer to your first question is this: no single part of you chooses to sit down and pray and be silent. You choose.
In my ongoing journey toward Orthodoxy, there came a point where I decided that I would set all of the doctrine I learned aside for a time and simply trust what Holy Tradition has said concerning me as a Human Being. Holy Tradition has much to say concerning the soul versus the spirit, but it doesn’t map very well to our modern understanding of them. Frs Stephen and Meletios (Weber) are worth reading for their insight and ability to explain the mystery of our humanity based in Holy Tradition. They put the cookies on the bottom shelf.
“Man is a sacrament; he is a mystery too. We do not know what we are.” –Fr Roman Braga
Blessings to you.
“Putting the cookies on the bottom shelf.” I now have words for the goal of my ministry. 🙂
These posts and the resulting conversations are priceless, Father. I am glad to be part of the Body of Christ at last!
I have struggled with the same questions Aric had above regarding how one knows whether or not they are acting out of the ego. I’ve thought a lot about how the ego, not having any reality of its own, might be the house built upon sand that the Lord speaks of in His parable. Naturally, the ‘man’ who has his house built upon sand is full of anxiety and fear. Perhaps that fear is the root of the vices (envy, jealousy, anger, pride, sloth, gluttony, lust) and therefore all the vices are born out of the fear the ego has of its own unreality. When the storm comes, the house and the ‘man’ who have no foundation are destroyed. But this is nothing to fear, because the heart has its foundation built upon the “Rock”: Jesus Christ, the God -Man Who reveals Reality and exposes the hypocrite ego with a refreshing storm! All we lose in the Storm the Master sends is our own delusions…
For me (who needs his reality to be very simple) would it be safe to attempt to understand the difference between the heart and the ego by asking myself whether what I am about to do or say has fear or humility as its origin? In other words, is my speech or action going to puff me up (and therefore support the false reign of my ego) or is it going to empower the heart’s understanding by the grace of God through humility? Do you think this would be helpful, or am I deluding myself? Thank you, Father!
No test is infallible…but the one you suggest is useful. Someone told me once about their “10 second rule.” They waited 10 seconds before saying things asking, “Does this need to be said?”
God bless all for these comments and the conversation entered into here! God bless the inviter and the invitee! Thank you Fr. Stephen!
@ Christopher Albee
I love this quote:
“Man is a sacrament; he is a mystery too. We do not know what we are.” –Fr Roman Braga
Thank you for posting it.
Interesting blog. Great comments. My pastor’s best friend is an E.O. Christian.
He (my pastor) admires much about the E.O.. (I don’t know a whole lot about it yet.
But I plan on coming back here to get an education.
It was my pleasure to post it, although I can’t remember where I got it from. I have it scribbled in a notebook near my desk.
I came across this (quite brave) confession of Orthodox faith in an unlikely and environment, and I though I would post it here, if that is ok…
It is Jonathan Jackson (General Hospital) saying “thank you to the monks of Mount Athos who are ceaselessly praying for the whole world” and explicitly thanking the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit while perfectly crossing himself in the Orthodox fashion:
In 2012, Jackson and his family were baptized into the Orthodox Church.. In his acceptance speech for his 2012 Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series he thanked the Holy Trinity as well as the monks on Orthodox monastic enclave Mount Athos. Thank you Dino for bringing this to my attention. God Bless.
Actually, if you’re interested in hearing Jonathan Jackson’s conversion story, Father Andrew Stephen Damick interviewed him on his “Roads from Emmaus” podcast on Ancient Faith Radio in February of this year:
Thanks Westy, I enjoyed the interview immensely.
To me and with the experiences that I’ve had with “being evangelized” and reading about some of the bungled attempts at it (like Gandhi’s in South Africa, when he tried to go into a ‘certain denomination’s’ church, only to be escorted out (because of the color of his skin), then, someone tried to “evangelize” him on the outside of the church, of course. To me evangelism and egotism are one-and-the-same. It’s saying “how I believe is right, and how you believe is wrong;” “here, let me take that speck out of your eye. Best to sweep up in front of our own front porches; to till our own God-given patch of land.
Gary,I too am with you on this matter, it is a real temptation and distraction from repentance to evangelize egotistically while still a beginner… The Evangelizing we see in Saints, when moved by the Holy Spirit and according to obedience is a different kettle of fish altogether.