I mentioned in a previous blog post that the fathers and mothers of the Church often use words differently, and that you can’t always pin down the exact definition of words like soul, mind, heart and spirit. But this inconsistency is not unusual among Christian spiritual writers. In English there are several ways we use the term ‘heart,’ and it is often unclear what exactly people mean when the say things like, “follow your heart” or “I love you with all my heart.”
Most commonly in such expressions it seems to me that ‘heart’ is referring to the source of one’s emotions, particularly love—love in the sense of desire. You could even paraphrase “follow your heart” as “do what your really want to do.” To love someone with all your heart seems to mean something like “I want you, I want to have you, to be with you more than I want to have or be with anyone else.” Heart in this sense refers to what the Greek speaking fathers would probably refer to as eros. The English word ‘erotic,’ comes from eros, but eros does not mean ‘sexually arousing.’ Rather, eros means to desire, or to be drawn toward something. The fathers of the Church speak of divine eros, that is the desire for or longing for God. So, to speak of heart as the source of desire is not completely off target. However, how the God-given desires are perverted into passions is a topic for another time.
There are many other ways we use the word ‘heart’. We speak of heart is as referring to the centre or essence of something – “the heart of the matter.” Heart can also refer to intention, as in, “He’s a good man at heart” or “Her heart is in the right place.” Or, heart can refer to courage or enthusiasm as in “don’t lose heart” or “she worked with all of her heart on the project.” Heart refers to memory, as in “learn by heart,” and it can refer to deep interest or concern as in “that cause is close to my heart.” Heart also refers to the place where compassion or sincerity or love are felt, as in the expressions, “to have a heart” or “a hard/cold heart” or “to be warm hearted.” I could go on and on. It’s clear that in English, we don’t mean just one thing when we speak of heart.
This diversity in meaning when we speak of heart in English, is perhaps a good introduction to the words of Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos in the section of Orthodox Psychotherapy that deals with the heart—yes, this is the same book I mentioned last time as an example of how hard it is to nail down definitions; but my hope is that having looked briefly at the many ways we speak of heart in English, we may be patient with ourselves as we try to grasp a sense, not a definition, of what the holy fathers and mothers of the Church mean when they speak of our heart.
The salvation of the soul is not the stripping off of something but the putting on of Christ. It is not a negative state, but positive, chiefly communion and union with Christ. This communion takes place primarily in the heart. Therefore, to attain salvation is mainly to find the heart. When God grants us to find our heart, we are walking the path of salvation…. Many Fathers regard it as essential to find the place of the heart….
For Metropolitan Hierotheos, and he is summarizing the teaching of many spiritual teachers of the Church, salvation begins by finding our heart. Our heart is the place Christ enters; it is where we meet Christ. However, most of us, most of the time, cannot find our heart. We spend most of our lives in our thoughts and feelings—some of which may emerge from our hearts—but we seldom pay much attention to the source of our thoughts and feelings. Rather, we are taken up with ideas and thoughts and whatever we feel strongly about and identify ourselves with those thoughts and feelings. Instead of identifying ourselves with what St. Paul calls the “hidden man of the heart,” we identify ourselves with the thoughts and feelings we experience, the thoughts and feelings of which the inner man of the heart is aware that we are thinking and feeling. My spiritual father likes to refer to this identity based not on the inner man of the heart but on our thoughts and feelings as one’s persona: it is an image of who I think I am, or who I would like to think I am or who I would like others to think me to be. But this persona is not me. I’m the one I catch a glimpse of at odd moments, when things aren’t working out as I had expected. I’m the little person underneath the persona watching things fall apart and wondering what I should do next.
And in my experience, it is this falling apart of things that actually helps us find the inner man of the heart. And when we find our heart, we find Christ, who is God, the God who comes to us. But God does not come to who we think we are or who we think we should be or ought to be. God does not come to personas. God meets us in our heart, where we are, where we really are, in the hidden person of the heart, hidden, perhaps, mostly from ourselves—but not hidden from God. When we find ourselves in our hearts, we find that God has been there with us all along. But the heart is a deep place. “An immeasurable abyss” St. Macarios says. And perhaps here would be a good place to remind ourselves of that famous word from St. Macarios about the heart.
“The heart is but a small vessel; and yet dragons and lions are there, and there likewise are poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There also is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.” (Homilies 43:7)
Even finding our heart is not the end of the journey. Finding our heart is how we walk our journey toward God. Or to put it differently, in finding “the place of the heart” one can be led by the Holy Spirit to repentance and salvation. That is, finding our heart is not something we do one day as though I am finding a wart on the back of my arm. We spend a lifetime finding our heart, discovering the dragons and the lions there, confounded by gaping chasms and toiling over rough roads. For us beginners, the heart is not a place we want to see. We find there true things about ourselves, things we don’t want to admit are true. We don’t want to admit that such dragons and lions abide so deeply within us. As we come to find our heart, we realize it is much darker and more ugly than we ever imagined. The paths within of our heart are pitted and rutted and washed out. The ways of my heart are not smooth and innocent, as my persona had imagined it. Finding the heart is a painful awakening, but it is an awakening, an introduction to who I really am. No wonder Adam and Eve hid among the fig leaves. Some of the hymns of the Church tell us that the fig leaves represent our thoughts that keep our mind busy and our attention away from the shame of our nakedness. We don’t want to admit that we are naked.
However,as St. Macarios—along with the scripture and all of the saints—tell us, in the heart we find Christ. The heart is the doorway to the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace. Repentance in our heart is the removal of the fig leaves, it is the acceptance of the ugly mess I am: an ugly mess that God loves. I am the wandering son who has squandered all of the wealth, the grace, which my Father has given me. I am the unfaithful wife who is always looking somewhere else for the better deal, for the lover whom I fantasize will give me what my brokenness lusts for. I am Adam, covering my sin, refusing to accept my shame, and constantly blaming others. But if, for a moment, I can confess, If I can agree with God: “Yes God, I am a mess, a terrible mess!” Then, at that moment, I am clothed with Christ. Then I put on Christ. No longer seeking to justify myself, I weep at Jesus feet and am somehow comforted. I offer myself as a slave and I am accepted as a son, or as a well beloved wife. Somehow, in my heart, God sees through all of the mess to something worth loving, something worth saving, something that I cannot myself see. I have to believe Him. I have to accept His love.
And so when people say things like “follow your heart,” one really has to ask what they mean. For Christians, the heart we find and follow is the hidden man of the heart, our repenting soul following Christ on the pathways He leads us on—in our heart.