Discernment, Dr. Christopher Veniamin, Elder Sophrony of Essex, Elder Zacharias of Essex, heart, illumination, mental health, Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, nous, Protopresbyter John S. Romanides, spiritual direction, St. Gregory Palamas, Theoria, Theosis
The Mystery of Man’s Heart
By Archimandrite Zacharias of Essex
Questions and Answers
Question 1: Forgive this very naive question: Where is the heart? Not ‘What is the heart?’ but ‘Where is the heart?’
Answer 1: The heart is within our chest. When we speak of the heart, we speak of our spiritual heart which coincides with the fleshly one; but when man receives illumination and sanctification, then his whole being becomes a heart. The heart is synonymous with the soul, with the spirit; it is a spiritual place where man finds his unity, where his nous is enthroned when it has been healed of the passions. Not only his nous, but his whole body too is concentrated there. St. Gregory Palamas says that the heart is the very body of our body, a place where man’s whole being becomes like a knot. When mind [rational faculty] and heart [noetic faculty] unite, man possesses his [whole] nature and there is no dispersion and division in him any more. That is the sanctified state of the man who is healed. On the contrary, in our natural and fallen state, we are divided: we think one thing with our mind, we feel another with our senses, we desire yet another with our heart. However, when mind and heart are united by the grace of God, then man has only one thought — the thought of God; he has only one desire — the desire for God; and only one sensation — the noetic sensation of God. That is why repentance and tears are so much appreciated: they help us to find that healing, that state of integrity, because no human being can weep having two thoughts; we weep because of one thought that hurts us. If we are hurt by the thought that we are separated from God, that ‘salvation is far from the sinner’ (cf. 118:155 LXX) and all those things that inspire this pain in our heart, then, of course, we can cry; but if we have two thoughts, we cannot cry The saints do not have many thoughts; they may have only one thought, but through that thought, they see the whole of cosmic being, heaven and earth. That thought becomes a pair of binoculars through which they see and discern everything. Tears are much appreciated in the spiritual life because, sooner or later, they make the heart surface. If we have tears because we desire God and we want to be reconciled with Him, surely the heart will be found and the mind will descend into it and God will reign there with grace.
Question 2: If a person arrives at that state of having acquired a humble heart, is it possible then to fall back to the old state, and if so, is it harder to get back or is it easier?
Answer 2: We go up and down all the time, but we never stop seeking and ‘fishing’ for those humble thoughts that unite the mind with the heart. For example, all the thoughts of the Holy Scriptures Can help us, because they come from the humble Spirit of God. Therefore, any thought expressed in the Holy Scriptures can become a ‘burning coal’ that will touch the heart as it touched the lips of Isaiah. That is why we should always study the word of God and have it dwelling richly in our heart, as St. Paul says (cf. Col. 3:16). It is easy for grace to ignite one of these thoughts at the time of prayer, and then we have one verse from the Scriptures to pray with for a long time. And the Holy Spirit prays with us because this particular word is given by him. This single thought that brings tears and repentance may come from the Holy Scriptures, quickened by grace; it may come directly from God Himself, through prayer; it may come from the hymnology of the Church, from a word of an elder or a brother; it can come from anywhere. God is constantly seeking our heart, and He can provoke it with whatever is at hand. We only have to be ready to ‘snatch’ it. Prayer of self-condemnation is especially helpful. The prayers before Holy Communion are full of these thoughts of self-condemnation before the thrice-Holy God. I think that if we read them carefully we would always receive great help; one day one sentence from those prayers will stay with us and work repentance, another day another one, and so on. Prayer of self-condemnation helps a lot because it follows the path of Christ, which goes downward. He is the One Who first went down, and He then ‘ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men’ (Eph. 4:8). For this reason Fr. Sophrony says that those who are led by the Holy Spirit never cease to blame themselves before God and this leads them downwards. But we must be careful, because not everybody can bear this. Those who are healthy psychologically can do so and find great strength and consolation, but for those who are less strong, there is another way which involves giving thanks to God continuously and balancing the prayer by ending it with the words ‘although I am unworthy, O Lord’. St. Maximus the Confessor says that true humility is to bear in mind that we have our being ‘on loan’ from God. We find humility if we thank God continuously for everything, if we thank Him for every single breath He gives us. In one of the prayers before the Sacrament of Baptism, we say that God has spread out the air for us to breathe, and we find a similar idea in one of the prayers of the kneeling service at Pentecost. Consequently if we thank God for everything and for every single breath of air that He gives us, we will maintain a humble spirit.
Question 3: In our journey to the heart, as we come to know God more, there is spiritual growth. Part of our journey is also learning and studying, and I was wondering if you could comment on the balance between the knowledge and growth of the mind versus the knowledge and growth of the heart. How do we know whether they are growing together or whether they are growing apart? And as we learn, we realize that we will never truly learn anything anyway, and it seems that the heart goes one way and the mind realizes that it will never know it at all.
Answer 3: I think it is true that intellectual work is not very favourable for the activity of the heart, but it is necessary and we have to go through it, at least for a number of years. It is necessary for the life of the Church, especially if we are to serve people. The only thing that can protect us is if we do it in obedience to the Church — to a bishop or a spiritual father. That will protect us and keep us for a time. I remember when I was studying theology, I was trying to keep the prayer. It was not possible. One week I kept the prayer, but the following week I could not keep up with my work. When I tried to catch up with the work, I lost the prayer. I did not have any stability in those years. Sorry, to speak of my personal experience, but looking back, I can say that it was very profitable because I was told to do it and I did it, and the prayers of the one who asked me to do it protected me.
Once I said to one of my elders at the monastery, ‘Nowadays, the work of a spiritual father is so difficult and dangerous; you have to be incorruptible to do it.’ And he replied, ‘No, that is wrong. You do not have to be incorruptible; you have to have a point of reference.’ And he was right: a point of reference in the person of an elder in the Church keeps the spirit of humility, that is to say, it protects us from danger. We do not have to be incorruptible, but we have to have a trustworthy point of reference. Nobody is incorruptible.
Question 4: In our modern culture that is so materialistic, scientific and focused on biology and the natural sciences, how can we even become aware that the heart is something more than just a muscle? How can we become aware of ourselves as being something more than just a brain or a circulatory system?
Answer 4: We must learn the language of God. I wanted to talk to you about this later, but I will say a few words now Because we all have sinned, we all have a common language, the language of pain. When we come to God, we will inevitably have to suffer in order to be purified. If we speak to God with that pain, if we pour out our heart to God with that pain, then God will listen to us, and the heart will be activated. I have an example from the First Book of Samuel. The Prophetess Hannah was childless, but she had a servant who had many children. This servant despised her; she was very proud and arrogant, because she was so vainglorious about her family Hannah did not take any revenge, although she was the mistress, but she went to the temple and, like one drunk, she poured out her heart to God in pain. Of course God heard her and answered her prayer, and the following year she came back to the temple with her new-born son, Samuel. When we suffer tribulation, pain or illness in our life, we must remember to pour out our heart out to God rather than seek human consolation by going from one person to another and talking about it. This might give us some psychological consolation, but we lose all the tension of life, that energy of pain which is so precious when we direct it towards God. This is one way. The other way, as I have said before, is to find someone who can teach us how to speak to God. In the temple, little Samuel was sixteen or seventeen when he heard a voice calling him and he ran to Eli, the priest of the temple, and the priest said to him, ‘Go back to sleep, nobody called you.’ The same thing happened a second time. Again he ran to Eli, saying to him, ‘Did you call me?’ and the priest sent him back to sleep once more. When the same thing happened a third time, Eli, who had been initiated into the life of the Spirit, understood that this was a prophetic calling from God, and he advised him, ‘Go, and if you are called again say “Here am I, speak for Thy servant heareth” (cf. 1 Sam. 3:1-20).’ Indeed, the voice called again and Samuel received the prophetic anointing. Similarly we learn to speak to God with our heart through obedience to our elders and, in fact, the ministry of a priest is to teach his people this language of God in the same way as Eli taught Samuel. We all have a common language of pain, of suffering; one way or another we all go through it in this life, because God loves us.
Question 5: In the monastic life it is easy to see who might be your elders, but how can we identify these persons in our life in the world? From what sources can we find our elders outside of that life?
Answer 5: This has always been an important question in the life of the Church, and I remember St. Symeon the NewTheologian saying that one must seek for an elder with tears. Pray to God that He gives you one and, if you do not find one, then speak to God directly, pouring out your heart to Him with tears, and the Lord Himself will be your Teacher. What I say now is a bit risky and dangerous, but it is easy to suppose that there are no such elders any more. I believe that if we are humble, it is easier to find one. If we are humble, we can make anybody a prophet, because if we approach with a humble heart and trust, then God will speak to us. I remember Fr. Sophrony saying to us, ‘Make your spiritual father a prophet!’ That is to say, approach with faith and trust, and God will inspire him to give you a word. As I have said earlier, true repentance proves that God is just, righteous and blessed in all His ways, and that we are liars. It often happens that we, the spiritual fathers, do not know what we are saying. People come and ask a word of us. Sometimes the word comes naturally without our realising it; at other times, nothing comes. It does not depend only on us; it depends also on the faith of the person who asks. A little girl, twelve years old, came to me and said, ‘Sometimes I have proud thoughts; tell me what to do.’ And I said to that little girl, ‘Give thanks to God for all the things He has done for you. Give thanks to Him for every breath of air He gives you.’ And that little girl grabbed my word and ran away happily. Forgive me for talking about myself, but it is the only way to speak concretely about these things. There is a dangerous side to it, because we can spoil the ethos of our life and of the Church, but I am now speaking among my fellows, among priests, and I feel I can be more specific and open. We must do everything in such a way as not to usurp the spiritual space of the other, of our fellows. And if we are to succeed in this, we have to be careful not to lose our humility.