Is Anybody There? Speaking to the Heart

“Talking to you is like talking to a fence post!”

I can still hear the words. I don’t remember who said them – but I heard them sometime in my teenage years. The occasion was doubtless some sort of argument. There were many things to argue about: Love, Peace, War, Jesus, Drugs, Sex, Rock ‘n Roll. There was a great deal of talk and almost no conversation. But why was the experience of talking to someone similar to speaking to a block of wood?

The simple answer is, “No one is at home.” When the ego (the false self generated by our anxieties, fears, grandiosity, etc.) becomes our public voice, the true self is rendered mute. Conversations with the ego are almost useless. Conversations with the ego also tend to provoke responses from the ego – “like calls to like.” Thus one set of defenses speaks to another set of aggressions, switching places as the war of words waxes and wanes. No information is exchanged. No minds are changed. The heart remains inert, shielded in a fog of make-believe.

We are often struck by the relatively short statements of Christ. “Follow me,” and a man leaves his fishing nets and becomes a disciple. I have often wondered if the gospels simply give us a brief summary of a longer conversation. As years have worn on, I think not.

One of the longest conversations recorded in the gospels takes place between Christ and the woman at the well (John 4). Every word of Christ is addressed to the heart. The woman initially responds from the ego.

Jesus says, “Give Me a drink.” She responds (defensively), “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” Jesus speaks again to her heart, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” Christ continues and speaks about living water. Her first response from the heart says, “Sir, give me this water….”

Christ goes deeper into her heart, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” Her response, “I have no husband,” is a confession, spoken from the depths of her heart. There is no explanation no prevarication. In the final moments of the conversation the ego offers a last defense – one last argument of Samaritans versus Jews. Christ responds with the word of the coming Messiah, and reveals Himself to her. In the coming of the Christ, all space between Jew and Samaritan is bridged. The one common hope of the heart destroys the imagined pain of the false self. The words of Christ, spoken consistently to the heart, reveal a woman whose life is a story of broken relationships (five husbands and a live-in friend) to be a saint. The woman at the well, known to the Church as St. Photini, later dies a martyr’s death, having drunk to the full the living water given her that day.

Our own conversations, both when speaking and listening, do well to be grounded in the heart.

Here are some tools to use to remain in the heart:

  • Use fewer words – be silent if possible. (Eccles. 3:3)
  • Only speak the truth, though it is not necessary to be unkind. (Eph. 4:15)
  • Resist the effort to defend yourself. (Matt. 10:19)
  • It is not important to be right. (Proverbs 26:21)
  • Do not argue. Your effect on someone else’s ego will come to nothing.  (Hos. 4:4)
  • Tell your anxieties that everything will be ok. (Phil. 4:6)
  • Don’t be in a hurry to speak. Let someone else finish their thought. (Proverbs 29:20).
  • Breathe.

Those who know me will understand the irony of my advice. Of those who sin against speech, I am first.


Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

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.





40 responses to “Is Anybody There? Speaking to the Heart”

  1. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks Fr. Stephen.

    What is the relationship between the passions and the ego?

  2. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I guess I’m mixing language in the article(s). “Ego” is a modern term – and I’m using it synonymously with the “false self” – a construct pretty much of our passions/shame, etc. It “feels” like “me,” but it actually covers and hides the true self. By “true self,” I mean the soul, the truth of who we are.

  3. DEHC Avatar

    Holy,,,, um,,, cow? I needed those references this morning. I’ve been battling people in my brain today. I need to shut it off.

  4. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    It’s very hard to “do nothing” or to “not do something.” My advice (as someone who struggles with such irritations) is to put something else in its place – something positive. I use the Jesus Prayer and I also use small, repeated, “arrow prayers” as the Fathers called them, such as, “Glory to God for all things…etc.”

  5. Matthew Avatar

    But my soul is sick. It is in need of deep healing and transformation. In that sense it seems there isn´t really a “true self”, or if there is a “true self” we seldom (if ever) have access to it. It seems like most of the time I am living out of a false self driven by my unhealthy attachment to the passions. 🙁

  6. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Of course. And we should not despair. “Our life is hid with Christ in God,” St. Paul says, and we are moving towards it. And, St. John says, “When He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” The way forward is to see Him (so Christ is my focus rather than myself) – and in seeing Him, I will be healed…little by little. And during the whole thing – always – give thanks. It makes the journey so much quieter and more pleasant. 🙂

  7. Byron Avatar

    DEHC, I way too often fight people “in my brain”. Indeed, I think I may have more “enemies” in my imagination than in my real life! Hard to turn off too. God grant us both peace and humility.

  8. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen.

    I do try to make Christ my focus, but I think I am mostly involved in deep thoughts and ideas about Him, rather than in an experiential or relational connection with Him.

    Not being able to partake of the Eucharist is also saddening. I truly believe I am missing out on a huge piece of Jesus´ nurishment and life. That said, I do have prayer and Bible reading.

    I will continue to be patient. Thanks again.

  9. Matthew Robb Brown Avatar
    Matthew Robb Brown

    Defaulting to prayer including small motions of thanksgiving or petition such as the Jesus prayer, scripture, and good reading material such as lives of the saints or certain literature, are the most effective things for me, that is when I am disciplined enough to go right into one or more of them, rather than chew on the bad stuff!

  10. Job Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, are there other such “arrow prayers” you recommend? In another post, you mentioned a short prayer (“I thank thee, O Lord, for all the things thou hast done for me, unworthy thou I am”) that Fr. Zacharias of Essex advises one repeat throughout the day. I’m just curious, because for me such prayers are usually short passages from the Psalms, and it’s best to keep the quiver full! Blessings to you.

  11. Cynthia Ward Avatar
    Cynthia Ward

    Is the false self the heart we are told holds much evil? I have been trying to understand what is the difference. We are told in scripture not to trust the heart and yet ….

  12. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Good question! The Scriptures use terms such as “heart” in a variety of ways with a variety of meanings (after all, it’s a collection of writings by a variety of authors). But, I think your way of describing the distinction is quite good: false self vs. true self (which is also called the heart). The context tells us pretty much what is meant.

    However, there’s a heavy emphasis on the “evil heart” in some Protestant thought where there is a doctrine that human beings are “totally depraved.” This is not an Orthodox teaching.

  13. Andrew Avatar

    Job, I came across these “arrow prayers” from St. John Chysostom a few years ago. Technically, I believe these were for every hour, but they fit the bill.

  14. Elizabeth Avatar

    Very helpful article, thanks. What do you mean by “argue”? Isn’t it necessary sometimes to argue for the sake of truth and justice? Or do you have another type of argument in mind?

  15. Anne Avatar

    It’s very interesting I’m reading a book about our thoughts in our mind. The chatter the silly non sense on my own thoughts. Thank God for our church and the prayer.
    Much love

  16. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    On the surface of things, it would seem like argument would be very important for truth and justice. However, it point of fact, it rarely makes any difference. Few people are swayed by arguments (or even a good presentation of the facts). This is not to say that there is never a good reason to present the facts (and counter-facts). But, it is to say that we should not be surprised when the exercise fails to change someone’s mind.

    A difficulty in the matter is the state of the heart. If the heart is corrupted, or in delusion, then the heart needs to change – and this is a deep matter – it actually requires grace and repentance. We cannot force the hearts of others (even with good facts). Having spent near 50 years in ministry of one sort or another, I’ve seen that it requires patience, love, kindness, and lots of prayer to prepare a heart for repentance (and change).

    There are profound conversations that take place – some are life-changing. But it is worthwhile to consider such conversations and to study them – what actually took place? What was said? What was the background to the life-change, etc.

    Of course, if I’m arguing because my point is true (but to no effect), then it’s quite likely that I’m not really speaking to anyone other than myself.

  17. Julie kurkcu Avatar
    Julie kurkcu

    Thank you for this Father. I relate to this daily as I’ve been married to my husband for 30 years nearly and he’s not a man of faith the beginning of our marriage. I was not very strong in my faith either so it didn’t matter but now that I’ve grown closer to God And he is not. I find every day struggle.

  18. Job Avatar

    Andrew, thank you! Those do fit the bill and are what I was looking for.

  19. Shannon Avatar

    After the Jesus Prayer, my go-to “arrow prayer” is the one of St. Macarius the Great:
    ‘Lord, as Thou wilt and as Thou knowest, have mercy on me.’
    Since we can’t know what it is we need most sorely, this leaves it all in God’s hands.

  20. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I didn’t realize these might be called “arrow” prayers. While I have said something like them (that I’ve made up along the way), I didn’t know that they had a name. It seems quite appropriate.

  21. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father, I am grateful for your list! It is very helpful, and I am in need ( because I fail) of every point.

    I agree with your thoughts about arguments. I’ve tried to persuade through argument with no effect. Sometimes it takes Providence to ‘make the point’. And when that happens, there’s no argument.

  22. Matthew Avatar

    I too agree with your thoughts, Fr. Stephen, about arguments. No one could have argued me out of where I was or into where I am going. I needed to be open-minded with a teachable spirit and a deep sense of questioning all guided by God. It was only then that things people where saying to me about theology, spirituality, etc. began to sink and speak into my heart in new and profound ways.

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Arguing requires traditional logic. Real faith is not based on such logic but rather an experiential matrix and faith. Faith requires more than logic, it requires belief and belief cannot be argued into.

  24. Matthew Avatar

    So agree Michael! 😁

  25. christa Avatar

    I have a hard time to say this part of psalm 50/51. It sounds to me like original sin, like one better get baptized quick if one wants to get to heaven. And I know that is not orthodox doctrine. Is the belief of original sin the same as total depravity? Total depravity sounds more like no matter what one does, being doomed to hell. Please help me understand this verse. For now I take the greater context and trust God.

    “Behold I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” psalm 51:7 Authorized KJV
    “O see, in guilt I was born, a sinner I was conceived.” psalm 50;7 from the ‘singing psalms’ translated from the french Bible de Jerusalem psalms in cooperation with The Grail.

  26. christa Avatar

    Thank you so much for wisdom. These words are so important for encouragement to daily keep on and not despair.

  27. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I have a lot of compassion for people who have been inundated by this Protestant understanding of the scriptures. (And some Orthodox with former Protestant background/influences also still think of such versus in this manner).

    It is wonderful that you perceive the disjoint and seek resolution. St. Paul refers to the creation as subject to futility. We enter the world as babes and sinless. For this reason, the Orthodox do not say that a child who dies shortly after birth and without baptism will go to hell. Even hell itself is not understood in Orthodoxy in the way that it is understood in Protestantism.

    The Theotokos in her purity received the Savior in her womb and is called Theotokos. She is also a witness to our ‘true’ birth.

    These psalms are attributed to King David after he was confronted by the prophet Nathan. He had committed grave sins such as adultery and murder, but he repented of his sins, and his descendant was Jesus Christ. These are the words he prays to God in his repentance. He is not expressing the Protestant notion of total depravity. This was not the ethos of his period or culture. Furthermore, for us, the Orthodox Church does not preach/teach total depravity. But if one is taught such things, especially from an early age, it isn’t easy to hear them in any other way.

    I will speak of my own parents, whom I love and who are long deceased. They were sinners, and I, too, was born to them and into the ethos of a family that carried the weight of the sins of a culture that surrounded them. As such, at some point, I, too, became subject to sin and failed. Yet, even as a youngster, I saw good in people and was able to perceive that, at heart, the human person is fundamentally good and not totally depraved.

    For these reasons, I say this prayer with true contrition and gratitude that the Lord will receive me as a sinner.

    I beg your patience if these words are not helpful. It takes all of us time and reflection to receive the words of the Lord.

    May Our Lord Bless you in His Grace while you read His Word.

  28. Anne Van Fossen Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen. Your final list is very helpful. If you’d like a scripture reference for the last point – perhaps Psalm 150 v6 🙂

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, I really appreciate your witness here over the years. We came to the Church from different places as I never was a Protestant yet you are quite instructive so that I have more empathy for those who have been shaped as Protestants. Thank you.

  30. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I have seen how Christians have been tormented under the yokes of Protestantism and Scientism. Due to the culture of my early home, within a culture antagonistic to that home culture, I grew up perceiving the difference of cultures and accepted that shame early on. Who knew that such a self-perceived weakness would end up becoming a shield from Protestantism and Scientism? Some say it was serendipity. I say it was due to Providence, and I’m grateful to God for all things.

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, to take that as you have and apply it as a balm is still a gift. Thank you.

  32. christa Avatar

    Dee, thank you for your kindness in responding.
    ‘They were sinners, and I, too, was born to them and into the ethos of a family that carried the weight of the sins of a culture that surrounded them. As such, at some point, I, too, became subject to sin and failed. ” So here the words of David’s psalm ” shapen in iniquity” or “born in guilt” and “in sin my mother conceived me” or “a sinner I was conceived” ; reference the the “ethos of a family that carried the weight of the sins of a culture that surrounded them. ” we are not born sinful but we will surely become sinful in time as surely as we are human beings. This I can understand. Now I can truly pray this verse. Thank you.
    I have been orthodox for 44 years. I grew up in a Baptist church that sponsered my family from Germany after the war.
    My unanswered questions and seeing the cultural influence on the church regarding civil rights, the Viet Nam war, persons in prison, my own mental health issues…. took me out of the church, but I never could stop praying.
    When we became orthodox, my husband had 4 years of graduate level medieval philosophy and semitic language study at Catholic University and I think that is why the priest only met with us briefly and also he was very busy. It was a very large parish, our sponser was the one who answered questions and gave instruction. We had both been baptized before so were not rebaptized. Nor remarried, though we had only a civil wedding in Czecheslovakia. We went to confession and were given permission to begin taking the eucharist. After nursing school we moved to Miami and a wonderful OCA parish there. Then to Haiti to do medical mission work at various places for a few years, the orthodox church there was far away in the capital and we probably did not attend more than a handful of times…I think I am trying to rationalize why it took me so long to ask my question. Time for humility.

  33. Janine Avatar

    Thanks everyone for these conversations, and Fr. Stephen especially for the article.

    Christa, sometimes the Orthodox notion of “fallenness” is likened to a family in which a father has committed a terrible crime, such as murder. His children are not guilty of that sin, but they inherit all the problems created by it: such as a father in prison, hardship on their mother, a broken family, possibly poverty, etc. Into such a world we are born. And we inherit the false “solutions” to those problems too. But Christ overcame the world so we could follow Him and walk in His light.

  34. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    First – the notion of original sin is very problematic, particularly as it has been thought of in the Western Church. For one, there’s the juridical notion of sin as “guilt,” which is simply not a Bibilical notion. Human beings do not have a “legal” problem. In Orthodox understanding, we would say that we have a “death” problem. Sin is “death working in us.”

    No one is born into this world with an inherited guilt. We do not “owe” God for someone else’s wrongdoing. Indeed, no one “owes” God.

    The Greek version of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint – you often see it abbreviated as LXX), has a different version of this Psalm. It says, “In sins did my mother conceive me, etc.”. It changes the meaning. With “sins” in the plural, it simply describes the brokenness of the world…that is, each of us is born into a world in which wrongdoing is present everywhere. We are born into a world where “death” holds sway over people’s actions.

    Janine’s description of “fallenness” – comparing it to being born into a family with a tragic and dysfunctional history is quite apt.

  35. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    “We do not “owe” God for someone else’s wrongdoing. Indeed, no one “owes” God.”

    Indeed, God has no ‘need’ of repayment. He is God. And a God of love. He trampled down death for all people and all creation.

  36. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I might add that Fr Stephen has written on this particular topic in his book “Face to Face”.

  37. Janine Avatar

    Thanks Fr. Stephen

  38. christa Avatar

    thank you so much again, fr. stephen, Janine and Dee. It is clearer now. Time to look into Face to Face again ( 4th or 5 th time) I hear and see things but then they fade away and my mind needs renewing again.
    “How amazing this life that we live.
    How amazing the love we receive.
    How amazing the love we can give.
    How amazing that we can believe” a song I used to sing to my children.

  39. Helen Avatar

    There is a psychological method called Internal Family Systems, developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz. It addresses the various internal “parts of you that are at war”. There is a Christian adaptation described in the book Altogether You, by Jenna Riemersma. The forward to this book was written by Dr. Schwartz, originally a spiritual skeptic. This method describes the Self (our God Image in the Christian adaptation) and the exiled parts of us that have reacted to trauma in an attempt to keep us safe. As one seminarian listening to Dr. Schwartz commented: “Now I get it. You are helping people do inside themselves what Jesus did in the outside world: go to and love the exiled parts of us in the same way he loved the lepers, the poor, the outcasts!” (Dr. Schwartz became much more interested in Jesus after that.)

  40. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “The Self”. A phrase that has many avenues to its realization. Each of them of which I am aware has a key that involves certain acts of humility and doing for others. The Beatitudes are the single most comprehensive and effective description of the steps involved. The Jesus Prayer combined participation in the Holy Sacraments and Grace the most effective way to realization of the joy Jesus brings.

    The Lenten season challenges each of us to concentrate on that way. The Holy Resurrection is the end, over coming death…

    Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on each of us.

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