To Care for the Heart


There is a term one runs across frequently, particularly in Russian spiritual writing. It is the word; prelest. I have seen it translated any number of ways – but at its heart it’s meaning is quite simple. It is failing or ceasing to care about the state of one’s spiritual life. It is a sort of lassitutude, as though the spiritual life was of no great import. It could be that we fall into such a state because we have become distracted by other things – or even that we are living in such a state because of personal delusion – that is, not knowing anything about the true nature of the spiritual life.

Thus, continuing to think about forgiveness, I turn also to forgiveness and prelest. It is of the greatest sadness that our modern world has come to think of forgiveness in largely forensic, that is legal, terms. Either a person is guilty or innocent. If I have offended a person I ask for forgiveness as though I owed them something and am now asking a boon, a kindness, that I no longer be in their debt.

Along with the forensic understanding of forgiveness is an inherent set of ideas that belong to the same world. Thus guilt and innocence become important issues for forgiveness. Equally important is punishment and paying for our crimes. This, of course, brings in the entire concept of justice.

Writing as an Orthodox Christian, and anticipating the Sunday of Forgiveness, I tremble at these foreign ideas which have attached themselves to our most holy faith, though they do not have a place in the Church of God, nor in our relationship with Christ.

In general, the concept of justice as we have come to know it, is an inheritance in this part of the world from the Germano-Roman world of late antiquity. The early Germanic tribes (which includes my own English ancestry) had a highly developed since of justice and of how things were to work. The killing of a man, for instance, required that a price be paid, indeed the value of the man. In early Germanic this was known as weregeld, (were being the word for man, and geld, his price). Each person had a geld, depending on age, station in life, gender, etc. Justice was the eradication of such debts. This Germanic understanding was married to the Roman understanding and eventually became the language and world of the Middle Ages, including much of Western Church doctrine. Thus man’s salvation became interpreted in terms of guilt and innocence, punishment and substitution. Forgiveness thus became a transaction – something we do for those who have paid the proper price.

Lost in all of this is the place of forgiveness and the heart. The New Testament parables, such as the Prodigal Son, have no sense of what is owed, of punishment, or restitution. It has only to do with the state of the heart – for it is the heart of man which is in fact the very state of a man’s soul. And it is the heart of man that makes it possible for salvation to be received or causes it to be rejected. This is the consistent teaching of the Church.

Learning to think in the language of the heart – to see that what is important is the state of my heart – and not the balance of payments (if you will) – can be a difficult transition. However, it is utterly necessary if we are to progress in the love of God and man.

You cannot pay your debt. No good deeds are sufficient for such a transaction. And were you to pay your debt – or even if another were to pay it for you – what would the state of your heart be? You indeed, could be a hard-hearted debt-free Christian – but with a hard-heart you would be no closer to salvation than someone whose debt was monumental.

Thus we are told: “Rend your hearts and not your garments!” (Joel 2:13) To become like Christ we are told to forgive even our enemies:

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:44-45).

This is a thoroughly consistent teaching of Christ in the Scriptures. It goes to the very state of our heart before God and before man. The transformation of our heart that is required before we truly love our enemies, is the very transformation which unites us with Christ and manifests us as having been conformed to His image. There is no other test for this in Scripture but love of enemy (and friend). Of course, this transformation can only occur through the working of grace within us. But we put prelest behind us when we turn our attention to the heart and see that it is hard and wretched and desperately in need of healing. To ignore this need is to fall back into prelest and to create a distance between our heart and God. In the worst of cases it is to fall into true apostasy.

Some will say, “But what of justice?” What of it? Have you ever seen justice? Have you ever received justice? Of course the state will make some approximate efforts at justice simply for the sake of order – but we should not internalize these matters as though justice had been achieved. God’s justice is beyond our understanding. He pays those who began work at the end of the day as much as those who worked all day. Where is the justice in that? From the Cross He pronounces forgiveness for all. Where is the justice in that?

St. Isaac the Syrian said, “We know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.” I suspect that God’s mercy is His justice and that a heart which has been truly transformed into the image of Christ will rejoice at such a prospect.

My prayer for myself and for all, is that come Forgiveness Sunday, I will truly forgive all from my heart and that all will forgive me. And so shall we be in paradise!

As the service concludes, the choir sings the Paschal verses:

Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered.

Today a sacred Pascha is revealed to us.

A new and holy Pascha.

A mystical Pascha, a Pascha worthy of veneration.

A Pascha which is Christ, the Redeemer.

A blameless Pascha. A great Pascha.

A Pascha of the faithful.

A Pascha which has opened for us the gates of paradise.

A Pascha which santifies all the faithful.

As smoke vanishes so let them vanish.

Come from that scene, O women bearers of glad tidings,

And say to Zion: Receive from us the glad tidings of joy

Of Christ’s Resurrection:

Exult and be glad, and rejoice, O Jerusalem,

Seeing Christ the King who comes forth from the tomb,

Like a bridegroom in procession.

So the sinners will perish before the face of God,

But let the righteous be glad.

The myrrhbearing women at the break of dawn

Drew near to the tomb of the Lifegiver.

There they found an angel sitting upon the stone,

He greeted them with these words:

Why do you seek the living among the dead?

Why do you mourn the incorrupt amid corruption?

Go: Proclaim the glad tidings to His disciples.

This is the day which the Lord has made!

Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Pascha of Beauty!

The Pascha of the Lord!

A Pascha worthy of all honor has dawned for us.

Pascha! Let us embrace each other joyously.

Pascha, ransom from affliction!

For today as from a bridal chamber Christ has shone forth from the tomb.

And filled the women with joy saying: Proclaim the glad tidings to the Apostles!

This is the Day of Resurrection! Let us be illumined by the feast! Let us embrace each other!

Let us call “brothers” even those that hate us and forgive all by the resurrection,

And so let us cry:

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,

And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

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.


15 responses to “To Care for the Heart”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    The photo is from a Forgiveness Sunday service in an Orthodox Church.

  2. Hartmut Avatar

    Thank you father,
    now even I understood (I hope so, at least) in what lie the serious differences between the orthodox and the western view. I knew the difference but didn’t understand, why it is [b]so[b]important. It is all concerning our heart and what is changing in it. Not to satisfy God is the focus of attention, but to heal the illness of our heart. Right?

  3. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    Hi Father Stephen,

    What a gift the Orthodox Church is to us Western Christians! What a wealth of insight and richness you bring to any conversation!

    It is crucial, in my view, when speaking of the justice of God, to remember that the justice of God is more than karma – more than balancing the scales of offense and punishment. It is deeply restorative. God’s justice is not satisfied until his glorious purposes are fulfilled in all things.

    I am no scholar of antiquity, but I blogged a while back musing if the concept of weregeld has become particularly misleading in our understanding of sacrifice. I was taught in more reformed circles, that sacrifice is a matter of providing a substitute of the just wrath of God out on another victim. But in actually looking at the text, it certainly doesn’t seem like the ancients thought of sacrifice in a judicial fashion. It was a gift – a holy gift of life and fruit – sometimes a gift in the context of a stained relationship – sometimes in the context of the joyful celebration in a healthy one. And there are also mysteries of how the lifeblood of one creature can somehow bring healing and cleansing to another. But this idea that God forgives because he has been enabled to channel his wrath toward an animal seems quite foreign to me.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar


    Indeed you are correct. How could God need anything from us? What needs to be satisfied? It is absurd to speak of God needing any sort of satisfaction. He is offerer and offered. It is all His love and His mercy, His life’s blood shed for us that we might live. That He might create in us a clean heart and renew a right spirit within us. These modern (relatively) theories of the metaphysics of sacrifice are full of mistaken notions about God, and literal readings of Scripture when they speak in a metaphorical manner, and metaphorical readings when they speak in a literal manner.

    But God does not change. This is clear. And His steadfast love endures forever. And He loved us while we were yet sinners. I could go on and on.

  5. Hartmut Avatar

    tragically, when remaining in the western pattern of thought, but realising that God doesn’t need satisfaction, then the Holy Cross of Christ loses his salvational meaning. Christ dies as a mournful just one, like many before him. To see the redeeming power in Christs passion/dead/resurrection and to think of His blood shed for us and Him as sacrifice in this way – this is the new, or rather old good tidings that sets us free. Not only a theoretical interpretation of Christs dead, but very real and something you can expierience. Glory to God!

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    To me, I think it is important to remember that there is no separation finally between the reality of our heart and reality as it shall be in the fullfillment of all things. Thus heaven begins here in the heart before it is manifest in its fullness, even as hell begins here in the heart before it is manifest in its emptiness.

  7. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    Life is in the blood and the heart pumps the blood. There is no forgiveness apart from the Blood of Christ. The Eucharist is a “bloodless sacrifice” because Christ is not re-sacrificed by the priest. HE gives Himself to us as we humble ourselves, seeking HIS forgiveness and the forgiveness of others. I find Forgiveness Sunday to be profoundly meaningful and moving.

  8. Ioannis Freeman Avatar
    Ioannis Freeman

    Prelest or accidie, simply put, are necessary in God’s call for me to come home. My hard heart, once admitted at any point in time, brings me to tears–not because I should suffer, but because my suffering jolts me out of indifference toward God.

    I would like to add that accidie is often accompanied by dysthymia, and I have trouble distinguishing dysthymia in others or me from accidie. Dysthymia is a chronic (2-years or more) low-level malaise accompanied by lack of pleasure or willingness to initiate activities of life.

    No doubt I have made the mistake often of treating accidie as dysthymia, and the opposite as well. One must wonder if many people suffering dysthymia in combination with another mood disorder might be medicated and, in due course, removed from spiritual counsel simply because many presbyters do not or maybe cannot engage in spiritual therapy in tandem with psychiatry or other professional mental health interventions.

    The combined dysthymia and prelest (called co-morbid) often constellate around one or more of the so-called character defects or passions. My sense is that treatment teams that combine priestly therapy for accidie and psychotherapeutic interventions, possibly with medication(s) and nutritional interventions, ought to become commonplace. In the meantime, people of faith will run pillar to post and may not receive adequate and effective definition of their prelest especially when combined with dysthymia: namely, whether co-morbid presentations are organic, spiritual, or demonic in origin or a combination thereof.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar


    I feel very strongly that there are many situations helped by medication and am supportive of their proper use by Christians. I am no stranger to their need. We are not angels – we live in bodies and our bodies have to be properly cared for, which frequently may include medication.

    A most appropriate Scripture (thank God for the whole Bible this is a passage many Christians do not know):

    RSV Sirach 38:1 Honor the physician with the honor due him, according to your need of him, for the Lord created him; 2 for healing comes from the Most High, and he will receive a gift from the king. 3 The skill of the physician lifts up his head, and in the presence of great men he is admired. 4 The Lord created medicines from the earth, and a sensible man will not despise them. 5 Was not water made sweet with a tree in order that his power might be known? 6 And he gave skill to men that he might be glorified in his marvelous works. 7 By them he heals and takes away pain; 8 the pharmacist makes of them a compound. His works will never be finished; and from him health is upon the face of the earth. 9 My son, when you are sick do not be negligent, but pray to the Lord, and he will heal you. 10 Give up your faults and direct your hands aright, and cleanse your heart from all sin. 11 Offer a sweet-smelling sacrifice, and a memorial portion of fine flour, and pour oil on your offering, as much as you can afford. 12 And give the physician his place, for the Lord created him; let him not leave you, for there is need of him. 13 There is a time when success lies in the hands of physicians, 14 for they too will pray to the Lord that he should grant them success in diagnosis and in healing, for the sake of preserving life.

  10. Ioannis Freeman Avatar
    Ioannis Freeman

    Sirach’s blessing for the physician balances the need of repentance/prayer and treatments. I like the balance of approach. You carry this balance with everything that I read and hear you say on podcasts, Father Stephen.

    Actually I had in mind a recent podcast of yours, as I wrote what I said earlier about co-morbid presentations. In the podcast I reference (one of late, forgive me for not recalling the date as reference), you described your son’s choices and how his behavior or choices had disappointed you, but that God had consoled you with assurance of things that might have been necessary for your son’s salvation.

    Moments such as yours in divine consolation indicate that a presbyter, who is empowered by the Hoy Spirit through the Apostles, can release expectations long enough to get the bigger picture. (I am not saying that you were a presbyter unto yourself, but that your example reflected how a presbyter can deliver “therapeia.”)

    I suggest that therapeutic communities form within and around parishes where Orthodox ministry, with an emphasis on hesychasm, combines with the healing arts of complementary disciplines such as medicine, nursing, psychology, etc. Certainly there are many of us moving in this direction, so that the Church can reclaim its “cure” alongside the healing arts. Such reclamation of cure by the Church aims at what some people call “holism” or holistic approaches, but I prefer to call it the restored humanity made possible by the suffering and resurrection of Christ our Lord.

    God’s glory has been manifest to me many times through the balance of your reflections, and this opportunity to reflect with you on the co-morbid presentation of accidie and dysthymia is no exception. Thank you sincerely.

  11. Isaac Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    In case you don’t hear it enough, I find your blog to be extremely helpful and read it daily. I also listen to your podcast weekly. I think there is a “Glory to God” book to be found in this collection.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank you, Isaac, I am look at a possible book and have had some conversations. Right now, it’s mostly a question of “when would I find time?” My parish comes first, and then there is the ministry of this blog and podcast. I am richly blessed to have these. I am praying for God to open up time if He wants me to put things together in book form. If it is useful to the ministry, He will bless. Otherwise, Glory to God.

  13. […] Great Lent, Fr. Stephen has another excellent post regarding Forgiveness Sunday called “To Care for the Heart“, which also illustrates some of this distinction between the Western and Eastern […]

  14. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Father bless! Thank you. This is a beautiful post (so many of them on this site!).

    When you point out that the parables (such as that of the Prodigal Son) are about the heart (not payment and restitution), intuitively I agree, but then I hear the voice of the “devil’s advocate” in me that says, “Oh yeah? What about the parable of the forgiven debtor?” Western theologies have tended here to focus on the fact that debts, large or small, need to be forgiven (i.e., either paid or written-off on God’s authority) and not on the real point of the parable, which is that the unforgiving person cannot appropriate God’s forgiveness (which of course, is a matter of the heart)!

    In fact, with my evangelical background, I struggled to accept the real point of this parable (and the wording of the Lord’s Prayer) as literally true (and yet I knew in some sense it must be) because my framework for understanding the basis of my salvation/forgiveness was largely forensic. It is such a relief, as an Orthodox, to finally be able to sincerely pray “forgive us as we forgive our debtors.” Within an Orthodox Christian framework, I understand much more naturally and readily that this does not mean that if I fail to perfectly forgive others once I have become a Christian, I risk having God retract his offer of free forgiveness to me! It simply acknowleges that, in an organic way, my own difficulties with forgiving others is a sign that I have not yet truly and fully internalized the meaning of God’s forgiveness, and thus have not yet managed to fully enter Paradise (or allow it to enter me)! Paradise, Heaven, the Kingdom of God being, by definition, the full participation in, the full communion in, the love of the Holy Trinity.

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