Frederica: Not too long ago, I was interviewed on an evangelical radio station about the Jesus Prayer. There were two hosts on this show, and one of them had contacted me and had said “Is there anything you’d like to talk about,” and I said “Well, let’s talk about the Jesus Prayer.” And I sent him an email copy of the chapter in my book The Illumined Heart about the Jesus Prayer.
So when the interview started, I could tell he had been very moved by reading about it and a couple of times he referred to the prayer and then he would say it with great reverence. In the extra-long form, he would say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
And I could just tell from the way he was saying it that he was loving that prayer; that he was really getting something out of it.
Now, the other person, the other host, she was very polite and very open, and she said, “I think I don’t understand why it’s so emphatic about mercy and humility, because shouldn’t we also be bold in Christ? Shouldn’t we be confident? Shouldn’t we know that we are more than conquerors in Christ Jesus?”
And the question kind of surprised me. I had never thought of it that way before. And I said, “Well, that’s the point: all of our confidence is in Him, not in ourselves. We have to cultivate humility; we have to cultivate asking for mercy exactly so that we can get out of the way, so that Christ can be a conqueror through us. That’s exactly the point.”
I hadn’t thought about that before, that there is a strain, maybe, in American Christianity, of confusing our own strength with the Lord’s strength, or resisting humility and the need to as for mercy in the name of building up our certainty about God’s power. It just was a funny kind of confusion there.
Well, something kind of similar happened just a few days later when I was speaking on a college campus. As I was talking to a class in spiritual disciplines, and growth in prayer and so forth, I made the point that in Orthodoxy we really don’t encourage the use of imagination in prayer. Now, when I was a Western Christian, I had tried out things like Ignatian meditation, where you ponder deeply on a passage in the Gospels and then you try to bring it to life in your imagination; imagine that you are doing this, that you are in this crowd listening to Jesus speak. And even to sort of play it out from there and think what would Jesus say to you if you asked Him a question.
There are plenty of popular meditations like that in Western Christianity and even in Evangelicalism as well, focused on sort of letting your imagination go as you interact with Jesus. And I said, “That’s something we Orthodox would very much resist because we think the imagination can be a very dangerous thing, and also that it’s a substitute; that Christ really is present. You don’t have to make it up. It’s not a good idea to make it up. That’s going to get in the way of actually perceiving the presence and the voice of God.”
And to my surprise, one of the students looked pretty irritated, pretty angry, and he said, “In Orthodoxy that must mean that there’s no room for prophecy or for charismatic gifts or for God to speak to somebody through a dream or through some other method. And what about Joel 2:28, where your old men will dream dreams and your young men will see visions and all of these gifts are supposed to be poured out?”
I was surprised in exactly the same way. I said, that’s exactly the point: that you don’t imagine it; it really is God. If you are really having a prophetic word, if you are really having a prophetic dream, it’s not something you cooked up in your imagination. That’s the whole point.
And in fact, you need to get out of the way so you can allow God to speak and not be thinking that you can make it up with your own imagination.
Now as I’ve pondered this, I feel like my understanding is very dim. But I’m wondering if the problem is just a basic difference in the understanding of how human beings are constructed. What’s sometimes called the anthology of a faith worldview; what is the anthropology? How are people put together? What have they got?
I think that in the West we assume that we really have two parts: we have head and we have heart. Head means the cogitating mind. The mind that constructs theories, the active mind that’s building syllogisms and putting together concepts and testing them and seeing if they work and so forth. It’s a very active idea of the mind.
And then there’s the heart which is the emotions. And there’s a perception, very accurate, that the dry cogitating mind is not able to really take in the voice of God or the presence of God. It’s too busy talking. Its attention is distracted by the things it’s making up and thinking about. And so the assumption is that in the west the mind is useless for receiving anything from God, the only other thing you’ve got is your heart. So somehow God has to come to you through your heart.
And then a great fuzziness sets in about whether we are really hearing God or are we having an emotional reaction to God. Or maybe not even to God, maybe an emotional reaction to thoughts we are having about God. So that it might all be entirely self-generated; it might not actually correspond to anything in objective reality.
I think as far as it goes Westerners are accurate in perceiving that cogitating mind is not able to perceive the presence of God. But they don’t have a clear idea of how contact can happen once the brain is turned off. I think they seize on this concept of imagination because they are familiar with the fact that vivid storytelling or story-listening liberates the awareness. It appears to involve something other than cogitation. It means letting go a little bit and things can arise or pop into the mind. So they think of the imagination as something more receptive and passive than ‘the head, the brain, the mind’ which is active, which is always constructing things.
But as best as I can grasp it, in the New Testament vocabulary, it runs crosswise to this. That is, it pictures the cogitating mind as pretty much the same thing as the imagination. That both of these are the dianoia. And I cannot pronounce that d with a th sound like some people can do, I just can’t quite do that. Dthee-an-oy-ah, I think, something like that, in both cases, whether it’s imagination or cogitation, it’s the active part of the mind that’s doing it. The part that receives, that can perceive the presence of God, is the nous. The mind that perceives, receives, understands, comprehends, it is the nous that is able to receive revelation. God reveals Himself and we perceive it or we take it in and understand, recognize the truth of that revelation. Not through the dianoia or the imagination or the cogitating brain, but rather through the nous.
So from this point of view, when the Scriptures talk about ‘vain imagination,’ they don’t mean creative imagination, like we’re talking about Disney or something, but rather the brain that’s making stuff up. And if what the brain is making up is daydreams, narcissistic fairy tales that you tell yourself where you’re the star of the show, that kind of imagination is just as impenetrable to the voice of God as mere cogitation would be.
So it’s a different idea of how human beings are constructed, I think. This concept of the nous, I would think would be important to Western Christians and to Evangelicals, because they do have this important role for God’s revelation, that there are things that we cannot learn by logic alone, there are things we can only learn because God reveals them. So therefore you need something more than a heart full of emotions and a head full of concepts. You need a receptive mind, a mind that can comprehend, and that would be the nous. It’s like a piece that is missing in our Western anthropology.
And here’s another thing, I keep coming back to this: our English language has the word ‘feelings,’ but it uses it in two different senses, and I think that’s another reason we get confused here. You have emotional feelings, but you can also have a feeling in terms of perceiving something. Like, you could feel cold. You could feel hungry. That wouldn’t just be something your emotions were making up; you would actually feel that way; that would be a legitimate thing.
When we use this when we’re talking about God, though, you could say, ‘I felt the presence of God,’ and the assumption would probably be not that you felt the presence of God, but that you had a feeling about God; you felt warmly toward God. You felt love toward God, rather than that there really was a God there provoking these feelings.
I see the same thing in the Star Wars movies. I notice this, I guess, in the last few movies, the more recent ones, where Anakin is wrestling with this terrible anger he has and other characters are always telling him, ‘You must resist your feelings,’ meaning you must resist your passions and your emotions that are trying to run away with you.
Then on the other hand, Luke is training to be in tune with the force, and so he has to listen to his feelings, but it doesn’t mean his emotions. It doesn’t mean his passions. Now it means clarifying his mind so he can perceive the presence of the force, which is assumed to be a real, genuine thing in the canon of the movie.
So we’re using these words, feelings, two different ways. I think it is possible to feel the presence of God. I think that’s legitimate. But unfortunately, that’s just one more problem with our language because we don’t have a separate word for a feeling as a perception. In a way to say, ‘I feel the presence of God’ should be the same thing as saying, ‘I can feel the velvet and it’s soft.’ You are making a statement about an objective reality that you are perceiving. But that’s not really the way our language tends to tilt us when we use the word feelings.
Another thing that needs to be clarified is in the Bible, thoughts come out of the heart; thoughts don’t come out of the head. They’re generated in the heart. Emotions may come from the heart, but emotions are more likely to be spoken of as coming from further down, from the bowels, from the guts, the belly, the reins—in some of our prayers we refer to the reins. I had to look that up. Reins means kidneys. And there are several times I see in the Old Testament in Hebrew that it refers to ‘the inward parts,’ and that actually means the kidneys, the inward parts. Deep, down inside, below the heart, they’re talking about.
Thoughts come out of the heart, though. Here in Mark 7:21, Jesus says, “For from within out of the heart of man come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery and so forth.” Likewise in Psalm 33:11: “The council of the Lord stands forever, the thoughts of his heart to all generation.”
So this phrase about ‘the thoughts of the heart’ is a Biblical idea, both Old and New Testament. Genesis 6:5, when the Lord decides to bring a flood, “The Lord saw the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continuously.” So you see there you get all three of them lined up: the imagination of the thoughts of his heart.
Genesis 8:21: “The Lord smelled the pleasing odor and said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.’”
In the Magnificat, in the hymn sung by the Virgin Mary, the canticle of the Theotokos, “God has shown strength with His arm. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.”
Luke 1:51, I used to really wonder about that, you know, imagination. I’m picturing Disney World. The imagination of their hearts rather than the imagination of what they make up in their clever little brains. It just kind of cuts diagonally across what we presume a human being is make up of: of head and heart and that’s it, period. That’s all.
So in general a reference to the heart includes the ideas of the thoughts; it isn’t restricted to the emotions, and emotions are more likely to arise in the belly than in the heart, although there’s not a strict division there. I feel like I’m just beginning to unravel all of these different concepts of heart, mind, imagination, the nous, the different kinds of feelings there are there.
And what got me thinking about it was this surprise I had twice in recent weeks of talking with sincere Christians and having them show that they are deeply confused, I hope that’s not insulting to say, about the confidence that we should have about our own imaginative abilities with the need to let God be God and to get out of the way.