Heart


This eight-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

I began by quoting Saint Seraphim of Sarov, and I come back to him now, for he taught that:

However important prayer, fasting, vigil and all the other Christian practices may be, they do not constitute the aim of our Christian life. Although it is true that they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end, the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, are the only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God. Mark my words, only good deeds done for Christ’s sake brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

The question is how we are to discern the presence of the Holy Spirit and the Fathers are all-too-aware both of our capacity for self-deception and of the power of the demons to imitate a virtuous life. However, there was one virtue that they were absolutely clear that the demons could not imitate and that was humility. In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers we read:

When Abba Macarius was returning from the marsh to his cell one day carrying some palm-leaves, he met the devil on the road with a scythe. The latter struck at him as much as he pleased, but in vain, and he said to him, “What is your power, Macarius, that makes me powerless against you? All that you do, I do, too; you fast, so do I; you keep vigil, and I do not sleep at all; in one thing only do you beat me.” Abba Macarius asked what that was. He said, “Your humility. Because of that I can do nothing against you.”

We can probably all think of examples of false humility, but true humility has something self-authenticating about it. It is one of the most difficult things that there is to learn and I suspect that for most of us it takes at least a lifetime. Yet it lies at the very heart of the life of repentance, of a genuine turning to God, and in the lives of the saints we see how liberating and joyful it can be.

I also started by quoting Saint Seraphim “Acquire the Holy Spirit and a thousand around you will be saved.” Christian life is not just for ourselves, but is something that has implications for those around us and indeed for the whole cosmos. In the Orthodox Church, the Liturgy is offered “on behalf of all and for all,” for Saint Paul tells us that God desires all people to be saved. (1 Tim 2:4) For this reason all manner of people are mentioned in the litanies. Likewise, the point of conversion, of the breaking open of our hearts, is that they will expand and be filled with compassion for all. This, and nothing less than this, is what the Gospel calls us to. In the words of Saint Isaac the Syrian:

Once an elder was asked, ‘What is repentance?’ And he replied, ‘Repentance is a contrite and humble heart.’ ‘And what is humility?’ ‘It is a twofold voluntary death to all things.’ ‘And what is a merciful heart?’ ‘It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of the merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy.

This eight-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

The journey towards the heart, and to the transformation of our hearts by the work of the Holy Spirit who renews the Image of God in us, is not something that we engage upon as isolated individuals. There is a saying that we fall alone, but that we are saved together. For Orthodox Christians, our understanding of Christian life is fundamentally ecclesial. We do not distinguish between what some call “the institutional Church” and some sort of disembodied religious experience. Rather, it is in and through the visible, historically mediated Body of Christ – with all her historical limitations and particularities – that we encounter Christ and work out our salvation. And this Church is most fully encountered in the Eucharistic celebration of the Divine Liturgy, presided over by our bishop – or someone delegated by him – who is the bond of unity connecting us to the rest of the Church, both throughout the world and throughout the centuries.

It is in the Divine Liturgy that we most fully encounter both the Mystery of the Church and the nature of our salvation in Christ. For here we find the recapitulation of the entire history of salvation, enabling us to enter into it and become truly present to the saving works of Christ. But the Liturgy is about more than just history, however, for it also leads us into the future, enabling us to glimpse a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven. By offering our lives together with the Holy Gifts that are offered on the altar, and by receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion, we become true participants in His Mysteries. In the words of Saint Maximus the Confessor:

Just as wine mingles in all the members of the one who drinks it and is transformed in him and he in wine, so does the one who drinks the Blood of Christ quench his thirst with the divine Spirit who commingles with his soul and the soul with Him. For through the Eucharist, those who commune with dignity reach the ability to partake of the Holy Spirit, and in this manner souls can live continually.

For Orthodox Christians, there is a correlation between the public Liturgy of the Church and the inner Liturgy of the heart. We cannot separate the “outer” and the “inward’ and the prayer, transformation and intercession that occurs on the inner altar of the heart both mirrors and is a mirror of, the Liturgy of the Church which is offered for the whole world. To quote Father Boris Bobrinskoy once more:

personal sanctification restores the human being to the liturgical function and vocation to encompass the entire world, the totality of humankind, in a pacified and loving heart. Sanctification restores the liturgical and royal mediation of the human person in a world shot through with waves of hatred and death, obscured by the powers of darkness, a world that groans and waits for the liberation of the children of God (Rom 8:21). Inner transformation of the human heart necessarily restores the sacramental function of the Church, which is to unite all human life to the mystery of the dead and risen Christ and to become transparent to the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit. *

The Compassion of the Father109.

This eight-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

We have seen that prayer and the life of faith involves our bodies and all of our senses. Yet it also involves words and the Orthodox Church is insistent on the use of the right words. Sometimes people who are interested in Orthodoxy because they see it as “mystical” can get rather disillusioned when they realise how many (often rather long) verbal prayers we have. Yet this is what teaches us to pray. Father Georges Florosky writes:

It has often been suggested, by many authorities and expert masters of spiritual life, that ‘prayer books’, the fixed formularies of worship, are only intended for the beginners. This is undoubtedly true if the statement is properly understood. Fixed formulae are, of course, no more than a means towards something much greater. Yet they are an appropriate means. It is spiritually dangerous to neglect the ‘books’, to dispense with them hastily, and to indulge arbitrarily in extempore improvisations of one’s own composition. It is more than merely a question of discipline. The settled formulae not only help to fix the attention, but also feed the heart and mind of the worshippers, offering topics for meditation and reminding them of the mighty deeds of God. There is no room for psychologism or subjectivism in Christian worship.” *

There is a fundamental relationship between words and silence in our prayer. It has sometimes struck me as interesting that it is precisely those religious traditions that are most insistent on the use of the right words (and the right ritual and gesture), and who resist the idea that we should make things up as we go along, that are most aware of the limitation of words. For it is the task of words to lead us to silence, to the place where words break down and we are face to face with the One who is beyond all words. The Orthodox life of prayer uses words extensively, both in its public liturgy and in private prayer. Their use is not arbitrary, there is a lot of repetition, and we certainly don’t make them up as we go along. And yet their purpose is to lead us beyond themselves, for, as Saint Isaac the Syrian writes, “Speech is the organ of this present age. Silence is the mystery of the world to come.”

This same relationship between words and silence is seen in the use of the Jesus prayer. This short prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” – is seen as one of the treasures of Orthodox life although its use also varies. It is often thought of as a mantra but, while it may have external similarities with mantras in other religious traditions, being a short phrase that is repeated, we would see it not as a mantra but as a prayer that sums up the fundamental Christian approach to God. It is addressed to Christ, acknowledges Him as the Son of God, and is a plea for mercy on the part of those who are aware of their own sinfulness. Yet these are no mere words, but, constantly repeated, become the expression of our whole relationship to God.

For, at the centre of any life of prayer is not what we do, but rather what happens to us and what we become. It is how we encounter the reality of the world, including the reality of suffering in the world. For the early Fathers, prayer was about entering into the depths of our hearts, allowing our hearts to be broken open so that the presence of God may purify and heal us and so that we may in turn become a source of healing for others. Father Boris Bobrinskoy writes:

Living the life of Christ, letting oneself be penetrated by His Spirit, by His breath of mercy, constitutes Christianity. According to the Bible, that means acquiring the bowels of compassion and tenderness of the Father. According to the second chapter of Philippians, it presupposes having the same feelings as Jesus Christ, not in the sense of mimicry or external imitation, but a true “transfer” on a plane more important and fundamental than the psychological level. A transfer of presence, of life center, of grace and love must operate in us so that we might live in Christ, and Christ might live in us. Certainly, this transfer operates in a global, constant, and progressive manner, through the sacramental life, love, prayer, and faith. For us Christians, the Church is the place of apprenticeship of this transfer: its entire pedagogy, its sacramental and liturgical transmission, its spiritual methodology, and its ascetic experience of the inner life, what the Fathers call the unseen warfare against the passions. **

To be continued…

* “The Worshipping Church” in The Festal Menaion, 32.

** The Compassion of the Father, 87.

This seven(?)-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

This lifelong process of repentance involves an active struggle or ascesis, in which we cooperate with God’s grace as we try to live according to His commandments. This is not simply a matter of outer observances, but rather of using the means that the Church gives to us to grow in purity of heart. For the commandments ultimately lead to a life according to the Beatitudes. (Matt 5:1-12) Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos writes:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit” is the Lord’s commandment that we should look for our spiritual poverty, that is, that we should experience our wretchedness. “Blessed are those who mourn” is the Lord’s commandment to weep over the passions which we have in us, over our desolation. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” is the Lord’s commandment to hunger and thirst after communion with God. “Blessed are the pure in heart” is Christ’s commandment to purify our hearts. When He says “blessed” it is as if He said: “Become poor, mournful, thirsting for righteousness”, and so forth.*

Rooted in the Scriptures and in the teaching of Christ, the Church has developed ascetic practices that help us to live according to the commandments of Christ and to bring our wills into conformity with His. These include vigils, study, prayer, self-control and hesychia. However, how we apply these will vary from person to person. We are all different and have different needs. Moreover, we are saved not as isolated individuals, but as members of the Church. Orthodox tradition therefore emphasises the importance of accountability and of seeking the guidance of a trusted spiritual father who can serve as a physician of souls, for on our own we are capable of great self-deception. It also emphasises – and the liturgical texts for the first week of Great Lent make this abundantly clear – that heroic acts of asceticism are of no use if they do not make us more loving towards our neighbours.

Asceticism is a difficult topic to address in some contemporary Christian circles and misconceptions abound. It may help to say what asceticism is not: it is not suffering for sufferings sake, as if that will somehow help us, or please God. It is not an attempt to win favours with God. It is not rooted in some dualistic hatred of the body. On the contrary, asceticism, which comes from the word for struggle, is rooted in the recognition of the importance of our bodies for our salvation. By curbing our appetites it enables us to break through the mental images we may have of ourselves and to face up to who we really are and to the things that matter to us. And it enables us to learn true freedom, for we may think that we are free but we do not realise the extent to which we are really controlled by our desires.

This recognition of the importance of the body is also found in the Orthodox approach to prayer. Prayer is not simply a mental activity, but one that involves all our senses. The traditional Christian posture for prayer is that of standing – the posture of the Resurrection –, although kneeling and prostrating have their appropriate times and places as well. This use of our bodies is expressed in other ways – gesture, icons, incense, music, colour, light and so on. These are not simply arbitrary or a form of decoration, but are conveyers of meaning although often at a very subtle level.

What we do in our bodies affects the whole of our lives. Many western converts to Orthodoxy find that we need to get over a certain threshold before we are able to do things like kissing icons and making prostrations. Yet in doing so a whole world opens up for us as we come to realise, not simply in theory but in reality, that Christianity is not simply about what we believe with our cerebral minds, but what we do. And through the “doing” we are gradually led to the place of the heart, the place where true transformation can occur.

To be continued…

* Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos), Orthodox Psychotherapy, 48.

This six- seven-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

We have seen something of the “big picture” of what we believe Christian life is all about. Created in the Image of God, our whole life is a journey towards the restoration of that Image in us, in which, through cooperating with the work of the Holy Spirit we may become Spirit bearers who radiate the Light of Christ. The question remains, however, how we are to do this, for we need to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit, actively struggling to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil 2:12)

This process of transformation is what we understand as a life of repentance. Sin and repentance can be difficult topics to address in our contemporary society, for too often people associate them with a crippling guilt which would seem to deny our God-given dignity, making us feel like worthless sinners who cannot do anything good. Yes, sin is a reality in our world, and we need to acknowledge that. But, more fundamentally, sin is something that Christ comes to save us from and repentance is not about feeling guilty but about changing our lives so that they might become transparent to God.

In an Orthodox understanding, sin is not seen so much in legal terms as having broken laws and thus incurring God’s wrath, but rather as having missed the mark, of being aware that our lives are not what they were meant to be. There is a fundamental brokenness that runs through our lives which we are not able to put right on our own. Repentance means learning our need for God and our dependence on Him. It is recognising that we are sick and in need of healing. It is to pray, as Saint Macarius teaches us, “Lord, as you will and as you know, have mercy!” or simply, “Lord help!” And we are able to do this because, no matter what our sins, God does not abandon us.

A soldier asked Abba Mius if God accepted repentance. After the old man had taught him many things he said, ‘Tell me, my dear, if your cloak is torn, do you throw it away?’ He replied, ‘No, I mend it and use it again.’ The old man said to him, ‘If you are so careful about your cloak, will not God be equally careful about His creature?’

Repentance involves coming to acknowledge the truth about ourselves – a gradual process as we grow in self knowledge and are able to begin to recognise the ways in which we have become adept at deceiving ourselves. This is no purely intellectual exercise, but is rather about getting in touch with what Scripture and the Fathers call the heart, that centre of our being that is the core of our consciousness and desires. As Saint Macarius the Great wrote:

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.

Repentance involves mourning for our sins, but the Fathers speak of it, if it is genuine, as a joyful mourning, for it is a mourning that liberates and frees us, enabling us to move forward to greater knowledge of God and of ourselves. At the beginning of Lent we commemorate the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, and in the Lenten texts we identify ourselves with them, recognising that our human life is in many ways an experience of exile, for we have lost our true home and our true identity. And yet this very recognition is the beginning of a desire to return home, and our whole journey to Easter is a journey to that home, to the victory of Christ, the New Adam, who in his own flesh conquers death.

The unspeakable and prodigious fire hidden in the essence of things, as in the bush, is the fire of divine love and the dazzling brilliance of God’s beauty inside everything.

St Maximus the Confessor

‘The dazzling brilliance of God’s beauty inside everything.’ This is the world that the icon depicts, a world seen not only with the eyes of the body but also with the eye of the heart. This is the meaning of Paradise, a world known not as mere object but as gift, a revelation of our Maker’s ‘fire of divine love’ for us.

To know the world and our Creator in this way is our natural state, a homecoming. Every one of us therefore has a profound longing to return to this home, which is not a place but a way of living and loving. We are blessed with nostalgia for the Land of the Living which is Christ, in whom all things are united, things in heaven and things on earth.

I believe it is precisely because it depicts our spiritual homeland that the icon has been steadily capturing the imagination of the West over the past few decades. It resonates with something somehow known but forgotten. On first encounter we are perhaps perplexed, or even scandalized by the way icons are painted. The perspective is all strange and the proportions are unfamiliar.

Or so we think, for steadily we begin to recognize something in these holy images. Deep calls to deep, like a fragrance evoking a forgotten person or place. And those who have followed this fragrance will know that what first appears to be a picture ends up being a gate that opens to a garden as real as this world.

Aidan Hart, Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting, xix.

I don’t often simply repost other people’s posts, and it’s not something that I want to get into the habit of doing. And I presume that many readers of my blog already read Glory to God for All Things. But this is extremely important and Father Stephen has a way of expressing these things so well. For those who don’t know his blog, it is well worth reading...

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.

Source.