In the last podcast, I quoted St. Theophan: “The essence of the Christian life consists in establishing oneself with the mind in the heart before God.”
Today I’d like to spend some time looking at the heart, which is what St. Theophan says, that’s the geography, that’s where we need to go. The great saints talk about the heart, the physical heart.
St. Gregory Palamas says, “Can you not see… how essential it is that those who have determined to pay attention to themselves in [the] inner quiet should gather together the mind and enclose it in the body, and especially in that ‘body’”—body part—”[that] we call the heart?” The physical heart. And yes, we are those who hope to be attentive to our spiritual life.
St. Theophan says, “The heart is something existing on the material level, a part of our body, the centre of our organism from the physical point of view. This material aspect of the heart must not be forgotten: when Orthodox ascetic texts speak of the heart, they mean (among other things) the ‘carnal heart,’ ‘a piece of muscular flesh,’ and they are not to be understood,” that’s not to be understood, “solely in a symbolical or [metaphysical] sense.” That’s the end of St. Theophan’s quote.
So they’re talking about having our awareness of our heart beating. The heart, the physical heart leading to that inner chamber, is the entry to love. What do I really, really, really, really love? What do I really want?
Here’s a little anecdote on that from my grandson, Colin, who when he was six, said the following. We were in the van riding back from church. We had had the Divine Liturgy, lovely coffee hour afterwards. And this particular Sunday, it was raining. So in the front seat is my daughter and her husband, in the middle seat are the two smaller children, and in the back is myself and little Colin. It’s almost like we had a—with the rain on the roof of the van, we had like a private little room back there.
So he and I are in the back, just talking and giggling, and having fun, so I take out my iPhone, and I said, “Oh, Colin, do you want to hear your voice?”
So I dialed my home number and had him leave his voice on the answering machine.
“What should I say, Papa?”
“Oh, just sing ‘Happy Birthday.’”
“Oh, okay.” So he sang “Happy Birthday.” And then I allowed him then to hear his own voice, and we giggled, and then we became silent.
We’re riding silently with the rain coming down, very comfortably, and he turned to me and leaned toward me in a very serious manner, and I knew something was coming.
He said, “Papa, who do you love more: God or me?”
And at this moment, I can remember being stunned by the question, and saying in effect to myself, “Oh, I don’t want a teaching moment here in the van after a wonderful Divine Liturgy and coffee hour.” But it was a moment of truth. So by God’s grace, I was able to turn, lean toward him, and very slowly and very softly, looking in his eyes, I just said—I shrugged my shoulders, and I said, “Mmm, God.”
And he was okay with that answer. More than that, I think he was quite satisfied, quite relieved. And that’s as far as that little anecdote went.
I’ve talked with people since then about that little anecdote, and I’ve had people say to me, “Oh, Al, I would not have said God. He’s too little for that. I’d have said him, and qualified it.” And so on.
Well, okay. Thinking back on it, I said God, and I would do that again. And I would also say that Colin’s question is the question of Almighty God to Abraham. “Who do you love more? Family,” in the person of Isaac, “or me?”
As it turns out, following on that anecdote, when I was visiting a few months later, I was putting the children to bed, and my daughter and her husband were out for the evening. And in bed with Colin, I said, “Oh, Colin, do you remember that little story?”
“Oh, yeah, Papa, I remember.”
And then I said to him, “Well, now, I’m going to ask you a question. Who do you love more? God or Papa?”
And I could tell it was way beyond him, and he had this look of dismay on his face. And he said the perfect thing. He turned to me and said, “Papa, what do you want me to say?”
I said, “Mmm, God.”
And he gave the perfect answer. He said, “Well then, I’ll say God.” Having very little idea of what he was really saying.
The question is, what do I really love?
I’ll say a word about the physical heart. The research in the 1960s and ‘70s discovered that the physical heart is an organ of great intelligence, with its own nervous system, its own decision-making powers and connections to the brain. The research found that the heart actually talks to the brain. The heart has its own logic.
And in the 1990s, cardiologists introduced a new concept, the heart-brain. Each beat of the heart sends complex signals to the brain and to other organs. The heart not only has a language of its own but a mind of its own. The human heart, mine and yours, beats 100,000 times a day. Lu-blub, lu-blub. With its own language and its own ways. And the connector between God and us, the human person. That’s science.
In Orthodoxy, Bishop Metropolitan Kallistos Ware tells us that our heart is our inner space, more expansive than outer space. And he says that “We are on a journey through [our] inward spaces of the heart, a journey [which is] not measured by the [ticking of the clock], for it is a journey out of time into eternity.”
The outer limits, that way-out-there, which is way in there—the inner limits of the human person are extremely wide, and each of us knows very little about his true and deep self.
“Within the heart are unfathomable depths,” affirms St. Macarius. And he says, “The heart is but a small vessel; and yet dragons and lions are there, and there… are poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There [likewise] is God, there are the angels, [and] life [of] the Kingdom, [and the] light [of] the apostles, [and] the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are [inside our insides].”
Well, what am I to do? What are you to do? What are we to do? St. Isaac says we’re to dive into the heart, into our physical heart to enter our spiritual heart. He says, “Enter eagerly into the treasure house that is within you, and so you will see… things that are [of] heaven; for there is but one single entry to them both. The ladder that leads to the kingdom is hidden [deep] within your soul”—within your heart. “Flee from sin, dive into yourself, and in your soul,” in your heart, “you will discover the stairs by which to ascend.” That’s St. Isaac.
And so when we dive into the heart, we have an entry to our inner chapel. And there we can—here with all creation, we can praise God. Here’s a little music to help us, a very short selection, on praising God.
Arise, O God, judge the earth;
For to thee belong all the nations!
That’s the music, that’s what’s inside our heart, and that’s where it goes. And the healing process, becoming a healing presence, flows out of that deep heart.
I’ll close this podcast with a quote from Unseen Warfare. “Peace of heart is both the aim of spiritual warfare, and the most powerful means to achieve victory in it. So, when passionate turmoil steals into the heart”—and I would say for myself, passionate turmoil is there off-again, on-again, much of the time. The quote goes on, “do not jump to attack the passion”—mm-mm—“do not jump to attack the passion in an effort to overcome it, but descend… into your heart”—the physical heart, aware of our physical heart, slow our breathing a little, which then leads us to the spiritual heart—“and strive to restore quiet there.” That’s the end of the quote. When we go into our heart and stay there, we’re calm.
So the guideline is clear. Simple, simple, simple, yet very hard to do.