To Think with the Heart


I had the privilege two weeks ago to be in Detroit, Michigan, together with my wife, and to speak at the Faith of Our Fathers Colloquim – an event to share Orthodoxy with with interested Anglicans and others. Those who spoke were mostly, like myself, former Episcopal priests who had been received into Orthodoxy at various points in their ministries. I was not assigned a theological talk, per se, but asked to share the story of my journey, which I glad did. Some of that story can already be found in the archives of Ancient Faith Radio (they are on my blogroll) when I gave them an interview last year. This latest talk, along with all the others at that Colloquium, can also be found at Ancient Faith Radio.

I listened again to some of the talks, including my own (it’s always just a bit painful to listen to yourself), and was struck by a phrase I’ve used many times over the years in describing my conversion to Orthodoxy, and which I had used again in that presentation. In the mid 1980’s I encountered an Orthodox woman who had formerly been an Episcopal nun. I was more than a bit curious to hear her story since the idea attracted me as well. I listened to her share her own story, and she then began to question me. I had been a reader of Orthodox theology since college in the early 70’s, and had a lot to say on the subject.

When I finished she said, “Stephen, you think a lot. Someday you’ll think with your heart, and then you’ll be Orthodox.” I was cut to the quick at the time and had very little idea of what she meant. But I never forgot the phrase.

In time (to collapse the story) I learned what she meant – and the result was an attraction I could not deny or delay. I have thought many times since then about the phrase and its meaning and particularly what it means in my life. For one, I do not think that simply “joining” the Orthodox Church automatically makes you “think with your heart.” Indeed, I have met many Orthodox Christians who did not “think with their heart,” and I am aware of numerous times in the present when I myself do not “think with my heart.” Indeed, I have come to believe that it is a very difficult spiritual discipline.

But what do I mean by the phrase?

First, I do not mean by “the heart” anything that is merely sentimental or emotion based. Rather I am referring to the very core of myself, to the place where a person has communion with God. It is the very center of our being. Though there are some who place a great emphasis on the actual organ of the heart – this I am too inexperienced to speak about.

Of what I am certain is that intellect alone, reason alone, is not the same thing as that which flows from the heart. Indeed, I believe that without a right heart, reason will be useless in our search for God. The heart is described in many ways in Scripture. Christ says that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil(Matt. 12:34-35). We are also told in Scripture that the “sacrifice of God is a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51). It is the very core of our character and the place we must learn to dwell.

In doing theology, it is possible to have opinions and even strongly held doctrines that are largely matters of assent, like the principles of mathematics, but still not flow from the heart.

My journey into the Orthodox faith was a journey towards the heart – to come ever more often to the place that is the heart and to pray there, to behold God there, and to offer praise and thanksgiving there. I mistakenly thought for years that I could read Orthodox books and “learn” and “borrow” from Orthodox teaching. But this never carries you properly to the heart, indeed it can yield a delusion that is far more serious than unbelief itself.

I found giving assent to the teachings of Orthodoxy to be easy, even completely natural. But the actual act of becoming Orthodox, of making my confession and yielding myself up to the Church and to God to be extremely difficult. And this, I believe, was the issue of the heart. This was, at last, the movement away from my head and towards my heart, the “thinking with the heart,” I had been told about so many years before.

And the same process continues, day by day. I can see the same proclivities within myself, to allow myself to become cold, to take refuge in thought rather than prayer, etc. But I at least know now that there is another way and, by God’s grace, manage to find my way there more often.

Thus I am learning, ever so slowly, to “think with my heart,” and to become, ever so slowly, Orthodox. May God have mercy on us all.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





17 responses to “To Think with the Heart”

  1. +Justina Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    I am happy to have found you blogging on the web. Earlier today I “chanced” across the Colloquium talk that you mentioned above while listening to Ancientfaithradio – and through that your blog as well. It had been over 5 years since I had heard your voice and it was a welcome sound to my ears, but more importantly to my soul. I found it interesting that you should blog today on the one phrase in your talk that probably stuck with me more than any other – to think with one’s heart. Sometimes you just know something is true, something in you recognizes that something in someone else or in something else and your whole heart and soul resound simultaneously with a “yes”. I would like to have said heart, soul AND mind — but in fact, the mind is not always in sync with the recognition of true things in the same fashion. Thank you for sharing youself with us in this fashion. I look forward to catching up with you more completely in the coming days.

  2. Douglas Ian Avatar

    Hope you’re feeling better, Fr Stephen.

    I’ll check out the Colloquium.

  3. Alice C. Linsley Avatar
    Alice C. Linsley

    Father, You met a friend of mine at the Detroit gathering. She too was an Episcopal priest. We are both learning to think with our hearts and we both enjoy your blog.

    Recently I pulled out an adult education course I had written while still in ECUSA. I thought I might use it to teach an adult class at the Orthodox church where I attend. I can’t use it! Too much thinking with the head. That’s not where I am and that’s not where I want to be.

  4. Jeff Lee Avatar
    Jeff Lee

    Father, I believe you meant to say an Orthodox woman who had been an Episcopal nun, not a former Orthodox nun.

  5. Dixie Avatar

    I mistakenly thought for years that I could read Orthodox books and “learn” and “borrow” from Orthodox teaching. But this never carries you properly to the heart, indeed it can yield a delusion that is far more serious than unbelief itself.

    I found this to be quite profound and full of wisdom. While I am grateful I didn’t spend years in such a situation (I waited long enough to wake up though!)…I surely started that way…primarily because my husband showed absolutely no interest in Orthodoxy. But I found the attraction too much to resist. I couldn’t bear to keep it at arms length and fool myself into thinking I really had something.

    A delusion more serious than unbelief… This says much to many.

  6. Mark Avatar

    My favorite Father on matters of the heart is St. Makarios:

    “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. There are rough and uneven roads; there are precipices; but there too is God, the angels, life and the Kingdom, light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and treasures of grace. All things are within it.”

    Actually, “favorite” may be the wrong word. “Most disturbing” may be a better description.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    I made a couple of corrections to the text. Alas, I miss my best editor when she is at work (my wife). Please forgive any confusion. I think it’s ok now.

  8. Jeff Lee Avatar
    Jeff Lee


    Wonderful article, as are all of yours (I link to them frequently over at my blog – with its 5 or 6 readers 🙂 ).

    As a recovering AngloCatholic, I find your story and your words inspiring.

  9. jwp3d Avatar

    “My journey into the Orthodox faith was a journey towards the heart – to come ever more often to the place that is the heart and to pray there, to behold God there, and to offer praise and thanksgiving there. I mistakenly thought for years that I could read Orthodox books and “learn” and “borrow” from Orthodox teaching. But this never carries you properly to the heart, indeed it can yield a delusion that is far more serious than unbelief itself.”

    Father, you have summurized my journey better than I could in the words above. I thank you for sharing them with us. Thank you for bloging. You have the best blog on the net IMHO. I appreciated what you had to say at the gathering in Detroit.

  10. Mimi Avatar

    Father, bless.

    I also am struck by your quote about thinking with your heart. What a beautiful story.

    I listened to the first couple of stories from the AFR link, I hope to hear yours soon.

    Thank you.

  11. Dixie Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen! Justina’s comments intriqued me enough to go to Ancient Faith Radio to actually “listen” to you. What a treat to hear your soft, wonderful Southern accent!

    I hope you had a chance to meet the former Lutheran pastor, Father John Fenton while in Detroit. Unbeknowst to him at the time, his writings (papers and sermons) played a role in pointing me to Orthodoxy. I have never met him but hope that my travels take me to Detroit some day so I can. (I can’t believe I just typed I hope to go to Detroit. Definitely after the winter thaw!)

    Interesting that in reading both of you I do a similar thing that I don’t normally do when I read others. I read the first time through very fast to get it all in immediately and then read again to savor each word. Great stuff!

  12. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Thank you for your kind words. I found myself amazed that I was actually going to Detroit, but was delighted by what I found – great hospitality and a wonderfully vital Orthodox community of all sorts. I felt privilege to be there, southern accent and all. Thank you for call it a “soft” southern accent.

  13. Eusebios Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Father Bless!
    AS always, I found your piece to be not only thought provoking, but to the point as well.It has been my experience in Orthodoxy, that one may only come to grips with its’ vastness and enormity as one is willing to take it into ones’ heart. To me, the very idea of trying to bring it all into ones’ mind is simply too much. I think you hit the nail on the head in saying that any attempt to do so can result in a state of being that is worse then unbelief.
    I did a fair amount of reading when beginning to investigate Orthodoxy, but found that only as I embraced the Church with the totality of my being, that anything at all could actually sink in.
    I look forward to listening to your talk, which I haven’t done yet, but will as soon as I am able.
    Again, thank you for wise words.
    His unworthy servant,

  14. handmaidleah Avatar

    Very good talk Father, as I listened, I am often struck, when I hear people’s journeys to Orthodoxy, at how people along the way, even in my own journey, held off in their outright encouragement. It is almost as if, in Holy Orthodoxy, you have to earn your way in. Sure, you are another seeker, but how serious are you? We possess the Truth here, but are you worthy of it? Once you then get in the door, so to speak, you find out that, now the hard work begins of actually working out your salvation and seeking God in Spirit and in Truth. Actually being a Christian is the hardest thing and the easiest thing a person can be and I know that makes no sense. I guess it varies at times with the peaks and valleys one feels.
    It was difficult to become Orthodox and it is difficult to grow in the faith because it requires that you change and grow. Never easy.
    Attempting to be less cerebral about the faith can be terrifically hard as we grow because we want to avoid prelest and delusion.
    Then prayer will become easier or some other grace will flow…
    God is good.
    Thank you,
    the handmaid,

  15. Fatherstephen Avatar


    I have read numerous accounts of those seeking to enter a monastery, not for hospitality, but to test a vocation. In one case they were turned away repeatedly and only admitted after sleeping at the door for three nights. A little persistence…

    Some of this is related to my aphorism that 90% of Orthodoxy is just showing up.

  16. Jonathan Avatar


    Great thoughts—when you get around to it, please add your thoughts about what you think is the role of the Theotokos in all this – it strikes me (correct me if I am wrong) that this is an area that the Mother of our Lord might be peculiarly fitted to contribute to the whole salvation of the individual – by animating the individual to think with the heart. I am struck by the record of Scripture, in the passage in Luke, where Mary having heard the testimony of the shepherds concerning the wonders of the birth of the Lord, “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Someone has remarked that this “keeping” and “heart-pondering” was the beginning of Holy Tradition. And I am also struck by the words blessing from the Elder Simeon on the 40th day of the Lord (the Meeting of the Lord/ churching of the Lord’s Mother) when he said to Mary: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” Luke 2:34-35. I think it means that the truth is somehow there in the heart of man – in the form of the thoughts of the heart – by virtue of accumulation of one’s whole life experiences, heritage, patterns of relationships with others, culture, and yes, tradition – but it is all there in a hidden, latent sense — needing to be revealed. When the Lord was manifest in the world, and began to proclaim good tidings to many, these “thoughts of the heart” of the many started to be revealed. And so, the truth was revealed and believed on! Commenting on the Luke 2 passage, Sergius Bulgakov has said:

    “These prophetical words of the Righteous Simeon predicted the universal fierce struggle between belief and unbelief in which it will be necessary to take part, following which the appearance and reality of the Savior served for the discovery of that which was kept in the depths of the heart of each Israelite as the deposit of belief and unbelief, and that with its external disposition to the people of God, remained concealed, unnoticed even for his own consciousness.”

  17. Cheryl Avatar

    Thank you, Father,

    I needed this post. I’ve always been a head person who WANTED to be a heart person too, but I never knew how to get there.

    Pray for me as I attend Holy Week services,


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