The Mystery of the Human Heart


St. Macarius is famously quoted:

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. (H.43.7)

This, of course, only opens the mystery of the heart – it does nothing to explain it. There is this capacity within us – whether witnessed by the depths of repentance or the darkness of cruelty that is simply described as heart. Somehow, the language of modern psychology, even the clinical complexities of the DSR, fail to do justice to this most essential of all aspects of the human.

As a priest, I major in the heart.

I know that whatever it is that ails a parishioner, the answer lies within the heart. There is no absence of grace – God is not willing that any should perish. We, however, are not so generous – even with our own selves. We cannot expect the heart to act in its own self-interest (at least not in its own long-term self-interest). And, strangely, God’s approach to us is not to appeal to our self-interest. The Kingdom of God calls to the heart to empty itself and look to the interest of the other. The heart will only find itself if it loses itself. Wooing the heart to this place of self-effacement is, indeed, the great mystery of the faith in the course of our daily lives.

In the Mystery (as the Eastern Church most commonly terms the sacraments) of Marriage, we bring a couple into the presence of God, whose own love and whatever else has brought them together, and crown them with the crowns of martyrs. We pray for them and invite them to take up a life of martyrdom that is synonymous with marriage. And this is, in fact, no different than the life we initiate at Baptism. That both Mysteries include a “dance” – circling three times around a table in the nave (or around the font) is simply because both are journeys through life. Both are journeys led by the cross and destined to lead to the Cross – the ultimate place of self-abandonment.

But in every step of the dance, in every day that is lived, the mystery of the heart seems to govern at least part of every step. Each step will be met by grace (else who could walk?) but the shape of the step will be marked to some extent by the heart that meets grace. Darkness will bring its own stumbling, staggering either towards more light or deeper darkness. A broken and contrite heart can bring the poignancy of a dance that only God could choreograph.

I find that when I pray for others it is not the mystery of grace that strains my prayer – but the mystery of other hearts. What will prayer bring? What will the heart of another do with the grace it is given? What mystery surrounds the pattern of the dance that this life now displays before us? I find little solace in the complexity of my own heart, nor in the opaque riddles of others. Solace comes finally only in the constant goodness of God’s grace – a grace that never draws back nor turns away from the hardness we present. This grace and its goodness crushes the heads of dragons, including those that lurk in the darkest places of the heart. It also kindles a fire where we thought no flame could burn. May paradise consume us!

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



20 responses to “The Mystery of the Human Heart”

  1. Kyra Avatar

    [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.]

    It is such a wonder that Christ gives us that inner light, like a small child who can now rest peacefully after the inspection of the closet, with the small night light burning through in the dark.

    I think of my own little ones who had me check beneath the bead for the monsters….and now think to my own fears in much the same way….what manner of foolishness lies in my heart that Christ has yet to shine his light on?

  2. mattyonke Avatar


    This question is completely off topic, and I’d be happy to discuss it over e-mail or some such thing if you’d prefer, but is it just me or is there a somewhat surprising lack of devotion to St. Joseph in Orthodoxy? He seems such a prominent figure in the history of our salvation and there is obviously very prominent devotion to him in the Roman Rite, but finding an icon of him in a Byzantine Church is like finding a needle in a haystack. Any thoughts?

    By the by, I’m really enjoying digging around your archives here. Your heart is so very clearly pastoral, your parish is very blessed indeed.

    In Pax Christi,


  3. […] cu avionul mai ieftine decât cele cu trenul./ Mihail Neamţu şi etatismul statului român./Despre taina inimii omului cu părintele Stephen Freeman./ Triumful televiziunii şi raportarea pseudo-religioasă la […]

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    I am not certain of the history of the Western Church’s devotion to the Holy Family (and St. Joseph), but I think it is relatively late (perhaps even post-schism).

    My observation of saints in the Church generally tells me that different saints become popular because of their prayers. We have an icon of St. Joseph the Beloved (as we call him in Orthodoxy) in my parish. But you are correct in your observations.

    Some of it, I suspect, has to do with his role viz. the Theotokos. Our devotion to her is foremost a declaration of theology and is extremely early in the life of the Church. He is just overshadowed.

    On the other hand, I think of the devotion to the Holy Family, as found in the medieval West at Walsingham, England, where a replica of their home in Nazareth was built (inside the Church). I visited there last year and prayed. Walsingham was, sadly, the scene of some of Henry VIII’s worst butcheries. May God have mercy on him.

  5. mattyonke Avatar

    Interesting. I’m glad you do have an icon of him. In the west he has become known as a very powerful intercessor indeed.

    In Pax Christi,


  6. Meg Avatar

    At least part of the devotion to St. Joseph the Betrothed came about after the Communist Revolution of 1917 — the Catholic Church decided that since St. Joseph worked with his hands, he was a good patron saint for Catholic “workers” (like, who *doesn’t* work?!?!). So they really “pushed” him. And yes, I do remember this from my many years in Catholic school. People who grew up post-Vatican-II have *no* idea of what the RCC was like when it was still anti-Communist.

    This, however, is a distraction from what I really wanted to say, which is: Thanks for this post, Father. I needed it.

  7. Scott Walker Avatar
    Scott Walker

    Matt-we have a Coptic icon of the flight to Egypt in our icon corner at home and recently the same icon found its way to our parish. I’m rather fond of that one because it shows St. Joseph the Betrothed in his role of protector of the Theotokos and Christ. While there is no service to him, (corrections welcome) I know of Orthodox who have asked his intercession. He must be quite a man to have been chosen to provide for the Mother of God and for God Himself. Holy St. Joseph, pray to God for us.

  8. ochlophobist Avatar

    I think it fitting that there are some saints, so close to Christ, whose cult is more subdued, more refrained as it were. It may be that St. Joseph is called to a specific vocation of prayer that requires a certain hiddenness of sorts. There is something in the man that points to this vocation, “Whereupon Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing publicly to expose her, was minded to put her away privately.” – St. Matthew 1:19. It seems that St. Joseph’s is a quiet mercy.

    Nonetheless, I noticed that the same question concerning St. Joseph was asked on the OCA website. There is a pointed devotion to St. Jospeh in Orthodoxy. Forgive me for quoting the whole answer of Fr. John Matusiak, but here it is:

    “Indeed, the Orthodox Church honors Saint Joseph, especially during the Nativity Season. In fact, the feast of Saint Joseph always falls on the Sunday after Christmas, and there are a variety of hymns called for at all services on that weekend which refer to him as well as the other ancestors of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.

    In the Orthodox Church, Saint Joseph bears the title ‘the Betrothed,’ as he was the one who was betrothed to the Virgin Mary. So inimately connected to the Nativity is Joseph that he is found in every icon of the Nativity, referred to numerous times throughout the Nativity cycle of services, etc.

    He is also referred to in many of the hymns for the Feast of the Circumcision (1 January), and especially on the Great Feast of the Meeting, or Presentation, of Our Lord in the Temple (2 February). There is even an Akathist Hymn to Saint Joseph. And, by coincidence, my own parish in Wheaton, IL, is dedicated to Saint Joseph the Betrothed!

    What must be kept in mind is that the Roman Catholic devotions to Saint Joseph are of much, much more recent origins — in fact, the feast of ‘Saint Joseph the Worker,’ widely celebrated in Roman Catholic circles on 1 May, was only added to the Roman calendar in the early 20th century! The emphasis on Saint Joseph being a carpenter is of little importance for Orthodox; rather, he is revered for being the betrothed of the Virgin Mary and the human guardian of the Christ child. While Orthodox Christians do not deny that he had been a carpenter, his worldly occupation is completely secondary to his role as the betrothed.”

    – from

  9. fatherstephen Avatar


    Thank you. Excellent and to the point – and, I might add, a fine job by my dear friend, Fr. John Matusiak, one of the more amazing figures in American parish life. If you’re ever in Wheaton, it is a must visit.

  10. ole rocker Avatar
    ole rocker

    “May paradise consume us!”

    I am always amazed at how three, four or five word sentences can have such a huge impact on me. Lord, have mercy!

  11. mattyonke Avatar

    Wow, I live in Wheaton right now. I’ll have to go visit there. Do you have any weeknight vespers or anything? It’s hard to pry away from our Parish on Sundays.

    In Pax Christi,


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  13. Wei Hsien Avatar

    Father, bless.

    The last paragraph you wrote reminded me of the words of Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov:

    Every time you pray, if your prayer is sincere, there will be new feeling and new meaning in it, which will give you fresh courage, and you will understand that prayer is an education. Remember too, every day, and whenever you can, repeat to yourself, “Lord, have mercy on all who appear before You today.” For every hour and every moment thousands of men leave life on this earth, and their souls appear before God. And how many of them depart in solitude, unknown, sad, dejected, that no one mourns for them or even knows whether they have lived or not. And behold, from the other end of the earth perhaps, your prayer for their rest will rise up to God though you knew them not nor they you. How touching it must be to a soul standing in dread before the Lord to feel at that instant that, for him too, there is one to pray, that there is a fellow creature left on earth to love him too. And God will look on you both more graciously, for if you have had so much pity on him, how much more will He have pity Who is infinitely more loving and merciful than you. And He will forgive him for your sake.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    God would have spared Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of 10 righteous souls – and indeed – had he done so – it would have been “through the intercessions of our Father Abraham.”

    I often think that the world is sustained by the prayers of a righteous few (God knows). Of course, it is sustained by His mercy, but in His mercy, he hears the prayers of a righteous few and saves us.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar


    I’m not sure about St. Joseph, Wheaton’s, schedule, but I bet they do. If you visit, greet Fr. John Matusiak on my behalf. He’s a very good man.

  16. neil Avatar

    Regarding St. Jopseph and some of Fr. Matusiak’s comments via Ochlophobist:

    I’m captured by Joseph’s care of the Christ Child, Jesus the baby. Imagine being Joseph and having this newborn to care for along with your betrothed, Mary. Imagine being Joseph with all the human struggles of the mind, being tempted by the Devil, as the Nativity Icon shows, to reconsider your belief that all is right with the situation. Then you have a dream that Herod has a crazy scheme to eliminate the possibility of Jesus by killing all 2 & under boys. I can only imagine that Joseph’s life was fairly quiet before all this happened, but now he has a decision to make despite the thoughts running through his mind. He takes Jesus away to Egypt for safety, because he believes in God’s plan.

    Perhaps some of my thoughts are me projecting what I might feel like being Joseph, but I’m in awe at his steady character of faith. St. Joseph, pray for us!

  17. Lisa Avatar

    I quite like the quiet devotion to St. Joseph in the Orthodox Church. The Roman Catholics I know often pay attention to him only to bury him upside down in the yard.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar


    I understand your statement, but it’s not fair to compare the approved liturgical practice of the Orthodox to a pious superstition among Catholics. Orthodox have our own share of pious superstitions, which I would not want a Catholic to compare to anything.

    I prefer our devotion to the saints in general, pretty much without exception. But pious superstition is just that wherever it occurs. Protestants have their versions, too.

  19. stephen Avatar

    Father Bless,

    Thank you for such great answers and a pastoral heart. We all need to guard the “triumphalism” that hides in our heart. And concerning Fr. Matusiak, it is through emails with him that I ended up coming into the Orthodox faith!. I have never met him in person yet his love and patience shined through his emails and allowed me to ask stupid and sometimes heretical questions. May God grant him many years!

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    St. Joseph in the icon of the Nativity is a reminder to me that despite all the joy and the angelic presence in the advent of our Lord, we too will be faced with trials and temptations. We too can overcome them through the grace of God.

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