Guard Your Heart

I often think about the admonition of the fathers to “guard your heart.” It seems so obvious to me that the disposition of my heart has everything to do with how I will perceive and react to everything around me. An anxious heart perceives everything as a threat – a disaster or vexation in the making. An angry heart perceives the slightest hindrance as a great provocation. A sad heart can have a difficult time finding joy in anything. It is clear that it is not the world that is assaulting us – but our own hearts which use the world against us as a weapon.

There is a Greek word, philotimo, which when used in its spiritual meaning carries the sense of “responsive gratitude,” an awareness of deep appreciation and gratitude for all of God’s gifts. We do not seem to have a single English word for this disposition. But it is a word that describes the most proper and natural state of man’s heart. Philotimo is a state within which we can perceive the world in its truth and respond appropriately.

It is no mistake that the proper name for the Divine Liturgy is the Eucharist. Again, this is a Greek word which simply means “thanksgiving.” God has called the Church in its most profound act of worship to stand before Him in thanksgiving – blessing Him for the goodness of His creation and His great kindness to us in the coming of His Son. It is the Holy Spirit setting us in the place where we most truly become what we were created to be. Man is homo eucharisticus, or he lives in a distortion that is less than truly human.

Thanksgiving is a wall of protection against anxiety – for how can we fear that for which we give thanks? Thanksgiving is the oil of gladness that anoints and heals the saddened heart. Thanksgiving is the solemn rebuke of the wayward energy of our anger.

Guard your heart. Let nothing rob you of your humanity. Let nothing destroy the peace of your heart. With true philotimo rejoice in the presence of God.

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.





25 responses to “Guard Your Heart”

  1. Barbara Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you so much for this posting. I really needed this encouragement today.

  2. handmaid leah Avatar

    Father Stephen writes: Guard your heart. Let nothing rob you of your humanity. Let nothing destroy the peace of your heart. With true philotimo rejoice in the presence of God.”

    I didn’t guard my heart and I felt such sadness at what I had seen today – I know the answer deep down but help me to understand that by guarding my heart I am not just putting my head in the sand… I am struggling with this today.

    asking your prayers.

  3. coffeezombie Avatar

    If I may ask, how do we go about doing this? If my heart is anxious, fearful, or sad, is there much I can do to “train” my heart to be thankful? Perhaps, I could try to keep an eye on my thoughts and attitudes (and the actions and words that arise from them), and when they turn to anxiety or fear or sadness, consciously try to steer them into the direction of thanksgiving?

    I don’t think I can simply make myself *feel* grateful, really, but, maybe by making the effort to *say* “Thank you” when good things come, or to remind myself “It is for my salvation” when bad things come, I can work to foster thanksgiving in my heart?

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Fabio Leite and Ζωντανό Ιστολόγιο, Veronica du Bruyn. Veronica du Bruyn said: Guard Your Heart – I often think about the admonition of the fathers to "guard your heart." It seems so obvious to … […]

  5. yannis Avatar

    Coffezombie wrote:
    “If I may ask, how do we go about doing this?”
    By practising the Jesus (or other contemplative) Prayer; the words of the prayer act as a centre of gravity around which the turbulent threads of the distracted heart wrap to stillness. Watch the thoughts stream as well as the breathing pattern while agitated – one of the key aspects of the prayer is breathing in and out naturally and calmly using the prayer words essentially as a metronome. This helps in letting pricking thoughts go and return to hesychia – stillness.

    Coffezombie wrote:
    If my heart is anxious, fearful, or sad, is there much I can do to “train” my heart to be thankful?

    “God does not train the heart by ideas but by pains and contradictions”
    De Caussade

    The best training that one can receive is the realisation that worldy existence is not self perpetrating. It is something given, and it is something temporary, nothing we- the ego can do about that.

    This realisation can come about through events that are genuinely painful, and because they are so, they tame the ever lasting flame of the ego that insists that everything in the world depends on it and its existence. All this is far from simple and far from easy, but the reward is high.

    Best Regards


  6. eleni Avatar

    “It is clear that it is not the world which is assaulting us – but our own hearts which use the world against us as a weapon.” I am coming to understand that it is not uncommon for humans to feel not only their own fears and anxieties but also these feelings from “the world”. So essentially since we are all continuously in different “states of awareness and perception”, the one True place of “Reality” is in the Heart which keeps the “mind” stayed on God’s Omnipresent goodness. This does not negate one’s individual response to behave appropriately to whatever is at hand to be said or done, (don’t think, say, listen or do anything that would contribute to the falsehood) but let the “Light” of Christ” from within, shine out on the darkness that appears in “this world of effects”. We are healed and strenghthened by keeping our minds stayed on “His Sovereinty” for “the Government is on His Shoulders”. I believe that this is a “process” taking place all the time, and we need to “be there” through “pros…efxi”.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    Admittedly, I think we do this with difficulty, sometimes great difficulty. Within the practice of such thanksgiving – there is a very large “nevertheless.” It is the nevertheless of the 3 young men, “Nevertheless, O King, we will not bow down and worship your image.” Despite the terrors or anger or sadness of my heart, I will give thanks to the Lord for He is good. St. Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord, always.”

    There are clearly times that our heart is deeply troubled and even in bondage to other things. Yet that is still the place that with even the tiniest measure, we give thanks.

    And at other times, to begin to cultivate the heart of grateful thanksgiving (philotimo) so that in times of struggle it is there. We begin with the commandment, “Rejoice!” I recall an incident some years ago, how a man in a time of deep anxiety, took the cross in one hand, a candle in another, opened the Psalms and began singing to God “until the anxiety stopped.” He was well past Psalm 50 before his prayer ended. Sometimes in desperation we pray desperately.

  8. Barbara Avatar

    “Sometimes in desparation, we pray desperately.”

    This is so true, and what I have found is that when I am praying desparately I am really praying. I am praying from my complete awareness of my own poverty. I am reaching towards God with all my weakness and sadness because He is my only source of hope and help. When I stop struggling to help myself, God is there. This is the peace that passes understanding. This is why we can be grateful and rejoice always.

  9. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless! This post reminded me of the faithful witness of an Orthodox Priest about whom Richard Wurmbrand wrote in his article, “With My Own Eyes” first published in the September 1987 issue of AGAIN Magazine. Here is the excerpt:


    Always Rejoice

    The first man was a priest who was put in jail at the age of seventy. His name was Surioanu. When he was brought in with his big white beard and white pate, some officers at the gate of the jail mocked him. One asked, “Why did they bring this old priest here?” And another replied with a jeer, “Probably to take the confessions of everybody.” Those were his exact words.
    This priest had a son who had died in a Soviet jail. His daughter was sentenced to twenty years. Two of his sons-in-law were with him in jail—one with him in the same cell. His grandchildren had no food, they were forced to eat from the garbage. His whole family was destroyed. He had lost his church. But this man had such a shining face—there was always a beautiful smile on his lips. He never greeted anyone with “Good morning” or “Good evening,” but instead with the words, “Always rejoice.”
    One day we asked him, “Father, how can you say ‘always rejoice’—you who passed through such a terrible tragedy?”
    He said, “Rejoicing is very easy. If we fulfill at least one word from the Bible, it is written, ‘Rejoice with all those who rejoice.’ Now if one rejoices with all those who rejoice, he always has plenty of motivation for rejoicing. I sit in jail, and I rejoice that so many are free. I don’t go to church, but I rejoice with all those who are in church. I can’t take Holy Communion, but I rejoice about all those who take. I can’t read the Bible or any other holy book, but I rejoice with those who do. I can’t see flowers [we never saw a tree or a flower during those years. We were under the earth, in a subterranean prison. We never saw the sun, the moon, stars—many times we forgot that these things existed. We never saw a color, only the gray walls of the cell and our gray uniforms. But we knew that such a world existed, a world with multicolored butterflies and with rainbows], but I can rejoice with those who see the rainbows and who see the multicolored butterflies.”
    In prison, the smell was not very good. But the priest said, “Others have the perfume of flowers around them, and girls wearing perfume. And others have picnics and others have their families of children around them. I cannot see my children but others have children. And he who can rejoice with all those who rejoice can always rejoice. I can always be glad.” That is why he had such a beautiful expression on his face.


  10. Fr Ronald Avatar
    Fr Ronald

    “It is clear that it is not the world which is assaulting us – but our own hearts which use the world against us as a weapon.”

    How clearly this agrees with the words of our Lord who said that it isn’t what goes into a man that makes him unclean but rather what comes out of him. I wonder if I spend so much time looking around me for demons and darkness that I fail to notice the “dragons” that dwell within the depth of my own being. Perhaps it’s like the frantic search around the house for a missing item only to discover that it was “right under my nose” the whole time.

    Thank you, Father, for these reflections on the heart. They are truly a balm to my own aching heart.

  11. Lucy Avatar

    “It seems so obvious to me that the disposition of my heart has everything to do with how I will perceive and react to everything around me. An anxious heart perceives everything as a threat – a disaster or vexation in the making. An angry heart perceives the slightest hindrance as a great provocation. A sad heart can have a difficult time finding joy in anything. It is clear that it is not the world that is assaulting us – but our own hearts which use the world against us as a weapon.”

    I wish I knew how to teach my eight-year-old son this truth. I wish I knew how to teach myself. At least I can read blogs and the Scriptures. Fr. Ronald’s comment led me to Matthew 15:11, which is now written out and taped to my wall. I still wish I knew how to teach this to my children.

    Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen.

  12. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    It helps me to think of St. John Chrysostom, whose last words were, “Glory to God for all things” — this, while he was being dragged into his last exile, during which he died. I always think, if he could glorify God in such circumstances, I should be able to do the same in my much less difficult circumstances.

  13. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    My Father is in heaven and personally involves himself in my life, therefore, I rejoice gratefully. It is only my own lack of faith that keeps me from it. Lord forgive my unbelief.

  14. Дејан Avatar

    Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
    When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
    Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

    Luke 17:11-19

    Karen, thank you for sharing that most touching story about brave attitude of Father Surioanu. To find reasons to always rejoice means to practice patience and unwavering faith that Kingdom of Heaven is not externalized or objectified thing. Human mind has habit to cling to impressions made by constant repetition of outward events and surroundings. This kind of self-imposed limitation actually robs our life of more sublime and fulfilling perceptions. Using scientific method in its own proper domain, reading or writing poetry, praying and rejoicing or offering constant gratitude for His heart-healing grace, help us to avoid inertia of the mind in different ways. But it is so easy to cling back to limited perspective, even to completely forget moments of exalted joy and peace that happened in the past. Sublime moments when we feel peace that is in this world but not of this world (John 14:27) have the capacity to repaint the heart horizon (and consequently the whole Universe) with authentic colours but do I at least once in ten times offer Him gratitude for it. And even if I do (and I know I always forget), what about the other nine times?

    Recently I heard quote from Percy Shelley’s essay which I would like to share here:

    “But Poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions. And whether it spreads its own figured curtain or withdraws life’s dark veil from before the scene of things, it equally creates for us a being within our being. It makes us the inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. It reproduces the common Universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it urges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being. It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know. It creates anew the universe after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by re-iteration.” ~ quoted from “Defence of Poetry” (1821)

    If this applies to Poetry, how much more joyous gratitude to Lord will have reviving influence on our heart’s hidden, perhaps forgotten or yet undiscovered treasure.

  15. Victor Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    As I read this post and the comments, two ‘recentish’ cultural references to the state of the heart came to mind. One is spiritually anxious and reflective of the common theme of ‘following the heart’ etc.

    “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore Jack, I went out for a ride and I never went back!
    Like a river that don’t know where it’s goin’, I took a wrong turn and I just kept on goin’”

    Everybody’s Got a Hungry Heart, Bruce Springsteen

    The other is this, more sublime and a few decades older:

    “My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life . I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the colour of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…” The fox gazed at the little prince, for a long time. “Please, tame me!” he said.”

    Chapter 21 of The Little Prince

    Our hearts are indeed hungry but they cannot be fed on their whims. They must be tamed to respond to the presence of the Beloved in whom we are accepted…..In that blessed state they are thankful for all things

  16. coffeezombie Avatar

    Fr Stephen and Yannis, thank you both for your responses. I will meditate on this, and seek and pray to learn gratitude. 🙂

  17. Karen Avatar

    “Abide in Me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.” John 15:4

    Because of these words of Jesus, I don’t give up. I’m overwhelmed when I think of the difficulty of struggling against the anxious thoughts that constantly assault me. Like the Apostle Peter who wanted to walk across the water to His Master, I’m always tempted to focus on the storm instead of Christ, and I sink so quickly into the waves. Fr. Surioanu’s faith is well beyond my present capabilities, but inspires as an example of what is possible for those who continually repent, throwing themselves on Christ’s mercy.

    Lucy, I’ve often heard it, and I see it in my own family: our faith and values are “caught” (like a good virus) by our children from us, and can’t be “taught” (like rote academic skills, for example). That is, it is mostly an unconscious process of osmosis and imitation. Similarly, I’ve found anxiety is quite contagious, so if I am in the habit of reacting anxiously to life’s events, my kids pick that up and also become anxious. I’m slowly learning that the fruit of the Holy Spirit that results from the attention I give to my own heart’s needs will eventually and organically pass on to my kids as well. The trick is being patient and kind with myself and with them in the process and in the midst of our imperfections. I’m embarrassed at how often I have to go back and relearn the same old lessons. Number one is prayer is key.

    Fr. Ronald, I’m constantly misplacing things (especially when I’m in an anxious hurry!), so your observation and analogy really hits home for me. Thanks.

  18. Michael N Avatar
    Michael N

    …………From the previous post ‘My worst hell is to realize that I have saddened a beloved person’ by Elder Epiphanios of Athens…………….
    ………. “It is clear that it is not the world which is assaulting us – but our own hearts which use the world against us as a weapon.” ‘……………
    …….Yannis’s quote:’“God does not train the heart by ideas but by pains and contradictions” ……

    I know my demons thrive when circumstances and events cause sadness, anxiety, or anger between people even when unintended. When I offend, even if unintentional, I am still learning to trust God and discern His truth so that I don’t react with negative emotions that make my heart become like a prison. The hardest part is separating sentiment from God’s truth. It is hard work to change course inside to a ‘disposition of the heart’ that navigates the calm and stormy waters with a living gladness (philotimo). I have yet to experience the Orthodox eucharistic heart. But I do believe it involves Christ’s truth, and that truth has beauty, and that beauty brings together both what is pleasant and unpleasant – it brings to mind the wisdom of Christ’s cross.

    Guarding the heart for someone like me is good medicine and very good news.

  19. Paul Avatar

    Sorry that this comment has little to do with your post, but I am not sure how to send you an email. So, I would like to ask your opinion of the teachings of John Zizioulas on the Trinity. Is he faithfully presenting and applying the teachings of the Cappadocian Fathers?

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is some debate around Met. Zizioulas’ “personalism,” though most of the criticism I have seen seems largely off-base or missing the point. I do not think he misrepresents the Cappadocians though he certainly develops some of the implications (particularly in the area of ecclesiology). There is an excellent book by Aristotle Papanikalaou Being With God, that looks in some detail at strengths and weaknesses within Z’s thought (as well as at V. Lossky). If you can read Zizioulas, you’ll find this easy to handle. I recommend it for the serious student of Zizioulas.

    I should add that some criticisms that I have seen that simple argue that Zizioulas makes some use of existential thought is a very weak critique indeed. St. Basil used Platonic thought but was not a Platonist. Much modern existential thought (Heidegger and Sartre, etc.) has much to say on the topic of being and should be addressed by any serious-level theology that touches on the topic of being.

    There is another criticism that Zizioulas makes too much of the relational understanding of being (personhood) but I think his treatment of St. Basil is quite good on this point and should be treated seriously and carefully.

    I have long thought that a position contrary to Zizioulas’ presentation runs the risk of a very static and substantialist concept of being that is both problematic and not at all satisfactory. But here I’ve gone and gotten rather more philosophical than I usually write. Good luck with the work.

    I might add, that any serious critique of Zizioulas that exists merely on the internet and not in print should not be treated as the last or best word on the topic.

  21. Darlene Avatar

    “It is clear that it is not the world that is assaulting us – but our own hearts that use the world against us as a weapon.”

    This reminds me of the verse in St. James that says, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” Often, we are our own worst enemy.

    I have been increasingly aware of the state of my heart since becoming an Orthodox Catechumen and attending Divine Liturgy. Father, how true your words ring when you said of the Divine Liturgy that, “It is the Holy Spirit setting us in the place where we most truly become what we were created to be.” I knew the first time I attended Divine Liturgy that God had brought me home. I was taken up and gathered to Him in way that I had never known previously. Thus it is that with every Divine Liturgy I have attended since how aware I am of His gathering me to Himself and setting my heart aright with Him.


    Thank you for that excerpt from Richard Wurmbrand. I had the privelege of meeting him on more than one occasion. Certainly Father Surioanu made a deep impression upon his heart for I was simply overwhelmed by the calm disposition of Richard Wurmbrand. It was if his whole person was saying, “There is nothing so pressing that it should cause you anxiety and steal your peace.”

    I believe when one has faced death and witnessed many around them dying as RB did, then all other wordly distractions which would vie for our attention and cause us to be unsettled, pale in comparison. As St. Paul said, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

    As always, this post was such a blessing for me to read. It caused me to plant my thoughts firmly on the trustwortiness of our Heavenly Father, and in so doing brought peace to my heart, which often wanders.

  22. fatherstephen Avatar

    Darlene and others,
    There were many survivors of the prisons (these I believe were in Romania). Fr. Roman Braga in Rives Junction Michigan is such a survivor and a very holy man. Fr. George Calciu who died a couple of years ago in Washington, DC, was another. Khouria Frederica Matthews-Green when to him for spiritual direction and confession and has written some about him.

    I must confess that I feel totally unworthy to write about such figures. They are the “lights in their generation,” perhaps the greatest treasures of the modern Church. That America has had such men (and women) come to our shores and live and work here deeply moves my heart. We are a land that does not understand where they have been nor what they have endured. Perhaps none of the world does. “Of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:38) comes to mind. May the pray for us!

  23. Paul Avatar

    Fr. Stephen:
    Thanks for the notes on Met. Zizioulas. I am reading in this area now. I will look up the book you recommended.


  24. […] 9, 2009 · Leave a Comment In a comment on one of his recent posts, Fr. Stephen mentioned two names–priest/confessors Fr. Roman Braga and Fr. George Calciu of […]

  25. Darlene Avatar


    Yes, I felt blessed to be in the presence of Richard Wurmbrand and his wife Sabina. RB said at one meeting where he spoke that it was more difficult to be a faithful Christian in the United States than in the Communist prisons of Romania. He was making reference to all those things than compete for our attention to pull us away from God. And he recognized how the culture had infiltrated much of the Christian churches so that the faith that was willing to suffer for Christ was obscured, even replaced in many cases, with an easy believism.

    May we be willing to suffer for Christ’s sake in our day in these United States of America. The suffering and death of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.

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