The Religion of the Mind and the Religion of the Heart

St-Nicholas-DomeI write frequently about what I term the Religion of the Heart. Archimandrite Meletios Webber has a short piece on what can be called the Religion of the Mind. The distinction between mind and heart is not a distinction between thought and feeling. Rather it is a distinction between the mind (seat of thoughts and feelings) and the heart (the seat of a deeper awareness – sometimes called the nous in Orthodox writing). Orthodox spiritual practice would ultimately look for the integration of the whole person and the union of mind and heart. Without the heart, the mind behaves in a fashion that is a constant distraction – torn largely between fear and desire. Fr. Meletios’ observations are worth a careful reading. Those interested in reading more should pick up his Bread & Water, Wine & Oil. This excerpt also has some bearing on yesterday’s post differentiating between doctrine and opinion.

In order to be right about anything, the mind has the need to find someone or something that is wrong. In a sense, the mind is always looking for an enemy (the person who is “wrong”), since without an enemy, the mind is not quite sure of its own identity. When it has an enemy, it is able to be more confident about itself. Since the mind also continually seeks for certainty, which is a by-product of the desire to be right, the process of finding and defining enemies is an ongoing struggle for survival. Declaring enemies is, for the mind, not an unfortunate character flaw, but an essential and necessary task.

Unfortunately, being right is not what people really need, even though a great deal of their lives may be taken up in its pursuit. Defense of the ego is almost always a matter of trying to be right. Interestingly enough, Jesus never once suggeted to His disciples that they be right. What He did demand is that they be righteous. In listening to His words we find that we spend almost all our energy in the wrong direction, since we generally pursue being right with every ounce of our being, but leave being good to the weak and the naive.

People fight wars, commit genocide, and deprive others of basic human civil liberties, all in the name of being right. There is little doubt that if a further nuclear war ever takes place, it will be because the person pushing the button believes himself to be right. About something.

Religion, at the level of the mind, can be a terrible thing, causing wanton destruction to individuals, families, and even entire nations, all in the cause of being right. Almost every religious system can, and in most cases, has operated solely at this level at some point in its history. This is the level of religious awareness that can cause the servants of the King of Peace to wage war on those who think thoughts different from their own; it bestows on those who have been commanded to forgive their enemies the right to annihilate their foes.

Fr. Meletios’ writings are not an argument for a relativist “why can’t we all just agree?” Rather it is a careful analysis of how the heart perceives and responds. It is the place in which we encounter the Kingdom of God.

The heart is quiet rather than noisy, intuitive rather than deductive, lives entirely in the present, and is, at every moment, accepting of the reality God gives in that moment. Moreover, the heart does not seek to distance or dominate anything or anyone by labeling. Rather, it begins with an awareness of its relationship with the rest of creation (and everything and everyone in it), accepting rather than rejecting, finding similarity rather than alienation and likeness rather than difference. It knows no fear, experiences no desire, and never finds the need to defend or justify itself. Unlike the mind, the heart never seeks to impose itself. It is patient and undemanding. Little wonder, then, that the mind, always impatient and very demanding, manages to dominate it so thoroughly.

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.





34 responses to “The Religion of the Mind and the Religion of the Heart”

  1. Christopher Orr Avatar

    Hindu physicist V.V. Raman, on the BBC’s “Speaking of Faith”*, noted that while in the West the choice is assumed to be between rational and irrational, in India there is also the choice of the transrational. This struck me as being quite Orthodox, as well. That is, there is something beyond the culturally conditioned dialectic (rational or irrational) we assume is a law of nature. It is similar to the fact that there is no anthropological awareness or understanding of the nous in the Christianity I grew up in; the fact that we have a ‘sense organ’ for God was a revelation. It opened up exactly the possibility that you describe above: that “the distinction between mind and heart is not [necessarily] a distinction between thought and feeling” – there are other options.

    * transcript available at Raman

  2. Ryan Avatar

    Thank you for this reminder about how foolish is our pride.

  3. Dn Charles Avatar

    You point to what seems to be our largest challenge.
    Taking hold of the reins of the mind is one of our biggest tasks. But how to undertake the ascetic practices to make this a reality? Life is so busy!

  4. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless! Earlier this summer, I reread this passage trying to absorb it more fully. It is so completely true to my experience. There is such a profound distinction between being “right” and being “righteous.” I observe that it is difficult indeed for the mind to conceive of someone being “righteous” if they are apparently not “right” about something in terms of religious or spiritual association or appearances, for example. (Jesus was always getting flack about being with the wrong crowd–zealots for religious purity were sure it tainted Him.) My protestant background has been both a help in some ways and a hindrance in this respect. A hindrance because there is such a pronounced emphasis in conservative forms of protestantism on being “right,” (and defining this in some very shallow, rationalistic and moralistic ways), that it is a huge temptation to close off one’s heart and circle the wagons in one’s own little schism in the interest of being “safe” from God’s condemnation, which is perceived as coming upon those who are “wrong.” On the other hand, the cognitive dissonance created by the Scriptures’ clear teaching of the perfection and unity of God and the gospel He has entrusted to the one Church, and the obvious disintegration of that unity in the actual situation on the ground among the various schisms that have resulted since the Great Schism and later the Reformation can create a sense of humility in the face of one’s obvious lack of complete knowledge that helps one to remain open enough to individuals from different traditions to discover that many are clearly being drawn in paths of genuine repentance and love for God (at least as much as is oneself, if one is honest with one’s own heart about it), and thus to discover in a little truer and deeper way what it is that really makes someone “righteous.” Such an experience can prepare a person and propel them towards Orthodoxy, as many modern testimonies would show.

    My struggle now is what to do when this clinging to being right, rather than discerning what it means to be righteous and being able to affirm that in the face of differences and incompletion that remains in fellow members of the Church, occurs in the context of Orthodox Churches still united by a common Eucharist (interCommunion) and is seen as a necessary affirmation of “true” Orthodoxy. I have very strong feelings whenever I encounter what smacks of this problem (because of my past experiences), but I have very little credibility to say anything as a neophyte. I guess this is material for my own repentance and humility and a good training ground for waiting on God to do what He does best. It’s difficult to know that one simply cannot be “heard” by some, though, when it has such potential to negatively affect those non-Orthodox I love.

  5. Sam Kim Avatar

    That was great, Father. And thanks to Archimandrite Meletios.

  6. Karen Avatar

    Further to my last post, I wanted to add, that I have in mind some of the “in-fighting” within contemporary Orthodoxy of what is essential to the Tradition and what is not. Truth be told, as is always my bent (sometimes I think of it as a curse, but I know it is not!), I can see valid concerns on both sides and I long to share my experiences that may be of some small help in seeing a way forward to resolve some of the conflict (at least in the minds of those with whom I come into contact). Some are quick to point a finger for this problem at those converts from other Christian traditions, who are presumed many times not to have been properly discipled long enough in an Orthodox manner to have any real discernment (and the finger is pointed in this way by Orthodox on both sides of the issues that are divisive), and I’m sure many times this is perfectly valid. On the other hand, those who have been lifelong Orthodox are not thereby immune from this problem–not by a long shot. Being Orthodox in externals for a long time or even a lifetime, doesn’t guarantee an Orthodoxy of heart (or true “righteousness”) and without such there is no real discernment either. It’s difficult to trust, wait, and be patient in the face of this huge potential stumbling block for my non-Orthodox family members, who so need the healing that only the fullness of the Tradition, fully lived, can offer.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    To some degree the answer is that we struggle to practice righteousness and not worry about others (including our fellow Orthodox). For instance, I write a blog. I cannot make anyone read it. My responsibility is to write it and moderate and comment, etc. – which is a lot of responsibility – but if done properly does not involve more than righteousness (as in I don’t need to make anyone else right). But if we’re faithful in the little God has given us, it is all He asks. The need to make anyone else be faithful is just another version of being right and is not useful since it never really works. Thus, we can serve God, be faithful, strive for righteousness, and pray for the world. Anything more than this probably comes from our anxiety, fear or lusts.

  8. George Patsourakos Avatar

    The religion of the heart must prevail over the religion of the mind, if we want to live a good Christian life.

    According to Jesus’ teaching, Christians should strive to be righteous, not right.

  9. Karen Avatar

    Of course, Father, you are right on target here, and desiring someone else to see in what respects I am right (and that I hold faithfully to true Tradition) when it controls me and becomes my focus is just another manifestation of wanting to make them right, and neglecting that little for which God holds me responsible. In writing a blog with the perspective that you have articulated (and model in your comments), you clearly understand the difference between proclaiming without compromise “what little you know” and having to close and win every argument or even understand more than you know in order to be faithful to God and to serve His purposes as a Priest of the Church. I know much suffering comes for me because of my insecurities, looking for needed validation in the wrong places, continuing to ignore or avoid many times the places and people I could be and should be going to for the appropriate support/accountability and validation in the struggle. On the plus side, the longings of my heart (though not purely so) are themselves perhaps a form of prayer for the unity and peace of the Church and of the world, and thus a reflection, too, in a small and imperfect way of Christ’s heart. Succombing to a spirit of fear and the consequent powerful temptation to try to do the Holy Spirit’s job for Him is one of the things that most irks and/or saddens me when I witness or experience it from others, which is a clue that it is the temptation to which I, myself, am most vulnerable. In my experience, trying to do the Holy Spirit’s job for Him can manifest in trying to manipulate another, or trying to manipulate myself to change apart from grace. At least, that is how I see things. Thanks, as always, for your helpful observations.

  10. isaac8 Avatar

    We are privileged to have Fr. Meletios speaking at our parish this weekend. I think his book is one of the best introductions to Orthodoxy out there right now.

  11. Margaret Avatar

    God is so good! I so needed to read this, Fr. Stephen, thank you! God bless you! Glory to God for all things!

  12. Isaac C. Avatar
    Isaac C.

    I really like this excerpt from Archimandrite Meletios Weber. I do wonder what he would say about the role of truth, the role of the mind, in relationship to what he says here. Some of the greatest saints of our Church were truth-speakers, people who composed glorious “arguments” in defense of the truth– I’m speaking here of men like St. Basil the Great and all of the Cappadocians, St. Athanasius, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Leo of Rome, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Photios the Great, St. Mark of Ephesus, etc.

    It seems to me that these people found it awfully important to be right, to preach and to persuade, and to resist the corruption of error in some cases even unto the shedding of their own blood. The Arian controversy famously “split Christendom over a single iota.”

    But this is the genius of Archimandrite Meletios’ statements. He doesn’t disagree with this because he’s not speaking against truth claims or the importance of finding the truth, but against “being right.” None of these saints adopted their positions out of an egoistic love for themselves and their own opinions, but out of love for God, love for truth, and even out of their own experience of God within their hearts. Furthermore, their arguments and disputations came out of their love for others and not for themselves, knowing that the true faith is the one that saves.

  13. BJohnD Avatar

    Thank you for publishing that excerpt from Fr. Mel’s excellent book. We in California are blessed to have Fr. Mel here among us, as the abbot (& successor to now-Metropolitan +Jonah) of the St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Monastery. I’ve had the honor of meeting him and hearing him preach and he is a wonderful man, a great teacher.

  14. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    Jesus asked in his high priestly prayer ( John 17) that the love with which the Father loves Him dwell also in us. This is a wonderful gift. And it is a matter of the heart. Not primarily of the mind. It is the way of communion. It is an essential ingredient of the oneness that Jesus spoke of in this same prayer.

    If we remember that, as Fr. Stephen says, “communion is everything” , then we can hardly imagine that it could be any other way. We don’t relate to our spouses, our children, or our close friends as though they were mere objects. As if they were only concepts in the mind, elements of reason, or categories of thought. Not if we love them truly. We relate to them in the realm of love. We use our heart. We know things concerning our relationships intuitively. This is only natural among persons.

    Why should our relationship with the persons of God be any different?

    After the fall Adam hid from God behind a bush. He who was once as a lover hid from his love. (incredible) We use our reason as a bush to hide behind sometimes. We want so desperately to keep our distance. We sense that God will be a consuming fire to us. And we have not decided to be consumed by love. We want to be our own man. We do not want to belong to another.

    That’s why it is so important for us to be right. We are afraid to come out from behind the bush for some one has told us that we are naked. And we must justify our fear.

    But once we learn to be naked, and like it, and the fear is gone, we have no need to be right. We can then speak the truth in love. Because we have a relationship with truth. And we know the one who is right. Then we can speak truth with no strings attached. We want people to see the truth as we might want some one to know our friend, but they are free to reject it. We don’t insist that they agree with us any more then we would insist that they get to know our wife.

    I agree with Karen, many Orthodox like to insist that hey are right. This must mean that they are afraid.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    Leaving fear behind is difficult.

  16. james Avatar

    not that any of us are perfect…and fear is hard to let go of…and there is a broad spectrum in asceticism (i’m sure of)….i have not encountered such insistence of being right as an Orthodox Christian..i mostly see people that are unsure and not willing to talk for our God (in any commanding way/being right) ….even high ranking hierarchy of the Ec. Pat., has humbled himself with me, admitting all is not knowable or hard to explain. only God can be right…we can only be obedient …we can follow…but can never know divine truth to its fullness. its this trait of humility that makes us Christians…

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    I agree. My experience, particularly with mature, Orthodox Christians, including a fair number of hierarchs, is of a profound humility in the face of the truth. From outside, it is easy to misjudge Orthodoxy as being about “being right.” Instead, it is about confronting truth and discovering how far short we fall of that truth. In a sense, the “received” quality of Orthodox dogma, frees the believer from constantly trying to find out what is right or make it up or argue about it – and instead asks of the heart to live it.

    Arguments and judgments don’t disappear any more than sin disappears – but they keep getting revealed (it seems to me) as something that misses the mark.

    When I converted to Orthodoxy, the arguments (which had been endless) stopped. But only then did the reality of conversion begin. The instability of truth – the rejection of revelation on the part of many Christian groups – postpones the encounter with God. Its also possible to keep the arguments and judgments going as an Orthodox Christian (as we distract ourselves) and postpone the encounter as well. We’ve been good at finding hiding places ever since Adam.

    As Fr. Thomas Hopko told me (when I said that the more I write the less I know): “Keep writing. Some day you’ll know nothing. Then you’ll be holy.”

  18. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    I’m a bit nervous about this, Father. Some people will use this as permission to stop thinking about the Faith. The Scriptures speak of the transforming of our minds. The mind’s transformation IS part of our becoming holy.

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    Alice. I don’t disagree. It would be possible to misunderstand and misuse this. However, it’s also part of the Tradition as well, and a part that needs to be spoken from time to time. The heart doesn’t and should not “replace” the mind – the “mind in the heart” – is the phrase in the Fathers. When there is a proper union within us the mind is then able to do what it was meant to do. It is when it operates apart from the heart that it becomes governed solely from fear and desire.

    But dogma, as noted in my previous post, has to be appropriated in a manner that is more than just the mind (not excluding the mind). It is in that living appropriation that we “think” best about the faith and truly come to understand. But most of the doctrines of the faith (such as those associated with the Great Councils) are, in my experience, exceedingly profound and cannot be appropriated without both mind and heart.

    It is, I think, a word of caution, that says about doctrine and dogma – think slowly and pray much and be patient. I don’t think there’s anything to fear in that.

    I would be more concerned with half-digested doctrine being tossed about in arguments like so many ideas – when they are not ideas at all – but verbal icons of Christ.

    The transforming of our minds is not the result of study (though study is good and shouldn’t be neglected) but comes as the result of “presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice.” I think it is an act of the whole person. But that transformation requires prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and the self-emptying of the Cross (as well as study).

  20. Marsha Avatar

    Karen, I always enjoy your posts and your articulation, but this phrase “trying to manipulate myself to change apart from grace” is so wonderful, and so descriptive. Thank you!

  21. Victor Avatar

    “I would be more concerned with half-digested doctrine being tossed about in arguments like so many ideas – when they are not ideas at all – but verbal icons of Christ.”

    Thank you Father. These words are an antidote to the easy intellectual frivolity to which we can easily fall prey in matters of our Faith. My Priest once told me that ‘right doctrine is prayer that heals the mind’. I thought it a wonderful statement then but I am understanding it afresh now. If when we speak the truth about the faith we are praying or writing an icon then we ought to approach such truth with the heartfelt reverence due such work. If we determined to make every word we utter a prayer how much differently (and how much less) might we speak!

  22. yeamlak fitur Avatar
    yeamlak fitur

    Father thank you for this. It quickly reminded me of early Orthodox Christians who do only the rirghteous. An Orthodox country which was the first to give refuge to Mohammed when his own country rejected him at first. Being humane and just righteous when someone needs help to survive.

  23. Dn Charles Avatar

    Thank you for this thought father.
    “The transforming of our minds is not the result of study (though study is good and shouldn’t be neglected) but comes as the result of “presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice.” I think it is an act of the whole person. But that transformation requires prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and the self-emptying of the Cross (as well as study).”

    Don’t you think that the study itself is transformed into a study, not about dogma, but how to become like Christ, how to transform oneself, how to take advantage of all the resources that the Church has given to us to help us in this transformation so we can lift ourselves to place our focus solidly on heavenly things as a first priority?
    Its possible our study might even intensify but in a different direction.

  24. Karen Avatar

    Marsha, thanks. That is always my hope and prayer–that in exposing some of my own process, it will also be helpful to others. I, too, am helped in this way by so many who comment on this blog.

  25. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    I like that phrase – “mind in the heart”, Father. It locates Christ’s transforming presence where He is to be seated. As a child in the Baptist church we used to sing a song about Jesus being seated on the throne of the heart. Not bad theology.

    The Baptists are very rational in their approach to Scripture. They generally don’t get the metaphysical parts that are so important if we are to understand Holy Tradition. That’s why there are no sacraments among them. Taking Communion is something I do to show that I believe in Jesus and look for His return. Baptism is something I do to show that I intend to be a follower of Jesus. Nothing sacramental in this “I do” approach. Yesterday I heard a Baptist pastor say the infant baptism is a heresy. Humm… Is this an example of the danger of elevating reason over sacred mystery?

  26. Ryan Avatar

    “Mind in the heart”: is this the “nous”?

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    Nous and heart are roughly equivalent. In this case “mind” would mean thought and emotion.

  28. Judd Avatar

    “Arguments and judgments don’t disappear any more than sin disappears – but they keep getting revealed (it seems to me) as something that misses the mark.”

    St. Jude judged false teachers harshly in his epistle, and used harsh arguments. St. Peter did the same. St. Paul did the same. Even St. John was stern with them, although he did not speak as forthrightly about their damnation as the other apostles did.

    I don’t believe any of these apostles missed the mark at all. In fact, when I read their harsh judgments, it feels to me like they hit the mark very precisely.

    There is a kind of man such you describe, who would erroneously detach his mind from his heart and go out seeking arguments. Paul describes such a man in one of his epistles. I don’t think we could accuse the apostles of this. It seems the error they confronted was clear and present; they didn’t have to become picayune in order to say what they said.

    There is also a kind of man who would be too timid to say what needed to be said, and cloak his cowardice in religious language.

    Let’s avoid both. That seems Orthodox to me.

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    I am not suggesting either of the things you suggest we avoid. There is something more than avoiding either. Sorry that I have not communicated that very well.

  30. Judd Avatar

    One thing we do know – “prophecies will cease”. It will be quite nice, won’t it? No more miscommunications, no more necessity to rebuke or exhort. Indispensable as the exhortatory epistles are, they will pass away some day, and I think your thoughts point toward that. Perhaps your thoughts are an expression of the longing for the day when nobody will say “Know the Lord”, for we will all know him, from the least to the greatest.

  31. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    “Reason stumbles when it journeys on paths of ineffable wonder.” — Cook’s maxim.

  32. […] 2009 Fr. Stephen Freeman, one of the more prolific and excellent Orthodox bloggers wrote on an excerpt from Fr. Mel’s “Bread and Water, Wine and Oil”. As a fan of both authors, I recommend the post though I would add that often Fr. Mel makes the […]

  33. handmaid leah Avatar

    having just taken part in a wonderful weekend of Fr. Meletios’ discussions – one of the things that was key for me was the how to put the mind in the heart.
    This is a very important thing to know and put into practice in everyday life.
    Out of everything that was said about the Jesus Prayer and all that it means – the how was what I was missing.
    Fr. Meletios explained that even though first efforts may only be attained for a fraction of a second, that ones mind may be in the heart, only very briefly, that action, with practice becomes easier and if practiced enough, can become the way you live every moment of every day.
    So what was his tip to placing the mind in the heart?
    Think about the tip of your nose. If you can center your thoughts there, then centering your thoughts within your heart becomes possible because you then understand what that focusing is like. To do this while uttering the Jesus Prayer or while doing the dishes or especially while listening to someone – all I know is that this has gotten me out of my own head and that is a great thing…

  34. […] then, that the mind, always impatient and very demanding, manages to dominate it so thoroughly.… __________________ "What water and sun are to the body, prayer is to the soul." […]

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