Doors, Windows, Mirrors, and the Secret Place

My first impression of the monasteries on Mt. Athos began with their doors: massive, thick, iron and steel configurations with bars and locks. They are not decorative in the least. They are meant to keep out marauding Turkish pirates and the like. The walls of the monasteries are similar in their function. The whole structure, complete with the crenelations on the tops of the walls are more castle-like than anything else I can imagine. They represent not an adaptation to the unique needs of the life of prayer, but a continuation of the most ancient function of walls: protection.

The first monastery I ever visited was an Anglican establishment in the low-country of South Carolina. The main house was simply a former plantation-style home, once the seat of a prominent low-country family. Along the drive leading in were a collection of small hutments, monastic cells that probably bore more similarity to the slave houses that likely once sat in the same place. That is its own meditation. I was disappointed that there were no walls.

I cannot explain my inner fascination with walls. The definition of space that they create holds a mystery for me (in a way that the walls of a house do not). Some older cities have little garden spaces between houses, with gates that invite while they protect. The marvelous space that forms the heart of the children’s novel, The Secret Garden, could not have been represented in any other way, to my mind. The garden itself is healed, even as a child is healed.

That rich image, I think, points to the place of the heart. Our interior life can be extremely noisy (for some of us, it is an unavoidable artifact of the brain). Finding the heart is thus far more complex than merely looking for a “quiet place.” It is the place of the true self, which is far more than the absence of noise. The stillness of that place is rooted in its stability. Cutting back the vines and weeds that intrude is also a cutting back the things that are temporary, or driven only by passing concerns of the moment. Thus, when we manage to quiet the noise of various passions (anger, shame, fear, greed, envy, etc.) something remains. Ultimately, that “something” is the heart of the true self.

I have engaged in that search through any variety of paths (looking for the door). Fasting and prayer are always seen as a traditional means, but need guidance to be effective. Prayer is (many times) the sound of our anxiety crying out to God. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but your anxiety is not the place of the heart. One exercise that has been of use for me can be categorized as “guarding the heart.” The admonition is often found in the fathers that we should “enter the place of the heart and let the prayer of Jesus (the Jesus Prayer) stand guard at its door.”

That admonition can be frustrating at first. “If I could find the place of the heart then it might be possible. But what if I have no idea of how to get there?” Several helpful thoughts:

  • The place of the heart is always with you. The true “you” dwells there. It’s the noise of everything else that hides this from us.
  • Begin by naming (noticing) each of the other sounds (distractions) and name them (anger, shame, envy, greed, loneliness, sadness, etc.).
  • Let them go. One by one, set each one aside. Certain things will refuse such treatment. If I am deeply enmeshed in shame, or the anger of unforgiveness, etc., its noise might insist on staying. I sometimes bargain, asking only that for a short time I will let that passion alone. Oddly, it works. The resulting strengthening that follows helps create the ground on which this passion can eventually be silenced.
  • What is left after this exercise is a “place.” It might even feel empty. We are so accustomed to the noise of the passions that their absence might seem an emptiness at first.
  • What we find in this place is the true self, the soul in the freedom of simple existence.

It is at this point that I would shift our attention from the image of a door to that of a window and mirror. It is quite common to see an icon described as a “window.” Windows, however, suggest that there is something “outside.” That image would direct our attention away from the place of the heart. A related image is that of a mirror – which is probably more apropos in that a mirror reflects something that is present. I recently heard the comparison in this manner:

Imagine looking out your window and seeing a lion. It would be interesting, but, perhaps nothing more. Imagine looking in your mirror and seeing a lion in the reflection. The terror that would follow speaks of a presence. What you see is right there with you.

In this sense, the soul can be described as a mirror (that is an image used by St. Gregory of Nyssa). The soul is a mirror of Christ. This can be understood as true if by “soul,” we mean this true self, absent the noise and distractions of the passions. It is not an image which we are trying to “match” – a model for moral improvement. Rather, the image of Christ is a means by which we may slowly begin to recognize the true self. The true self looks like Him – we are His reflection.

With this in mind, I take us back to the walled garden. This is a place of intimacy and safety. It is sheltered from the world and its distractions. What is found in the garden is precious and wonderful. It is a place of “secret” meetings. There, we may be alone with Christ.

Such images are more than mental pictures. We see in the thing itself (if you are so fortunate as to have an actual example to visit) something that reflects the inner reality of the heart. These reflections are helpful in finding the inward path itself. Monks went into the desert, and other hidden places, for a reason. Those places are not the heart, but they “rhyme” with it. That rhyming can give an important assistance. Human beings are a “microcosm” of the universe the Fathers held. Places in the “cosmos” can teach us much about life in the “micro.”

That a place such as a walled garden speaks so loudly to a human heart is not an artifact of culture. It is an artifact of many cultures because it reflects so clearly a reality that is the true home of the soul itself. Christ, teaching us the greater secrets of prayer, said:

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your inner room (ταμεῖόν – an inner chamber or secret room) and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5–6)

Such a sweet reward – to find Him there.

 

 

 

 

30 comments:

  1. I recall a social media thread I was, for a very short time, involved in where a woman insisted that the surgery her daughter was put through was to show her “true self”. I was about to point out that our “true self” is not found in the mind, but in the heart where we meet Christ (the moderator shut it down before anything else could be said).

    This is a beautiful essay that is far more gentle and full of love than anything I might have said though. Many thanks, Father.

  2. Father, thank you for this.

    I have one question I wanted to ask in reply to a comment on your last post, but I think it fits here, too.

    You noted in a comment the very close tie between sin and death. In this post you spoke of the passions, in the context of naming them and setting them aside.

    What is the relation of sin, death, and the passions? I’ve been Orthodox for a number of years now, and I feel like the terms often get used in a muddied way (sometimes interchangeably, sometimes very distinctly), sometimes depending on the author I’m reading or person I’m listening to.

    I realize we aren’t particularly big on systematic theology. 🙂 But it can be a little confusing sometimes when talking about them. Especially since it’s hard to shake sometimes the “moral” sense of a word like “sin” (the breaking of God’s law) that I grew up with for so many years.

    Hopefully what I’m asking makes sense. I’ve wondered to a certain extent if maybe the words themselves don’t have precise meanings in modern Orthodoxy writings (but maybe they do in the Fathers?) and are dependent upon the person using them, especially given the “muddy-ness” of how they’re sometimes used. But that doesn’t feel quite right. It seems like those are very important words that should have rather specific meanings so that we know how they’re being used when they’re used.

  3. Athanasios,
    Vocabulary is a mixed bag, even in Orthodoxy. The common vocabulary used in the monastic/ascetic tradition (names for the passions, etc.) are pretty standard. Some writers, however, will be more moralistic than others, depending on their own place and time of writing. That goes for contemporary treatments within Orthodoxy. I would describe what I do, and how I think, as standing very firmly within a school of “ontological” treatments of such things. Indeed, I’ve written very critically about moralistic and juridical language and thought.

    That said, it makes a few people nervous, particularly if they’re afraid that a less-than-moralistic approach will be seen as a green-light for wrong-doing. My own usage is firmly grounded in 40 years of priestly experience (of which I include my experience within the Anglican tradition – in that I was using Orthodox resources already). I just don’t find moralistic treatments to be useful for souls or at all useful in understanding how the inner life of people actually work. The voluntarism that moralistic approaches invariably use is simply inaccurate, to my mind. The will is pretty much not at all like the thing imagined in moralistic treatments – and they create lots of unnecessary guilt and shame. I.e. they can do positive harm.

    In the broad range of Orthodox writings – you’ll see a wide variety of usage. Sometimes it depends on the audience. St. John Chrysostom, for example, can be highly moralistic in his preaching (he’s loved by many Protestants). I do not find him to be a guide on the inner life – indeed, he wrote very little on that topic. I’ve seen him over-used on marriage and family issues, and, not surprisingly, yields a very moralistic approach to that topic as well.

    For more thoughtful treatments of these questions (the inner life) I look more towards St. Maximus the Confessor, and various pastoral writings of the saints. Is this saint who is writing actually a director of souls on a day-to-day basis? It matters. They’re not gurus or magical conduits of heavenly information. They have to learn stuff the hard way just like everyone else.

    Fr. Georges Florovsky, of blessed memory, worked on what he termed a “neo-patristic synthesis.” That was a synthesizing of patristic thought (because the fathers do not always agree) that represents what is actually the mainstream of the Tradition. It harmonizes well with the liturgical life, etc. In that vein, when I write (as do a number of other contemporary interpreters of the Tradition) I try to present just such a synthesis. It’s the “sweet spot” of the Orthodox faith.

    As noted, I like grounding and thinking through things in ontological categories – categories of actual being. One reason is that this is the classic language of the Great Councils with regard to the central dogmas of the faith: ousia, hypostasis, etc. If “sin” is the problem addressed by the Incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, then “sin” should be explained in the same terms as the Incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, if at all possible. It’s quite possible, in fact, and far more accurate and precise.

    Sometimes, when reading something moralistic, I’ll think it through in ontological terms and ask, “Does that work?”

    Orthodoxy, as you note, has never been systematized. But it has been lived. For myself, I only try to write about what I actually know. It keeps me out of trouble. It also makes me terribly repetitive. But, I think it’s a reliable way to think about these things.

  4. “ For more thoughtful treatments of these questions (the inner life) I look more towards St. Maximus the Confessor, and various pastoral writings of the saints. Is this saint who is writing actually a director of souls on a day-to-day basis? It matters. They’re not gurus or magical conduits of heavenly information. They have to learn stuff the hard way just like everyone else.”

    Very helpful Father. Thank you

  5. Dear Father Stephen,
    For myself, with some health issues (a burst pipe upstairs with collateral damage to some wiring), repetition is very useful, perhaps needful. I used to be very quick on the uptake – too quick perhaps. Now I actually have to slow down and think, instead of just ‘record’. In any case, I have never thought of your writing as repetitive, I think of it as consistent 🙂 I give Glory to God for the day I discovered your blog.

  6. Father, quite simple and beautiful. Therefore true. The Fathers I have read say that as we say the Jesus prayer we should allow our minds to descend into our heart. That is true but we have to know our heart first. It is a place not just a feeling. Neither is going there an effort of will. It is a physical/spiritual place. It is quiet. It is an altar, I think. So we are not alone there. Jesus is there, as the Morning Prayer of St. Philaret says, He prays for and with us there.

  7. Father Stephen
    Thank you for this
    It resonated – which I guess means it found a space within 🙂
    Re the mirror – that is most helpful – I recently acquired the Ikon of blessed silence – Christ (the angel) is guarding the door of the heart with his hands . . .

    Blessings

  8. PS Also – this is for the benefit of others, no? When we find the inner peace, the freedom of simple existence, others are saved around us as our hearts find their home in Christ?

  9. Thank you, Father, your blog is so beautiful. Everything you wrote about is helpful and inspiring.
    I hope I am praying with my heart …however as you mentioned, sometimes my prayers are nothing more than anxious pleas.
    But when I am at peace, I close my eyes and bow my head, and sense myself descend into a dark, quiet ‘sanctuary of sorts’ where I am safe from worldly cares. And yet it’s a receptive place too where I feel open to the world around me . Sometimes I feel Christ’s comforting presence immediately. Other times I wait for Him. Orthodoxy taught me how to find this place. Your words always help me too.
    Joan

  10. Joan,
    No words are necessary in that place of stillness. Yet, the Fathers teach that we should enter that place and let the Jesus Prayer stand guard. It is also true that in that place Christ Himself prays in us (always), as the Spirit cries, ‘Abba, Father!’

  11. Thank you father, both for this post, and for your very helpful reply to Athanasios at 5:09 pm (which felt like it deserved an article in its own right). As a number of commentators have already said, the article is one of the nicest and most approachable summations of the teachings on this.

    I am still processing the main content, but for what it worth a few related things popped up since reading.

    1. I couldn’t help think about Teresa of Avila’s “The Interior Castle”. While obviously she is Roman Catholic (doctor of the church) rather than Orthodox, I have found that a very worthwhile piece, and many of the extended metaphors she uses seem similar to yours (although yours have a more spare quality to them, which I like). That said, one of her images that has stuck with me is that of how, as we enter the castle, lots of reptiles try to follow in with us … (alas, my castle is infested). I was wondering whether there is an Orthodox view on her, and for that matter on John of the Cross?

    2. Particularly in your meditation on walls, I kept on thinking of Edward Hopper and his paintings (by far my favorite American painter). He famously said that what he really wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house. He spent a lot of time on that, to great effect all the while also hauntingly sort of saying things about his inner life. Given your interest in walls, can I recommend this lecture to you on one of his more intriguing paintings, which while obviously about him also manages to say a lot of interesting things about walls and windows and light and the inner life, if you have the inclination and an hour or so to spare : https://youtu.be/yodiS9p35BY (suggest you skip the award ceremony at the beginning and begin at 4:38).

    3. With the idea of the mirror, I have heard that applied to the way the Jesus Prayer works on the nous, in the sense that one of the things that prayer helps with is to clean the mirror to help us to see more clearly. Which led me to wonder whether you had a view on that, and if so in the scheme of the article?

    Be still and know that I am God!

    P.S. is that phone box the one at Magdalen College? (If so, I should have known that you’d try and get a Lewis visual clue into this little trail of crumbs!) 🙂

  12. Simple, beautiful, wonderful, true. Glory to God for this clear exposition of true prayer and for His work in us all!

    Now I understand why as a Bible-swinging Lutheran I was drawn to St John Chrystostom (in the branch which I used to be a pastor in there was even an annual preaching retreat in his name!) while I’ve felt guilty (unnecessarily I see now) for feeling an aversion to his writings since becoming Orthodox. St Isaac of Syria is my patron and go to for help in overcoming the horrible damage a moralistic focus/approach can cause in a sensitive conscience. As well as this lovely blog…

    That said, I am kinda thinking that – for the mature soul – St John Chrysostom might just have a whole lot of gold to mine from his words. 😀

  13. James,
    St. John is quite interesting. For one, most of what people know of him are his sermons, which have been extremely well-preserved. They show none of the vulnerability and tenderness of his correspondence with the Deaconess Olympias. I suspect there are great depths in him – but he’s in his moral mode most often in his sermons. Most of us have several voices in our speaking. How we speak to children, to a spouse, to a crowd and such. The kind of writing that St. Isaac does (or St. Maximos) is more intimate and yields different insights. We need all the voices, I suspect.

  14. This is interesting. As a Lutheran, I couldn’t really stand St. John Chrysostom. I was of the more “antinomian” variety and disliked how moralistic he was.

    Now I read him and don’t tend to hear moralism in his sermons, but rather the call to live a new way of life. Under all his admonitions and “moral rants” I’ve seen both how far I fail, but also what is possible for the Christian who trusts in God and loves his neighbor.

    But I didn’t start reading his sermons again until recently. Maybe it makes a difference where one is in terms of how one hears.

  15. Thank you for the reply Father. That’s a very good point you make about needing to have different voices .,.sometimes I’ve pushed God into needing to show His sterner side myself. I suppose just about all of us do from time to time.

    Which ties into your comments, Athanasios…I had my share of ‘antinomian’ phases too. And in hindsight I believe that was a reaction to the toxic shame I had internalized from early childhood and reinforced with choices I’d made including the legalistic emphasis which sadly afflicts many sincere Lutherans. So yes, I’d agree it makes all the difference where a person is at as to what/who they need to hear…unfortunate that it’s hard to find good spiritual guides that can assist a person in this. But then again, God provides for those who keep seeking Him in their heart of hearts…such as this blog and many worthy others. 🙂

  16. Dear Father Stephen,
    This perspective of the inner life you have described here in this article is wonderfully rich and healing. It is an oasis in the midst of such turmoil.

    Father, I can’t emphasize enough how important your lessons on the ontological perspective are. I just don’t think you can over state, or over-teach this subject. Those who would pound on the moralistic and juridical gong, are, unfortunately, quite loud.

    Agreeing with your perspective, I’ll admit whenever I see St John Chrysostom’s sermons used to effect a shame-filled ‘moral’ family life, which I have seen conducted by one (perhaps others) Orthodox priest, I observe a lot of damage done in their parish. I can only imagine what might happen in the hearts and souls of their parishioners. It is a mystery to me what this attraction to such a perspective is all about, but I didn’t come into Orthodoxy from another Christian persuasion. It seems that the plumbing of the moralistic bent of St John is very attractive to converts to Orthodoxy from other Christian persuasions but it also seems tied to American politics as well. I’m honestly not sure whether cradle Orthodox are so inclined or not.

    And yet, if they look and imbibe, those who leave other persuasions, may find the cool living waters of the way you describe–an ontological understanding of sin and of the inner life in Christ, as deeply healing. I can’t thank you enough for your teaching on this subject.

    I’m grateful also that you mentioned St Johns writings to the deaconess. I’ve never been exposed to them and perhaps they might show a different side of St John. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for his liturgical skills.

  17. Dee,

    My belief – stemming from too many years of experience – is that the attraction to moralism is rooted in toxic shame and fear…and thus the need for control, the need for coercion (of self if nothing else)…the need for a sort of intellectual certainty barring all contradiction which is actually quite inimical to love. As I’m learning both with God and with a certain someone very dear to my heart, the only way to know is to trust. Faith comes before sight…and that [continuing] act[ion] of faith can be an extremely frightening thing indeed.

  18. Fr. Stephen:

    Could you recommend a book by St. Maximos the Confessor that would help me with the inner work you have been discussing and where it might be sold?

    I haven’t been Orthodox for very long and the moralistic/juridical mindset still haunts me and I would like to move past that issue.

    Thank you for your writings,
    Anna

  19. Anna,
    St. Maximos is extremely technical and difficult to read. It’s not where I would start. One possible beginning place is Peter Bouteneff’s book, How to Be a Sinner. It’s available through Amazon or St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. He’s a professor at St. Vladimir’s.

  20. Thank you Father Stephan for your help in recommending a book and for your excellent blog.

    I have been reading your blog for some time and it has helped me to understand many things.

    I only hope that one day I can be able live the Orthodox life that you describe on your blog.

    Blessings in Christ,
    Anna

  21. I went on an internet voyage to look up Peter Bouteneff’s book, where I learned the author has musical training and wrote a couple of books on Arvo Part’s music and it’s relationship (or inspiration from) Orthodox spirituality. I find it interesting because I believe I sense in St Maximus an association with music, as well. Furthermore, similar to ScottTx’s observation about JS Bach, music can also bring the listener into the walled secret garden of the heart.

    These associations entice me to read his book, even while my current to-read book list is humongous!

  22. Dee
    I also always found writers such as St Maximus (and more so St Isaac mentioned earlier by Father Stephen) have something intensely musical about the way they express their multilayered sentences. And this is coming from someone “majored” (as I think you say) in music composition. I am glad you pointed that out.

  23. It seems that to reach the place of dynamic peace and beauty in mythology, Scripture and reality takes battles of different kinds and intensity. They come and go it seems but never to quite end in this life it seems. If I am right I find that daunting, intimidating, challenging and comforting all at the same time

  24. Dino,
    I admire your training. I’m attempting to learn music and to play a new instrument. (I had tried accordion to my family’s dismay. Now it is lap harp and my family is less upset, thanks be to God!). It is amazing how playing slowly and prayerfully seems to bring one into the ‘garden of the soul’, even as a novice. I need to read St Isaac and appreciate your and father’s recommendations.

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