Into the Heart

Met. Kallistos Ware famously shared the story of his conversion (at least its initiation) as he ducked into a Russian Orthodox Cathedral one afternoon only to encounter the service of Vespers in progress. His account contained no detailed analysis of what he saw. Rather, it was the story of a heart – a heart confronting the Holy in a profound manner. It is the sort of an encounter that can change your life.

I have been thinking about his story this past week in the wake of the news of his passing (memory eternal). I had many opportunities to be with him over the years, including a 10-day pilgrimage under his leadership in the Holy Land back in 2008. His story, in many ways, carried more weight with me than all of the many lectures and such that I have heard from him. It is, in a very important way, at the very heart of our faith.

To walk into a building and find yourself immersed in the presence of God is a story worth telling over-and-over. It is not an account of persuasive words or the emotional waves of an enthusiastic crowd. I believe that God is “everywhere present and filling all things,” but, for various important reasons, we often seem completely impervious to that Presence. I do not take this to be the fault of creation itself – but a fault within ourselves. Those moments in my own life, when I have gotten past the seeming opacity of creation and encountered God, are treasures. In particular, I treasure them because they seem to have caught me at my best, either at a place where I was capable of seeing in a healthy way, or, more commonly, because the encounter created in me a health that had been lacking only moments before.

When I’m honest and reflect back on these experiences, I can see that they have not always been in an Orthodox context. The first “liturgy” that I ever saw (and encountered the presence of God) was a standard Anglican (old prayerbook) in a 19th century gothic Church building, complete with magnificent stained-glass, fine pipe organ, and choir. In truth, it was one of my earliest encounters with beauty. My rural Baptist background had been utterly devoid of art and beauty of any sort – I jokingly call it my “beige period.”

Other experiences, on the whole, have come only occasionally. There was a Catholic Church in my wife’s hometown where, when visiting, I used to slip off to and pray. It was a very traditional Church that simply seemed to invite prayer.

In a very interesting case, I had a profound encounter in my first private meeting with Fr. Zacharias of Essex. There was a largeness that surrounded him (I don’t have any other word for it), and, quite strikingly, seemed entirely focused on me as person. I’ve never experienced anything else like it.

More than anywhere, I think I have had such numinous encounters in dreams. Not often. But when these have occurred, I woke up humbled, in a state of deep awe, and wishing the dream had lasted much longer. I recall that when Jacob dreamed of a ladder stretching to heaven with angels going up and down on it, he woke and said, “How awesome is this place! It is none other than the house of God!” (Gen. 28:17) It is an amazingly un-modern response. We would, of course, assume that the dream was only an event in our brains and wonder what we had eaten the night before. Jacob associated the dream with the place he was sleeping. Orthodox commentary would say that the Ladder he encountered was the Theotokos, the woman who became the “House of God,” one who stretched from earth to heaven as Christ was incarnated in her womb. Angels ascended and descended on such a place. On a regular basis, I think that I am drawn most often to that inner place of encounter through interactions with the Mother of God.

Finding the door to the heart is not an easy thing. The stories of such encounters (as in the life of Met. Kallistos and so many others) are surprises at the very least for what they tell us about our own heart. I have pondered the Theotokos’ role in the approach to my heart many times. I have thoughts and suspicions about why she is so important to me on that level. But I leave such explanations to God.

What I know is that we should pay attention to these moments in our lives. They are not given to us in order to create a fetish. Indeed, most often, what happened once will not happen again, or never in the same way twice. The reason, of course, is that it is a revelation of the heart and not a discovery of technique.

This week, as I continue to remember Met. Kallistos, I will think of him as an 18-year-old teen who ducked into a dark church one afternoon in 1952. He found the door to his heart there. What became truly blessed in his life was his ability to whisper something of that encounter to others. His books, his lectures, and so much else suggested that there was such a place of the heart and that there were doors of entrance that could be found. He particularly helped so many thousands to understand that Orthodoxy was uniquely tied to that place. Orthodoxy, in its deepest and most authentic moments, invites us into that secret place of the Most High.

O dark and fearful wonder!

(Photos: A rainy walk in London; with His Eminence at the Jordan River in 2008)

30 comments:

  1. Thank you dear Father Stephen!
    I am reminded of the different ways people entered Narnia …

  2. Father Stephen,

    Much truth spoke to me in your post, such that I feel that best kind of communication (that which shines through the dark glass of solipsism to let one see the face of another human).

    “I treasure [those encounters] because they seem to have caught me at my best, either at a place where I was capable of seeing in a healthy way, or, more commonly, because the encounter created in me a health that had been lacking only moments before.”

    That seems to me to articulate about as well as I have ever read what I would think is ineffable.

    Although I never met the man, I have faith that Met. Ware would find little fault with the words his repose occasioned from you.

  3. Thank you Father, The loss of Metropolitan Kallistos has struck me profoundly this week. I appreciate this meditation on his life.

  4. May his memory be Eternal!

    The Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Way were helpful to me at an important point in my journey into the Orthodox faith.

    Having grown up in the Stone-Campbell (“nondenominational”) Church of Christ/Christian Church movement (sometimes “Restoration movement”), by the late 1980s I had already moved to the Episcopal Church/Anglicanism. In 1995, while in the midst of some personal and faith troubles (the latter due to what was happening at the time in the Episcopal Church USA), I happened to find myself in the Baptismal Chapel of Hilary of Poitiers, in Poitiers, France (constructed in mid-4th century). I encourage people to look it up online and marvel at the pictures. Visit if you get the chance (it is a museum now). There were no flashing lights for me, but I knew deep in my heart this was “home” – a place of the faith of the undivided Church and that there was such a faith somewhere still living. It took me more than a decade to find that living Church but that particular moment was a critical moment that spurred me to “be seeking” or keep seeking. St. Hilary, as an Orthodox western saint, was and is very important to me.

    Thanks for sharing your reflection, Father. Thank you for your blog! I am sure there are many who, like me, read your blog and listen to your talks, are edified, but don’t comment. May God continue to bless your work!

  5. When I was first drawn to Orthodoxy I read bits and pieces on it from various sources. Then I came across “The Orthodox Way” and “The Orthodox Church” by Met Kallistos Ware. After having read so many Protestant works (since I taught in that context), I was struck by the fact that he was not arguing with anyone. And nothing died the death of a 1,000 qualifications. He simply stated and described clearly what Orthodoxy is and what the Orthodox believe and why. As I wrote in one of my blogs, that was a pivotal moment. I was on my way to becoming Orthodox.

  6. Met. Kallistos came to my parish many years ago giving both small group and large group presentations plus being available. I was struck by how happy he was–in all situations. He told a comprehensive, compelling and joy-filled story without pretense and answered questions in the same manner–even odd ones.
    Memory Eternal and may he be surrounded and interpenetrated with God’s joy.

  7. Michael,
    Having traveled and spoken a bit over the years, I am deeply impressed with how well he did this – with grace and equanimity. Truth told, the constant travel for bishops staggers me. It’s not a life I could live.

  8. That the eternal God the holy trinity should send forth the second person to incarnate and to live as a prisoner of love in every tabernacle of every church in the world is enough to make me weep constantly tears of joy and that we could spend even one second contemplating his face in the bread of the presents is beyond compare

  9. Fr. Stephen, thank you for this reflection. Memory Eternal! Do you know where we can read the story you refer to from so many years ago when Met Kallistos first entered a church? Perhaps in his books or somewhere on the internet? Thank you, Maria

  10. Dear Father Stephen,
    Thank you for this reflection. You’ve articulated what has struck me most in the Orthodox Way of prayer–being in the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. This isn’t a prayer of petition but of prayer of love. Of course, we might ask for His help. But the most profound experience usually doesn’t come when we ask for it, rather sometimes, even accidentally (Providence at work), the Lord’s presence is revealed.

    I sincerely appreciate the distinction you’ve drawn between the modernist and Orthodox interpretations. It isn’t a psychological experience. It’s an experience of place.

  11. Dear Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for this. Several months ago I felt an overwhelming sense of presence; it seemed to me the presence of love, that filled the whole place. It was almost a physical thing. The occasion was the funeral service for my husband in a Methodist church I learned later that a dear friend of mine who was there at the service experienced the same thing, which was an added blessing for me, and reinforced the reality of what I experienced. I would not be surprised if others felt it as well. God is good; to Him be the glory.

  12. My “moment” occurred at a small Orthodox church in Franklin, Tennessee, in May of 1997. I was in town visiting a friend who was at that time converting to Orthodoxy. It struck me that since I would be staying over the weekend, I’d have to go to church with him that Sunday, if for no other reason than to be polite. I didn’t want to go; I was in the throes of a Christian transition of my own, wanting to leave Pentecostalism but not knowing where to go. This friend had suggested Orthodoxy to me some months prior, but I’d rejected the idea.

    That Sunday, I entered the church with trepidation and prayer: “God, please don’t let me be confused, messed up or led astray.”

    For the entire service, I found myself in tears. They came unbidden, unexpected. I didn’t know what was happening and I barely understood the service. But the feeling or emotion that came with the tears was good — relief, perhaps; or the feeling of having come home at last.

    That was the beginning of my journey to Orthodoxy. It would be an other 13 years before I officially entered the Church through Chrismation. But that experience, which some might describe as “Pentecostal,” set me on my way.

  13. I remember bringing my son and a friend to St. Anne’s. No church background what-so-ever. He said the place looked like heaven.

  14. Memory Eternal!

    Sat on my bicycle, in the middle of winter, on a cold night, under the canopy of stars.

    these moments always have that quality which Jesus speaks ‘do not hold onto me’
    they are not so much grasping as becoming aware of being grasped, or enfolded

  15. Memory Eternal to Metropolitan Kallistos!

    I loved listening to his lectures. Fascinated by the depth of his knowledge. And struck by the way he talked – so poised, so elegant.
    Despite his large stature, I could always perceive God´s finesse in him.

    May the Good Lord grant his soul well-deserved rest in a luminous and joyful place!

  16. Fr. Freeman,

    I think I associate much with Peter telling the Lord, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Moments of clarity of who I am in relation to Christ, or realization of the love the God and its immediate humbling effect. But also the response from Christ, “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching men.” I think these moments are “conversion moments” but not in the sense of “one-and-done”.

  17. Father,
    I believe your unpublished book will be helpful for so many. Do you have any idea yet when it may be coming out? What is the title again?

    May God grant that we might see this book come out soon!

  18. Dee,
    Had a great meeting with the “launch team” at Ancient Faith this past week. The target date for publication is, more or less, February next year. Things are a little slow right now due to shortages (paper) and stuff in the supply chain. We settled on the title: Face to Face: Knowing God beyond Shame

    Needless to say, there’ll be big announcements surrounding its publication in this space!

    They submitted the manuscript to an outside reviewer (an Orthodox clinical psychologist) since there was a fair amount of clinical stuff in the book. They sent me her review which was really affirming. I think it will do most of what I wanted it to do. Only God knows what He will actually do with it!

  19. Fr. Freeman,

    Thank you for your post here. And also for your recent podcast on Walking in a Lost World (count me among “those darn millennials” and their love of podcasts).

    I found myself drawn to the beauty of the world you described there, and have on rare occasion experienced myself here in the South. To use an example: the beautiful Buffalo River in Arkansas—one of the few occasions when a river that had been scheduled for damming was saved and preserved. Many other rivers were not. And even in saving the Buffalo, people who lived in the area were displaced for the Park service. We could say more—almost none or our forests are old growth. The great Longleaf savannas are a small fraction of what they were when Columbus landed near San Juan. Paved over or converted into stuff of economic value.

    And as great as these loses are, it seems an even greater loss that we (Modern Americans, I suppose) have systemically rooted out the local, the difficult, and the inefficient in favor of the bland, inexpensive, and “safe.” (I say this as someone who is not particularly brave). I could not help but silently nod along when you described the symbol of our time as “plastic garbage.”

    These things have been troubling me greatly these days, especially as we stare down our uncertain (at best) future. All the more because I feel my own complicity in them, my own fundamental inability to live as radically, perhaps, as I should. And perhaps afraid that in being “radical,” I would only do so out of spite of the modern world rather than out of a good and patient heart. It feels a terrible predicament. I am struck by your rightness in quoting Solzhenistsyn frequently.

    Thanks for giving voice to the entire sweep of the mess we are in, spiritual, economic, ecologic, etc.

    In the meantime, I’ll be reading my scriptures (forgive a poor, evangelical interloper), using my prayer book, and trying my hand at vegetable gardening.

  20. Ben, I suspect you have more courage than you think. In my life, action is curtailed by approaching life as one great mass — I become paralyzed.
    I become less paralyzed when I repent. Appropriate and doable actions will present themselves often..
    Remember Matthew 4:17–“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

    Plus the words of the Forerunner recorded in Mt 3:1 that are the same but point to the Person, Jesus Christ.

  21. Ben,
    If we look at the greater scope of what the modern industrial world has done to landscape and such (particularly in America), it’s easy to get depressed. It’s a good reason to focus on the local and the nearby. I am grateful, for example, to have the Great Smokey Mountains National Park close at hand, and there are lots of other park-type places in the area. My home has a greenbelt across the street (good for walking in the winter – in the summer there are far too many ticks for my tastes).

    I have the benefit of my retirement. Though I stay “busy” it is not the same thing as back-to-back appointments, counseling, hospital visits, etc. Life is simply more leisurely. I installed a bird feeder in my backyard recently (something I’d not done in the 30 some-odd years I’ve been in this house). But I like watching them (and the other critters it attracts).

    I assume that some of the larger aspects of modernity are going to crash in the not-too-distant future, for the same reason that the Soviet Union fell – we are managed by greedy, incompetent people.

  22. I live on 2.5 acres in an old farmhose – somewhat updated. My wife has been here decades. Trees all around on the property that I have to cut back. Outside the trees are Kansas farms. That rotate crops throughout the year. Allowing some land to be fallow on a rotating basis.

    The container garden we tried to grow has produced a great variety of beautiful butterflies and moths, grasshoppers and rather beautiful parsley worms despite the fact they ate the parsley. Little useable food for us. It has been so dry this year few mosquitos.
    Unfortunately, it is a 50 mile round trip to our parish. Even further to where all the doctors hang out.

    Without regard to historical particularities, I still come face to face with my own sins everyday. I still have to rely on God’s mercy

  23. Father,
    Amen to your book coming out! It would also be fantastic if it was put into audible form.

    Also, I sincerely believe the truth of your comment to Ben.

  24. Father,
    Referring to your article’s description of those moments when one encounters the Presence of God, in awe and humility, I pray for such encounters in prayer. These moments are the supranatural bread that we ask for in the Lord’s Prayer, to feed our hearts and souls.

    St Sophrony mentions that it is the “age-old” experience of the Church, that for God there is no sickness of the spirit that is incurable. Even more, that our outward appearance may alter, even becoming more pleasant and luminous, due to the change of state to health in our souls.

    Now I shall quote him for the benefit of your readers:

    “If any of my readers is suffering from some psychological wound occasioned by failure in life, he can attain to a regal freedom of spirit and radically change his whole life if he turns to God every day with a personal prayer such as this, for example:

    Prayer at Day Break
    O Lord Eternal and Creator of all things,
    who of thine inscrutable goodness didst call me to this life;
    who didst bestow on me the grace of baptism
    and the seal of the Holy Spirit;
    who hast imbued me with the desire to seek thee,
    the one true God: hear my prayer.

    I have no life, no light, no joy or wisdom;
    no strength except in thee, O God.
    Because of my unrighteousness, I dare not raise my eyes to thee.
    But thou didst say to thy disciples,
    “Whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer believing, ye shall receive”
    and “Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do.”
    Wherefore I dare to invoke thee,
    purify me from all taint of flesh and spirit.
    Teach me to pray aright.

    Bless this day which thou dost give unto me,
    thine unworthy servant. By the power of thy blessing
    enable me at all times to speak and act to thy glory
    with a pure spirit, with humility, patience, love,
    gentleness, peace, courage and wisdom:
    aware always of thy presence.

    Of thine immense goodness, O Lord God, show me the path of thy will,
    and grant me to walk in thy sight without sin.
    O Lord, unto whom all hearts be open,
    Thou knowest what things I have need of.
    Thou art acquainted with my blindness and my ignorance,
    Thou knowest mine infirmity and my soul’s corruption;
    But neither are my pain and anguish hid from thee.
    Wherefore I beseech thee, hear my prayer
    and by thy Holy Spirit teach me the way wherein I should walk;
    And when my perverted will would lead me down other paths
    spare me not, O Lord, but force me back to thee.

    By the power of thy love, grant me to hold fast to that which is good.
    Preserve me from every word or deed that corrupts the soul;
    from every impulse unpleasing in thy sight and hurtful to my brother-man.
    Teach me what I should say and how I should speak.
    If it be thy will that I make no answer, inspire me to keep silent in a spirit of peace
    that causeth neither sorrow nor hurt to my fellow.
    Establish me in the path of thy commandments
    and to my last breath let me not stray from the light of thine ordinances,
    that thy commandments may become the sole law of my being
    on this earth and in all eternity.

    Yea, Lord, I pray thee, have pity on me.
    Spare me in mine affliction and my misery
    and hide not the way of salvation from me.

    In my foolishness, O God, I plead with thee for many and great things.
    Yet am I ever mindful of my wickedness, my baseness, my vileness.
    Have mercy on me.
    Cast me not away from thy presence because of my presumption.
    Do thou rather increase in me this presumption,
    and grant unto me the worst of men,
    to love thee as thou hast commanded,
    with all my heart, and with all my soul,
    and with all my mind, and with all my strength:
    with my whole being.

    Yea, O Lord, by thy Holy Spirit,
    teach me good judgment and knowledge.
    Grant me to know thy truth before I go down into the grave.
    Maintain my life in this world until I may offer unto thee worthy repentance.
    Take me not away in the midst of my days,
    nor while my mind is still blind.
    When thou shalt be pleased to bring my life to an end,
    forewarn me that I may prepare my soul to come before thee.
    Be with me, O Lord, at that dread hour
    and grant me the joy of salvation.
    Cleanse thou me from secret faults,
    from all iniquity that is hid in me;
    and give me a right answer before thy judgment seat,

    Yea, Lord of thy great mercy
    and immeasurable love for mankind.

    Hear my prayer”

    Amen

    From “His Life is Mine” by St Sophrony, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2020; pp 61-64

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