Mind and Heart

I 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.

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 suggested 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 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.





36 responses to “Mind and Heart”

  1. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen!

  2. Merry Avatar

    How true. Well put. If only we could strive to truly put this into practice every day! We are continually distracted and dismayed, by the things we see and deal with every day – at home, at work, on the computer, in the news, and all the media that bombards us.
    This reminds me that we need to take time every day – for quiet moments, love, and above all – forgiveness. When driving and that moment of “road rage” comes to our minds, we need to instead forgive the driver and pray for the welfare of that person and all that will be on the road with them this day. Instead of letting anger and being ‘right” overtake us – forgiving instantly changes the dynamic and leads us to prayer. (It also does wonders for blood pressure. lol)
    So many times each day we get the chance to make a choice – how we will react to something someone else has done or said. Choosing forgiveness and prayer – our heart over our mind – is a habit I am working hard to grow in my own life. This is such a well written reminder of how we all struggle with that and how hard we need to try to show Christ to others – in everything we do.

  3. deanna Avatar

    I appreciate this very much; thank you, Fr. Stephen. I can, however, just imagine friends of mine asking how I can agree with what is said here about not needing to be right, and yet I have joined the Church that claims to have “right worship.” How do you answer a question like this?

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    The experience of “right worship” is not the same thing as the thought, “I am right.”

  5. dee Avatar

    “lives entirely in the present, and is, at every moment, accepting of the reality God gives in that moment”… sounds like a beautiful description of what we call “Νήψης” (usually translated “watchfulness”)…
    If we only could constantly practice it, you go on to describe some of its many invaluable results: “It knows no fear, experiences no desire”
    Thank you Father for always rekindling the flame…!

  6. Steven Avatar

    To Deanna’s point — I don’t think Fr. Stephen or Fr. Meletios is saying we should be unconcerned with the truth, but seeking the truth is very different from the need to “be right.” As Fr. Meletios pointed out, the desire to “be right” is almost entirely about showing someone else to be “wrong.” In other words, we should be Orthodox because the Church, by God’s grace, has preserved the fullness of the true faith, not because we want to be “right” and therefore, in our own minds, “better” than other Christians.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    Steven makes a very good point. In becoming Orthodox we do not become “better” than other Christians, we manifest ourselves to be the chief of sinners. Other Christians are not really our concern, whatever lacking they may have. Our task is to live the faith that has now been given to us.

  8. Andrew Avatar

    Such pertinant words, both in the post and comments about being right. I always go back to a quote I have heard long back (can’t place the author) about in being Orthodox we know where the church is, but we don’t say where it isn’t. In having right faith we should be more compassionate and righteous, as opposed to being “self-righteous”

    Thanks again Father!

  9. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    I think the best example of being righteous versus being right is the parable of the publican and the pharisee. When the publican said God be merciful to me a sinner he offered to God Orthodox worship

  10. […] Ouch! Self-recognition! Forgive me for past insisting on someone being wrong so I can be right. […]

  11. Dinosaur Friend Avatar
    Dinosaur Friend


    Regarding Orthodox worship as right worship, might you be able to elaborate upon the meaning of this – specifically, why we can say that the Divine Liturgy is truly worship offered in Spirit and truth and other forms of worship, such as a modern Protestant service of sincerely offered modern praise songs concluding with a weekly Communion (though not understood as a real presence), is not? I feel the truth of this, and I think I may be able to begin to understand, but I have great difficulty putting it into a coherent thought.

    Also, for background for my question, my wife and I are currently inquirers in the Church, probably soon to become catechumens. We come from a Protestant church as described above, where it is very evident that God is working, and where I know people offer worship sincerely. The question above is one that continues to surface, and I find it difficult to answer satisfactorily, especially without casting it into terms of us being “right” and them being “wrong.”

    Leonard Nugent – thank you for the comment above about the publican and Pharisee. This helps me to better understand what we mean by Orthodox worship.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    Several points would be included in “right” worship. First, the words and actions reflect correct doctrine (viz. the Trinity and the rest of the Tradition of the faith). Second, there are canons and other directives that guide music, iconography, even how a priest intones the liturgy, the goal being directed towards the nurture of a proper response in the people – i.e. sobriety (for one). Simply stirring everybody up into an emotional state would be seen as incorrect liturgy in Orthodoxy (as an example). The liturgical life of the Church, which embraces the whole of the life (usually found only in some monastic settings in its fullness), both sets forth the fullness of the faith, but over time, offers us that reality in such a way in which we can be permeated and conformed to that faith. This does not happen quickly, though many aspects of it can be very quickly absorbed by children. Our lack in America of generations and cultures that have been permeated in the life of the faith (lack of monasteries, etc.) is a weakness of our experience. We are a missionary country, for all of our members.

    The assumption of Protestant worship, and much of modern Roman Catholic worship, is that worship is, at best a rational experience, and perhaps an emotional experience, and largely a cultural experience. Thus everything is up for grabs. For RC’s the liturgy has been minimalized as for many Anglicans. Evangelicals think about “becoming all things to all men” but end up too often with a “culture Christ.” We do not exist merely as words, nor is the faith merely words. This is a great weakness that entered the war of words in the West and has created one aspect of our modern religious tragedy.

  13. leonard nugent Avatar
    leonard nugent

    As a Roman Catholic I can say that you’re right to point out that we do many things wrong in our worship, my prayer is that it will be fixed one day

  14. Dinosaur Friend Avatar
    Dinosaur Friend

    Thank you for your reply, Father. This is very helpful.

  15. Philip Jude Avatar

    Hear, hear, Leonard. Thankfully, I think the low point of Catholic liturgical practice was hit some years ago. For the last fifteen years at least, things have been on the up-swing. The younger priests I know are very committed to solemn, reverential Masses, and the new English translation of the Ordinary Form is a huge step in the right direction in terms of tone and imagery. Also, Latin Masses are more widely available than ever before, utilizing the Extraordinary Form. The flood of conservative Anglicans will help turn back the protestantization of the liturgy, too, since they bring a distinctly High Church tradition. I look forward to visiting an Anglican Ordinate Mass.

  16. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    My mind (I, ego) is ever striving to find distinction between me and others. I judge others compared to myself by using memory and understanding gain from past experiences and what I have been taught and told. If my judgement is that the person is better than I am, they are my enemy. If my judgement is that the person is worse than I am, they are my enemy.
    I used to attend an Antiochian Western rite Orthodox parish. I truly love one of the post communion prayer in the St. Andrew Service Book.

    Accept O Lord, my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my will. All that I am and have Thou hast given me; and I give it all back to be disposed of according to Thy good pleasure. give me only the comfort of Thy presence and the joy of Thy love; with these I shall be more than rich and shall desire nothing more.

    Making this truly real in me will take, I am afraid, the rest of my life, if then. This probably won’t happen until, by God’s grace, I am taken up into heaven.

    Thank you Fr. Stephen. This reading has, at least for today, moved me out of my head and into my heart.

  17. Theron Mathis (@TheronMathis) Avatar

    The distinction between being right and righteous is brilliant. In Orthodoxy, I have found the path to be righteous.

  18. Yaatra Avatar

    I know exactly how you feel. I myself am new to orthodoxy – about 2 months old, and much of my struggle while I was exploring orthodoxy was this question of why the Orthodox worship was “right” or “true” worship and not the modern protestant praise and worship sessions. After all, God seems to be at work there too…All I know is that the more I attend the services in the orthodox church, be it the divine liturgy, vespers, complines, feast days … and especially the services during holy week, I realize the truth of this– there is a depth and height and broadness to orthodox worship that I haven’t found anywhere else and a witnessing in my spirit this is how we as Christians were always meant to worship God. Don’t know if I am making any sense here… but just wanted you to know that you are not alone in feeling this way. God will grant you clarity of thought, words and the understanding you need as you journey on…but journey on you must in order to receive it. May God bless your journey…

  19. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    Pray for me Theron, it’s such a difficult path to find and I may never find it

  20. Kay Avatar

    Father, is this beautiful church interior the one designed by
    Nicholas Roerich?

  21. Prudence True Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I agree with you comment above:

    “Other Christians are not really our concern, whatever lacking they may have. Our task is to live the faith that has now been given to us.”

    Isn’t this sometimes the criticism directed towards previous generations of Orthodox Christians: living the faith within their community and not concerning themselves with Christians of other sorts? But this allows for the peaceful opportunity to live your faith (Orthodox or not) alongside your neighbor, doesn’t it?

    Cultivating your heart is impossible without cultivating the humility of feeling wrong . . . right?

  22. Dinosaur Friend Avatar
    Dinosaur Friend


    I have another somewhat related question. In what sense would the Orthodox Church understand healing and what seems to be the obvious blessing of ministries outside of the bounds of the Church? This is a question that my wife in particular is struggling with, and I am not able to adequately articulate an answer.

    For example, the church we come from is an evangelical Protestant church with a Calvinist bent and, though affirmed, not much in the way of “charismatic” happenings. However, in the past couple of years, there have been multiple miraculous recoveries and healings from very serious cancers, including the lead pastor and another pastor, both with the same type of typically terminal brain cancer, and both completely healed without any negative side effects – this even after a portion of the pastors’ brains were removed. Another member from the same church had a mass on his brain, returned to the doctor shortly after, and the mass was gone without a trace.

    So, to put the question pointedly, if God’s blessings are available outside of the Orthodox Church, why come to Orthodoxy? I know an answer is that this is where the fulness of the faith is found, and where one is able to enter most fully into the life of God. I also know that the Spirit goes where he wills, and God, being merciful and loving, saves whosoever he wants. But I wonder how you would elaborate more fully on why one should convert when God is healing lives both spiritually and physically in churches outside of the Orthodox Church.

    Yaatra – thank you for your kind and encouraging words. The more (or less) I understand, the more I continue to see that the truth of Orthodox worship is a truth that can really only be understood through experience, not through concepts alone.

  23. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    Prudence, I once spent 17 years in a church that “lacked nothing” known as the Church of Christ and spent a lot of time worrying about what everybody else lacked.. This was a truly unforgettable experience! I now spend a lot of time wondering what it is that I don’t
    see now.

  24. Prudence True Avatar


    I love this: “I now spend a lot of time wondering what it is that I don’t
    see now.”

    Maybe the less you think you see, the more your eyes (and heart) will behold the hidden!

  25. Rowley Avatar

    “The usual way to acquire knowledge – the one we all know – consists in directing the cognitive faculty outwards, where it meets with phenomena, sights, forms, all in innumerable variety – a fragmentation ad infinitum of all that exists. This means that the knowledge thus acquired is never complete and has no real unity. Insistently seeking unity, the mind is forced to have recourse to synthesis, which cannot help being artificial. The unity thus arrived a does not really and objectively exist. It is merely a form of abstract thinking natural to the mind.

    The other way to acquire knowledge of being is to direct the spirit in and toward itself and then to God. Here the process is somewhat the reverse. The mind turns away from the endless plurality and fragmentariness of world phenomena, and with all its strength addresses itself to God, and, dwelling in God, begins to see both itself and the whole world.”

    “St Silouan the Athonite,” Archimandrite Sophrony, p. 103

    [I’m reading this book as I read your blog, Father. So I’ll probably continue to post these wonderful ‘overlaps’]

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There is much for contemplation in this post and the comments. After reading and attempting to absorb the message here I must issue a word of caution: The approach to the subject partakes too much of the cultural delusion that man exists dichotomously. That is to say, we either think or feel–we can’t do both; that somehow rational thought is lesser or greater than our intuitive nature.

    Fr. Stephen mentions that the Orthodox approach is to know experience and express the wholeness of man as we are created: A wholeness that is affirmed and made accessible in the Incarnation. Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man from the moment of his conception “by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary…” now and always.

    I am Orthodox for many reasons. One of the most obvious for me is the fact that in the Church I can be fully human, by the Grace of a fully human/divine God.

    I spent my entire life prior to being accepted into the Church fighting the false dichotomy presented to us in our culture (which is largely the result, IMO, of the theological and ecclesial innovations of western Christendom and their action in a God denying culture). Descartes dictum: “I think therefore I am” is blasphemous.

    I simply cannot express strongly enough that the quest for an Orthodox believer is for us to become fully human, as we are created to be. That our mind dwell in our heart “…without confusion or mixture….” as to the nature of each. To separate them in any way is dangerous, just as dangerous as considering the humanity of Christ separate in any way from His divinity or His divinity in any way separate from His humanity….or considering any person of the Holy Trinity separate from any of the others despite the fact that there is a discreet, identifiable difference.

    This is the faith of the Orthodox and it is found nowhere else despite the blessings and grace of Christ which overflows from and through the Church for all even if they deny Christ and hate him. How much more is that grace available to those who seek to know Him and love Him: in the Church or not.

  27. Theron Mathis (@TheronMathis) Avatar


    May God have mercy on us all. In my above comment, I in no way am trying to imply that I have arrived or above doubts and struggles, but only on the path to righteousness.

    Reading through great councils and debates, I am struck with how the Fathers combated heresy, and I think it matches up with what Fr. Weber says. Their vigor against heresy was not a war of personal rightness, but a salvific concern of fear, a fear of losing the way of righteousness. The doctrines they defended protected the path to salvation.

  28. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    Michael Bauman, if not for the re-chrismation It’s possible that I would at some point join the Orthodox church. That issue alone makes it impossible. I was confirmed on March 11, 2000. There is an insurmountable technical detail that arises because of an argument about how a sacrament is administered.

  29. merry Avatar

    Leonard you confuse confirmation as in Catholic, Episcopalian n other churches with the chrismation in the Orthodox church. So NOT the same. There is no re-chrismation- ever. I was confirmed in the Episcopal church at age 10,confirmed catholic at age 19, and Chrismated as Orthodox at age 62.it is NOT the same sacrement. Just as Orthodox confession is not the same as Catholic. It took me a long time to find the place n faith God intended for me but I rejoice I was led to become Orthodox. I am where I. Truly belong now n Chrismated for life n after- Orthodox.

  30. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    The statement that Orthodox confession and Catholic confession are not the same sacrament is pretty eye opening thanks Merry it helps a lot on my journey and I’ll always remember that.

  31. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    I suppose I should point out that this means either that there are more than 7 sacraments or that the Roman Catholic church has no valid sacraments and is therefore not a church. I’m not sure which error I like least.

  32. handmaid leah Avatar

    @Leonard Nugent
    The Orthodox Church doesn’t number the mysteries or sacraments…

  33. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    I thought of that after I posted this. I guess there’s a bunch!

  34. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    And so I don’t appear totally ignorant of the Orthodox church I’m also aware that you don’t talk about that place where Adolph Hitler and my grandma Margaret are now.

  35. Joel Haas Avatar
    Joel Haas

    Fr. Stephen,

    I’m not sure if you’ll receive this comment from so far back in your posts, but I do have a question.

    I have been exploring the Orthodox faith for a year or two (from a roughly Calvinist background), and one stumbling block for me has been Fr. Meletios Webber’s book that you mention in this post.

    I don’t understand how him and yourself can hold this distinction between heart (good) and head (bad) – to oversimplify. It all sounds very beautiful and rich, but then when I read the words of our Lord I encounter things like “from the heart come all evil things.” Also, in Proverbs (I’ll hope that there is no major difference b/w MT and LXX) I read that the heart is that from which all the issues of life flow (good “roots” bear good “fruit”, bad “roots” bear bad “fruit”).

    And I’m not talking about Augustinian hamartiology here. Rather, I seem to observe Jesus (and others throughout Scripture) saying that it is the heart ITSELF that has to be saved/renewed/transformed, as opposed to one needing one’s “mind to descend into one’s heart.”.

    Is my question making sense? Can you help me to understand what’s going on here? I assume that there is a simple answer to all of this, because I respect Orthodox Tradition too much to believe that it would so straightforwardly contradict the plain teaching of our Lord!

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen.

    If you would rather respond via e-mail, I can be reached at email hidden; JavaScript is required

  36. Notary Public Preston Avatar

    Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted
    to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.

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