In the last podcast, we reflected on centering our awareness on our breath. We asked the question, “What do we breathe?” And we answered the question, “We breathe the name ‘Jesus.’”
Let’s extend those thoughts to the human heart. We can learn to listen to our heart as the very presence of God.
St. Theophan said, “The essence of the Christian life consists in”—And I must admit, for me, that’s—the first half of the sentence is almost like a quiz, because as soon as someone says that, I try to put my little answer in even before I hear that person’s answer. I’ll tell you what St. Theophan says. St. Theophan says, “The essence of the Christian life consists in establishing oneself with the mind in the heart before God.” That’s a tall order.
What does it take to hear our heart? To put our awareness into our heart? To establish the mind in the heart? Here’s a little anecdote that might help us understand the transfer of awareness.
Once I was walking with my wife in our neighborhood in the evening in the wintertime when it was snowing rather heavily. Really lovely evening time together. And my wife just said, “Al, listen to the snow.”
I remember I was stunned. I said to myself, “I can see the snow, especially against the beautiful night sky. But listen to the snow? I don’t know about that.”
So we stopped, and there was a change in my awareness, and then I began to actually hear the snowflakes falling on the bushes, very clearly. It’s a matter of what I was attending to. And then as we started to walk, I could still listen to the snow falling, at my wife’s suggestion. And it was really she who really gave me most of the suggestions that helped prompt me into a new way of thinking. She really did great wonders for me while she was alive. That’s one example.
Another is a statement attributed to Sartre, who of course expressed trouble in believing in God, but he is supposed to have said that the sound of God’s voice is like the flutter of a bird’s wing. I must say, in my own life, there are times when I’m walking down the street where I live, I have difficulty hearing the sound of a Mack truck driving by, because I’m so preoccupied.
So listening to one’s own heart, then, is a matter of shifting one’s consciousness into this delicate but hearable heart beating.
The human heart found in scriptures, particularly in the Psalms, is very interesting. It says, the heart meditates; the heart desires; it pants like the deer. It’s vexed, has secrets, and is deep. The heart can be smitten, withered like grass, or melted like wax. The heart cries out to God, can be broken and contrite, and it can be made clean.
In the Bible, the heart is the center of the human person, the source of everything we are. Our task in prayer is to unite the intellect—our thinking, our awareness—with the heart. To find the place of the heart and draw the mind down. Which means to be still.
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware asks that we spend some moments of quiet, still time seated in as much silence and solitude as we can find each day by discipline. And if we do that, he says, it transforms the day. It transforms ourselves, our personality, and even, we would say, transfigures it.
I know people who spend twenty minutes in the morning and twenty minutes in the evening, seated, saying the Jesus prayer or the single word “Jesus” or some other short form of prayer. Regardless of the quantity, we can begin small, but we do need to establish some discipline, some time, even if it’s five minutes a day, that we can spend intimately, quietly with the Lord. And the theology is that when we are quiet and praying, that is to say, speaking the Jesus prayer in our hearts, interiorly, in that act of interiorly speaking, we are listening to God’s voice. And how that works, I have no idea. That’s into the realm of mystery. But I certainly believe it.
And I do believe that each of us can find time every day, quietly, as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware asks, with our bridegroom. That’s intimacy. That’s the relationship.
I had a very interesting experience recently. I went to the Holy Dormition Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan. It was my first visit. I was blown away by the experience. It was so different, so unique, so—just so sacred. The women there, the nuns, were simply moving examples of what real human beings can be at their very best. Caring, giving, solicitous, very hospitable.
Every part of the entire monastic property was beautifully appointed. The little room that I stayed in, perfectly kept. The way the rope was tied to ring the bell, the meals, the singing in the church, all of it was just part of the ambiance, more than a hundred acres, and for me, all of it was like sweet smelling incense. The whole—every experience was just—was transcendent, was sweet.
While I was there, I had an opportunity to have a short conversation with Fr. Roman Braga. Fr. Roman is a ninety-year-old priest, Romanian, who spent more than ten years in the Communist prison camps in Romania. So he and I were talking, and I just knew that I was in the presence of a very, very special elder.
And he said to me, “Al, when I was in prison, there was no place to go. I couldn’t go anywhere. So I went into my inner universe.”
When he said “inner universe,” and he paused for a moment, those two words expanded in time in my mind. I heard something that I hadn’t heard before. It was as if someone said to me, “Al, let me tell you what it felt like when I put my foot on the moon.” I’ve never put my foot on the moon, and I can’t imagine what that might feel like. And I don’t pretend to imagine what Fr. Roman was talking about in his “inner universe.” He wrote a book called [Exploring] The Inner Universe, which I’m reading.
Even now when I talk about the time there with the nuns and Fr. Roman and the women I was with on this little retreat, the people—I can almost smell the incense now.
Right now I’d like us to listen for a couple moments to where stillness—listening to one’s heart, to the name of Jesus—can take us by listening to these nuns at Holy Dormition Monastery singing at Communion time. So let’s just listen.
Receive the Body of Christ,
Taste the Fountain of Immortality.
Receive the Body of Christ,
And taste Fountain of Life.
I think we would agree that the music, the singing, took us to a different awareness space, a different place, a heavenly place.
I’ll end this podcast with a quote from St. Theophan. “It is important to keep your consciousness in the heart, and as you do so to control your breathing a little so as to keep time with… the prayer.” In the heart.