Singleness of Heart

167502985_1130add41dPerhaps the most scathing reading during Holy Week occurs in the Bridegroom Matins of Great and Holy Tuesday of when we hear Chapter 23 of Matthew’s gospel. There is a refrain which marks many of the verses: “Woe to you scribes and pharisees, you hypocrites!” A single such sentence would carry a punch, but in this particular chapter of Matthew, Jesus says this 8 times (with many other such invectives added in). Hypocrisy is a difficult sin – one to which the religious are particularly susceptible. It is the opposite of hypocrisy that occupies my thoughts in this post.

We read frequently in the Fathers about “uniting the mind with the heart.” Most often we think of something quite mystical and mysterious. For myself, I have prayed for years waiting on such a phenomenon with mostly the experience of waiting.

There is another form of the union of heart and mind that is a prerequisite for the former: the simple union of heart and mind that occurs whenever we actually say what we mean.

Scripture offers criticism of the lack of this (and it is echoed in Christ’s teaching):

…this people honors me with their lips but their hearts are drawn far from me” (Isaiah 29:13).

It may seem a simple thing to actually mean what you say and say what you mean – but such guileless speech is much less common than we imagine. For a large variety of reasons we often fail to give voice to our heart (some of those reasons are not bad or wrong).

There is a common experience in prayer when our mind wanders. The words continue but our hearts have been “drawn away.” Some might think that this only happens to those who pray by reading prayers from a book (it is certainly a hazard for such prayer), however, our hearts are such that even in “extemporaneous speech” the heart can just as easily be absent. Thus we hear “formulas”, frequently repeated phrases from those who “extemporaneously” pray “from the heart.” 

The simple truth is that it is hard to unite our heart and our mouth. This fundamental lack of integrity is simply one of the many ways in which our brokenness manifests itself. We are a people of “lying lips.”

Our human relationships are full of banter that comes from somewhere other than the heart. It is not only God who is deprived of the witness and testimony of our heart. “I love you” often means something else.

Among the teachings of the Fathers on prayer is the simple instruction to allow ourselves to settle down and our speech and our heart to be one. It is a simple union of heart and mouth.

In such a simple union our heart and its content are often revealed to us (we certainly hide from its content in most other forms of speech). Of course this revelation is not always a pleasant discovery – for the heart is often filled with darkness and thoughts we prefer to hide. Such discoveries, of course, are excellent fodder for confession. Without such knowledge, confession is greatly weakened. “I have lied” should be a far more frequent item of confession. We say to God, “With my whole heart…,” when in fact we mean, “My heart is somewhere else entirely.” It is a lie – one so common that we place it in a category of “my mind wandered.” It is not nearly the case that our mind wandered – our heart was drawn away. A far more serious matter.

The concentration required to unite our heart and mouth (mind) are and should be part of our normative spiritual arsenal. It requires that we learn to listen as well as to speak and to be frequent in making confession (as we discover the true content of our heart). The New Testament seems to go out of its way to mention the problem of lying, noting both that Satan is the “father of lies,” as well as:

I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and that no lie is of the truth.Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also.

Telling the truth is far more than meeting the criteria of moral uprightness – it is deeply and essentially related to our knowledge of God. We cannot know the Truth if we ourselves refuse to be among those who speak the truth. Nor can we be among those who speak the truth if there is no union between the heart and what comes out of our mouth.

In earlier years as an Anglican priest, I would be deeply troubled by the fact that many within that denomination (and I do not exaggerate) found it perfectly acceptable to say things (such as the Nicene Creed) within a service of worship which they themselves did not actually believe. As time has gone on, I have seen that though many others would claim that they believe the creed and say it with unalloyed enthusiasm – the remains a division between heart and mouth. Is it an improvement to say the Creed (which theoretically you believe) but for your mind to wander and your heart to be far removed?

Were I in a marriage relationship in which a person said they loved me but in fact did not, or in a marriage in which a person “loved me” but found that their heart was somewhere else – I’m not sure the distinction would matter a great deal. In both cases you are left with the emptiness of a loveless relationship.

It is like the parable of the two sons in which one, asked by his father to go to the fields says, ‘Yes,’ but does not go. While the other says ‘No’ but later changes his mind and goes. Christ taught that the second was the faithful. Not words – but words, heart and action – a unity in the very soul of our being.

May Christ find the welcome home of truth in the heart of each of us this Paschal season!

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.





5 responses to “Singleness of Heart”

  1. davidperi Avatar

    Fr…I really wonder if we want the “light of Christ” to shine in the dark corners of our heart. But…the fact is how many times our mouth speaks differently than our heart even when we are converted.

    I can understand this when a person is still living a ungodly or unrepentive life and his/her mouth does speak what is in the heart. But for the converted…like you and me…this is another battle where we must let the light of Christ to shine in these darken corners. Christ is Risen!

  2. Sean Avatar

    davidperi wrote:

    “I can understand this when a person is still living a ungodly or unrepentive life and his/her mouth does speak what is in the heart.”

    I have often found that even people who are good and faithful do not always speak out what they really mean. It is not always greed or hate or even a secret agenda that makes people lie. Sometimes we do it out of idleness, sometimes because we do not want to lose our convenience by uttering inconvenient truths. Sometimes we do it because we believe that speaking our mind (and heart) will hurt others or ourselves and sometimes because we do not want to admit with our mind what our heart considers true.

    Fr Stephen, Christ is risen! An excellent post as ever. Thank you.

  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    I find too little distinction between myself and the behavior of the unbeliever. My catechumen class discussed this last night (the post) and I found their insights to be quite helpful. It mostly became a class about confession. Priests (if they are isolated) can have a difficult time finding another priest for confession. It’s not good for us, but is still the case. The heart has many dark corners that must be swept clean. But it is hard for many for a variety of reasons.

    Indeed He is risen!

  4. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless! I would have liked to be in your catechumens class. This is a very convicting post. Like you, I find too little distinction between myself and unbelievers. I have already commented about how difficult Confession is for me and at the same time how grateful I am that the Church insists upon it.

    Christ is risen!

  5. Lou. Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I have long meditated on the Parable of the Two Sons. Christ’s question was this: “Which son did the will of the father?”

    There are other questions He could have asked. As a father, I can testify the behavior of both sons to be extremely aggravating.

    The Lord is risen indeed.

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