The heart is a precious thing. The term can sometimes be confusing for people reading Orthodox writings. On occasion it almost sounds synonomous with the soul. At other times, it is identified with the nous, that organ of perception by which we know God. The Scriptures use the term (especially in the Old Testament) but never clearly define what it means. Some number of the Fathers make a literal identification with the physical heart while preserving its function as an organ of perception. Biology aside, the heart is a way of speaking about that which is deepest within – the seat of the self that is most truly “who we are.”
Christ speaks of the heart in a variety of ways. There are dangers that reside in the heart:
“But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” (Matthew 15:18–19)
When a group criticized Him for healing on the Sabbath, while a man with a crippled hand stood in need, we read:
And He looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. (Mark 3:5)
More positively, however, Christ promised:
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matt. 5:8)
A very powerful take on the coldness of the heart can be found in the sayings of St. Seraphim of Sarov:
“God is a fire that warms and kindles the heart and inward parts. Hence, if we feel in our hearts the cold which comes from the devil—for the devil is cold—let us call on the Lord. He will come to warm our hearts with perfect love, not only for Him but also for our neighbor, and the cold of him who hates the good will flee before the heat of His countenance.”
The heart is subject to injury. The traumas and the contradictions of our lives easily wound the heart. Our fears, our anger, our shame, our darkened memories and such, all contribute to the heart’s coldness. And, reflecting on St. Seraphim’s words, we know that those elements are intensified by the actions and whisperings of the adversary. All of the actions of asceticism – fasting, vigils, etc., have the single purpose of cleansing and healing the heart. Sadly, we often give greater attention to what we are eating (or not eating) than the things that are eating at our hearts. St. Basil said, “It does you no good to abstain from meat and to then devour your brother.”
We are lulled into a form of complacency by our culture’s exaltation of “objective” knowledge. We fail to notice that, even in very mundane things, dark musings, such as anger and resentment, can affect our performance. Driving angry can be as distracting as texting. We are not compartmentalized beings – with some objective monitor operating independently of the state of our heart.
The healing of the heart can be a difficult work. It’s wounds can be quite old and deep. Resentments can easily grow from mere insults into a world-view. The handful of commandments given to us by Christ easily serve as a short guide to mending the heart.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
This, I suspect, is the form of theosis that not many imagine. The love of enemies is not a moral matter – rather, it describes a state of being. It is nothing less than a crucified life. As Christ forgives His enemies from the Cross, He reveals the full depth of His divinity. Just as the Father makes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, so Christ shines the light of His love on the whole of humanity (“who know not what they do”). There is no union with the crucified Christ that is not also a union in such love. The same observation can be made regarding Christ’s teachings on generosity and kindness. In His person and in His teachings, we see revealed the very heart of God.
St. Silouan was famously told, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” That came to him in the context of demons distracting his prayers. We face the hell of our own heart. St. Macarius wrote:
The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. (H.43.7)
We should make no mistake – the great competition and battle takes place within the heart. In the life of St. Silouan we see not just the mystical word of Christ, but Silouan’s own embracing of the “whole Adam,” all of humanity. This is the fruit of love – of unwaning forgiveness and a radical generosity.
All of this is overwhelming when we consider such a battle. We should take heart, however, knowing that the grace of God within us is able to do all things. We cry out, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner!” It is the cry for Christ within us to do what we cannot. Do not refuse His help.
“Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” (1 Jn. 4:4)