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) St. Macarius
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. A.I. Solzhenitsyn
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). The corruption 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 combat 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.
This article was written and first appeared in 2008. I’m pleased that so little has changed over the years in my writing.