In the Depths of the Heart


For many years I have had an image that I carry around with me – it is the notion that the world could be completely other than it appears if we had eyes to see it in some other way. I suspect it’s originally a science-fiction idea that got into my head but the idea also seems just theological enough that I’ve never been able to shake it.

The notion gained strength when I once read in St. Theophan (the Recluse) that our guardian angels see us not as we see one another, but immediately see the state of our souls. Thus (and this was the part that got my attention) he said our guardian angels see us a “greasy” when we’re full of sin. Righteousness, of course, shines as light. Imagine, one glance and you see the state of your soul (or your neighbors). I’m generally glad that I cannot see what my guardian angel sees.

The same idea has carried my thoughts to other ways of seeing the world – and some of these are scientific realities. It has become a commonplace to see the world through any number of lenses and wavelengths of light. Thus we can see the world through a lens that shows where the most energy is being produced (or wasted). There are a whole variety of such maps.

There is another map, this time in my imagination, that is not unlike St. Theophan’s angelic vision of the world. It is thinking of the world as it is – if we could see the depths of our hearts – if the map of our world showed us what was happening in the human heart.

To a degree we can see such things – at least some of the effects of them. We can see a degradation of humanity in certain places. It is hard to gauge these things. Are they getting worse? Are they getting worse at a pace faster than we’ve ever known? We do not know (or at least I do not know).

But this same meditation – the world as seen in the depths of the heart – also makes it very difficult to know where the Church is at any given moment (not its location – but it’s spiritual state of health). I have now studied Church statistics for nearly 30 years. They tell us many things but they also mask many things. Church attendance is an interesting and even important figure – but it is such a generalized thing that it is hard to make judgments based on such knowledge. Things are clearly undergoing cultural shifts during the last decade or so. Some Churches themselves are undergoing such metamorphoses that it is hard to know what is going on.

And thus we come to the place each of us lives – and the lives with whom we share the place we live. We cannot know the depths of the human heart at a glance (we’re not angels), but with careful listening and careful observation we can know something. I know as a priest that some in my parish are making great struggles within the realm of their heart and are engaging the gospel as they never have before in their lives. And I am sure that my parish is not unique.

This terrain of the heart is something that lies before each of us. We will not be able to make great generalizations such as those of statisticians. But we will not be held responsible for knowing the shape of the world’s spiritual terrain. We will, however, be profoundly responsible for the warfare that takes place within the depths of our own heart. Did I struggle to pray? Did I struggle to forgive my enemy and beg for the grace to love what I cannot love without God? Did I allow my heart to be made tender by the mercies of God and share those mercies with everyone around me? (I’ll be more specific). Did I allow my heart to be made tender by the mercies of God and share those mercies with anyone around me? (That’s more to the point).

One of the Fathers said that when the end of time comes and the “book” is opened for judgment, the “book” will be the human heart. What is written there will be the true history of the world. And then we shall know even as we are known.

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.


14 responses to “In the Depths of the Heart”

  1. JFred Avatar

    If I was judged by the standards I have for others I’d be in big trouble! It is good to see that your parish members are dealing with their sin. I find it troubling that church is often the place where I am least real.

    How does confession figure into “making the heart more tender?”

    Confession is one of the things sorely lacking in the evangelical church and one of the big reasons I am exploring Orthodoxy.

  2. Matthew N. Petersen Avatar

    Are you at all familiar with George MacDonald? The description of how our Guardian Angel sees us reminded me of a scene from “The Pronces and Curdie” where Curdie is given the ability to feel someone’s true person when he touches their hand. So when he shakes his mother’s hand (she is a peasant with gnarled hands) he feels the smooth hand of a princess, but when he feels a scoundrals hand, he feels a lizard, or a snake, or some other beast.

  3. fatherstephen Avatar


    It’s been too many years since I read MacDonald. Good image!


    I think confession to the one of the primary elements in making the heart more tender. A confession that is honestly made, in which we are search for God and honest about our own darkness, without excuse, is a great medicine. The Fathers call confession, a “Second Baptism.” Particularly because they associate it with tears.

    Coupled with regular communion – these are the most tangible forms of grace given to us in the Church and are truly “the medicine of Immortality” (for used as a name for the Eucharist by St. Ignatius of Antioch). I believe the work of grace is slow, and so I would say I am more aware of the deep work in the heart the longer I am a priest (it simply takes time). But, I can say, “this I have seen.”

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    I might add – I recall my years as an Anglican priest, when there was much they remained “pent up” inside me. How I felt about the Mother of God, for one and some other things. There were tiny places to give it expression. But the fullness of the faith in Orthodoxy – for me – is indescribable. I hear everything my heart believes and yet more – things so wonderful my heart has yet to even imagine them. Regardless of my sin, and the sins of others around me, failings within us all, this is paradise!

  5. MuleChewingBriars Avatar

    Father –

    I believe you at one time in your life read a science-fiction short story called “Desertion” by the clairvoyant Clifford Simak. It dealt with a small society of miners on Jupiter who lived huddled in a tiny mining shelter hermetically sealed from the howling terrors of the Jovian environment.

    The company which employed them had perfected a way to alter the miners genetically so as to withstand the rigors of the Jovian methane storms and freezing blizzards of ammonia. They were sent out prospecting, but none of the altered miners ever returned to tell the tale of what they had experienced. Finally, they decided to alter a man and his dog. They underwent the treatment and stepped out into… paradise. With their altered senses, the raging Jovian atmosphere was a bouquet of tropical scents, the murky gloom alive with light.

    “If I go back”, said the miner, “they will return me to being a man.:

    “And I, a dog”, replied his companion.

    The stories that matter have a way of getting themselves told.

  6. artisticmisfit Avatar

    Where in St. Theophan’s writings are you referring to?

  7. fatherstephen Avatar


    It’s been too long since I learned the reference. I’ll have to be like St. Paul and say, “It says in a certain place…” 🙂

  8. fatherstephen Avatar


    Yes, indeed. I would never have remembered the name of the story, but it is among the more powerful images I can recall in science fiction reading. Sometimes sf has a way of allowing themselves to get at images that can be extremely helpful. CS Lewis admitted an indebtedness to a SF writer for the image of the “hardness” of the things in heaven in his little book, “the great divorce.” I take off my hat to you (or I guess it would be “skoufia”).

  9. Lucy Avatar

    The last paragraph gave me chills. Thank you for an insightful post.

  10. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    In yesterday’s liturgy, I stumbled upon the phrase, “Taste the fountain of immortality,” as we received. It’s a phrase I have heard, of course, thousands of times by now.

    As usual, a few minutes before I was rather unable to “lay aside all earthly cares” except for a few moments here and there bookended by much earthly musing. Later I realized that all my worries are related to my mortality. The Eucharist is my solution.

    Yesterday was a bit of a twofer, as I also got a better sense of the high mystery and fullness of the liturgy compared to my Protestant upbringing. God comes to us “invisibly upborne by the heavenly host” and we enter into the Throne Room. I mean, a good sermon is an excellent thing, but it doesn’t hold a candle to communing with the Trinity and myriad angels, celebrating a marriage between God and humanity, and eating a truly mysterious feast.

    In relation to today’s blog, certainly the liturgy must be central to moving our consciousness toward the true reality, not the one we usually see around us. I once heard an insight that the seraphim in Isaiah said “the whole earth is filled with His glory” because they were in God’s presence in the throne room. Otherwise, the earth may not look so good.

    Regarding measuring success and accomplishment in terms of our own hearts, bravo. Also a little too close to home and bit scary. May God have mercy. However, I will mention that this former theonomist has been mediating the past few days on, “The kingdom of God is not about eating and drinking but about righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

  11. Gina Avatar

    Sorry for the hijack but Dean, you wouldn’t be married to an Andie, would you? I did a missions project back in the day with a woman who married a Dean Arnold. 🙂

  12. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    No, I almost married an Andie.

    And wished I would have.

    (I think this thread is now sufficiently hijacked 😉

  13. Matt Avatar

    In an Orthodox prayer book I have, the prayer to your guardian angel includes asking forgiveness from him; since I first came across that statement of St. Theophan, I’ve often wondered if, perhaps, we’re asking our angels’ forgiveness for having to look at our ugliness all the time.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    At least. Matt, you brought a smile to my face. Your statement just sounded like something my big brother would have said to me, “that I should ask forgiveness for him having to look at my ugliness…” He and I live about 6 hours apart (we’re 5 years apart) but we talk frequently. He was almost literally my guardian angel as a child. He did put up with a lot. My true angel has had to endure far more – including my ugliness. Thanks for the note. 🙂

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