To Guard the 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 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.





33 responses to “To Guard the Heart”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andrew Mitry and Ζωντανό Ιστολόγιο. Ζωντανό Ιστολόγιο said: To Guard the Heart: I often think about the admonition of the fathers to “guard your heart.” It seems so obvious t… […]

  2. Aunt Wendy Avatar

    Just finished Wendell Berry’s ANDY CATLETT, EARLY TRAVELS. Your post is reminding me of something from that book, which I found very comforting: “Time then, is told by love’s losses, and by the coming of love, and by love continuing in gratitude for what is lost. It is folded and enfolded and unfolded forever and ever, the love by which the dead are alive and the unborn welcomed into the womb. The great question for the old and dying, I think, is not if they have loved and been loved enough, but if they have been grateful enough for love received and given, however much. No one who has gratitude is the onliest one. Let us pray to be grateful to the last.”

  3. Brian McDonald Avatar
    Brian McDonald

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for that wonderful meditation and even more to you “Aunt Wendy” for that moving quote from Wendell Berry. As an aging person who has regretted many times not loving enough it was an immense comfort to read. Perhaps I will remember to turn the next episode of regret into thanksgiving!

  4. davdperi Avatar

    There seems to me a lethergy has set-in about spiritual things the past month…the reason for this is that I have not been to church because in June and Jully church is only twice a-month and I blame my own lack of strength and will to pursue even reading the bible. Pray for me.

  5. handmaid leah Avatar

    Dear David –
    Summer is this way – we live rurally and there is always something going on that makes us late, tired or busy. Must be the extra sunlight, but whatever the cause, you are not alone.

  6. handmaid leah Avatar

    forgive me – I should have put “excuse” for “cause” – the cause is my own self. So whatever the excuse, be grateful for the trial and struggle on, you really are not alone.

  7. Darlene Avatar

    How timely this post is, but I think it would be so no matter when I would read it. I have experienced all the reactions of the heart that you have mentioned here, Father, and more. Even this day my heart cries out with mixed emotions, anxiety mixed with frustration, hurt mixed with feelings of betrayal, and yes, even longing….longing to be released and set free to love God freely, unencumbered. Longing for Christ to be formed within me so that only He rules my heart at all times. And so I groan inwardly, recognizing His holiness and my need to be holy, to live holy, to be ever and always in communion with the Lover of my soul.

    I cannot help but think of the great British poet, John Donne. Surely from his writings we know that he endured intense pain and loved deeply. So it is that I give a tribute to this sublime bard who blessed us with a gift of his very self.

    Holy Sonnet XIV

    Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for You
    As yet but knock; breathe, shine,
    and seek to mend;
    That I may rise, and stand,
    o’erthrow me, and bend
    Your force, to break, blow, burn,
    and make me new.
    I, like an usurp’d town, to another
    Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
    Reason, your viceroy in me, me
    should defend,
    But is catived, and proves weak or untrue.
    Yet dearly I love You, and would be loved fain,
    But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
    Divorce me, untie, or break that
    knot again,
    Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
    Except you enthrall me, never shall
    be free,
    Nor ever chaste, except You ravish

  8. Michael Avatar

    Thank you Father
    As I read your post I noted first the word “react”. People usually talk about reacting to things. I see such a distinction between reacting and responding and am saddenned when I hear this language. I betrays a state of mind. Are words are very revelatory. Do they not reveal our hearts?

    I was glad to see that you used the word respond later in your post. When we operate or live out of a “passionate state of being” we more than likely react to things.

    How indeed can we live in fear of God whom we thank once we have communion with Him in prayer and the eucharist / liturgy.

    About three years ago, in the deep depths of depression I asked a friend of mine what the opposite for fear was. He responded from his perspective as a 17 year vetran of AA saying faith is. I think he is right and I have come to believe that everything can be seen on a continuum. Light and darkenss are the same, they are opposites sides of the same coin and at any time we can move from absolute light to somewhere between it and complete darkenss. The same holds true with fear and faith.

    As I struggle with the passions my connection with God (if I may use that term) suffers. When I sin I find my prayer rule suffers. When I pick myself up again and pray, I in my act of repenting my sin I am taking a step closer to God.

    When I am in relationship with God (pray, worhip, give thanks (eucharistica) and live by his statues, then my life is lived with faith/trust in God that I can, in this moment celebrate with a thankful heart and therefore banish the opposite fear.

    My healing from depression was profoundly spiritual. Through prayer, through “guarding the heart from the passionate thoughts which brought me into a state of hell”, through reading the writings of the Father’s I can say I am most thankful. That does not mean that I do not fall again, only to get up again. I can pray, with a thankful heart. The Divine Liturgy is such a joy because it is in its most basic and fullest sense the work of the people whose primary role is to give thanks.

    I recall but can not spell the word for eucharist in Hebrew. It is an element of the Passover prayers / celebration. Jesus in celebrating the passover would have recited the story of God and the Israelite people. He would have recalled the salvation history of Israel. Do we not also through guarding our hearts, live in a state of being where we can give thanks to God, mindful of the mighty acts of God through Jesus Christ in mind?

    I don’t know if this makes any sense to others.

    I look forward to your response Father Stephen. Thank you.
    In Christ

  9. davdperi Avatar

    After my above post, thank you for the prayers…I had the living body and blood yesterday in church…and came away with a new awareness that my sins are forgiven…and the living Christ did not forsake or leave me. My lethergy….I did it to myself.

  10. Jim Avatar

    Thank you, Father, for that reminder! I love the line where you say we cannot be anxious about something we are thankful for…so true.

  11. Darlene Avatar

    Thank you, Michael. Such lovely ideas to ponder when thinking about the beauty of the Eucharist. To dwell upon such thoughts this morning is comfort to the heart and soul. I, too, have battled with depression and know full well of the passionate thoughts that can bring one into a “state of hell,” as you say. You are not alone.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    Your points are well made and insightful. There is a world of difference between react and respond – though not the focus of this particular post. In the way they are used here, I think they were the correct choices. In anxiety, about all we do is react…and we certainly misperceive.

  13. Darrell Lahay Avatar

    Gaurd you heart…a good peice of advice, and a loaded concept! It’s funny that this phrase has come up in conversation morne than once this week in my reading and conversation..

    I have been meditating on two ‘3 peice’ admonitions latley that both speak of ‘gaurding the heart’.

    The first is from the Didache (teachings of the twelve):

    “Judge with justice, reprove without fear or favour, and never be in two inds about decisions.”

    And the second nugget i’m chewing on is actually from a strictly rabbinic source from the jewish Midrash section called “Perkei Avos” or “Ethics of the Fathers”

    “Be deiliberate in judgement, develop many disciples, and make a fence for Torah )or gaurd your heart)


  14. Lina Avatar

    A friend of mine recommended praying through the Akathist to our Sweetest Jesus Christ. After two or three times reading through it I began to realize how thankful I was for so many of the things mentioned so I started adding into every line, “Thank you”. For example- ‘Thank you Jesus that you are most wonderful and that you are the astonishment of Angels.’

    This does wonders for the heart.

  15. Claudia Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen,

    Thank you for all the wonderful work you do on behalf of our Lord! I admit I was feeling anxious and discouraged this morning. Thanks to your post to guard our hearts, I am encouraged and reminded Christ does not foresake us.

  16. Seraphim Avatar

    That’s a wonderful prayer Lina, thanks.

  17. Merry Bauman Avatar
    Merry Bauman

    This was really beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing it with all of us.
    I find it is the real way out of depression, to begin thanking God for every single thing we are blessed to have in our lives. Sometimes it is simply being alive, being able to see, hear, think, walk, talk, have a roof over our heads, a bed to sleep in, food to eat, a blanket to keep us warm, not living in a place of constant danger, not being in pain, not being seriously ill, and on and on.
    We have the blessings of so much in our lives, and we are so much better off than so many in this world.
    It is good to give continual thanks to God, for all that He gives us – every single day. My husband teases me at times, because I ask God for something, and thank Him for it at the same time. I want to be sure He knows I am grateful and appreciate each time a prayer is answered – even when it is not answered as I would like sometimes. By thanking God, I am trusting Him to know what is best, and accepting that it will be.
    When you are continually counting your blessings and thanking God, you do not leave room in your heart for the negative things. It is filled with His love.
    The Eucharist is strengthening to both our spirits and our hearts. We take in a part of our Lord as we partake, and He becomes ever more a part of each of us. Is that not what we all seek? Becoming Orthodox has given me such a deeper perspective of what is truly possible, when you become ever more a part of Jesus each week thru Communion. Guarding our hearts is also a way of holding Him ever closer inside us, that His love may shine thru us to others.

  18. Lina Avatar

    PS. Along with praying “Thank you” I have also inserted the word ‘Please” where appropriate.

    ‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ are amenities which we teach our kids but somehow many of our prayers sound more like ‘gimme!’

  19. Seraphim Avatar

    Orthodoxy recognises no sharp distinction between between the sacred and the secular… As Christians we are necessarily materialists; ours is an incarnate faith, earthy, rooted in this world. Thus our Orthodox service books contain prayers for sowing, threshing, and wine-making, for diseased sheep or cattle, for blessing cars, tractors and fishing nets, for insomnia, for children starting to learn the alphabet or students taking their examinations, In the older editions there are even rites for cursing caterpillars and removing dead rats from the bottom of a well.

    (Foreward by Bishop Kallistos Ware, Praying with the Orthodox Tradition).

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    Or, as I have stated less eloquently: it’s a one-storey universe. There really is no such thing as secular.

  21. Seraphim Avatar

    “Everywhere present and filling all things”– well said dear Father Stephen, we really do live in a one-storey universe.

  22. María Gutiérrez Avatar
    María Gutiérrez

    Thanf you very much

  23. Seraphim Avatar

    “The last decade of the twentieth century saw an historic event. In 1993, The Orthodox Study Bible: New Testament and Psalms was released, the first English Bible with study material reflecting how the early Christians interpreted the Bible and applied it to their lives.”

    From the dust cover of The Orthodox Study Bible (2008).

  24. Daniel Avatar

    Lovely and beautiful post. I’ll have to share it.

    Forgive me, but I have to share one of my reactions (being a Christian of the Reformational traditions) to the beginning of the post – “there go those Orthodox, ascribing to the Fathers what actually comes from Scripture”
    Guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life. Proverbs 4:23

    quite a popular memory verse in evangelical circles, especially among young women.

    Though the Desert Fathers do teach extensively on this concept.

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    Daniel – and the fathers expound for us the meaning of Scripture – in their writings and in their lives – else we would have a hard time knowing what the Scriptures meant. 🙂

  26. Pio Quindecimo Avatar

    Is it accurate to speak of “Reformational traditions”? So many novelties were created by the “reformers” that I would hesitate to even use the word tradition in connection with them. Why not just call them what they are: followers of Luther or Calvin; or members of the state-church of England; or whatever small group they are part of.

  27. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Obviously, the phrase has meaning, which is the purpose of the English language. I am Orthodox, and try to treat with respect those who post.

  28. Pio Quindecimo Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I can appreciate the politeness you have shown all the people who read and comment on your blog. My comment was for Daniel. I found it more than a little funny that he would–even politely–be critical of quoting the desert fathers while Protestant “traditions” (departures from tradition) were only invented in the 16th–21st centuries. I’m not sure if he realized quite what he was writing.

    When Protestants refer to their theology as “traditions”…it’s a bit like when the Eastern European communist nations called themselves “democratic”: an attempt at credibility.

    I apologize if my comment came off rude.

  29. Dan M. Avatar
    Dan M.

    Father bless,

    Father Stephen, God has blessed you. Pray for us.

  30. Darlene Avatar


    Bless! Is there somewhere in that Orthodox Prayer Book a prayer for obtaining employment? I am currently looking for a full-time job. The only Orthodox prayer book I have is the small one printed by St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press titled, “Orthodox Daily Prayers.” One of my favorites is “The Prayer of the Optina Elders.” Every line has such meaning.

  31. fatherstephen Avatar

    Ask St. Xenia of Petersburg to help you find work. Her prayers are very helpful.

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