Just a note – if you have ever used my Outlook e-mail address, please be advised that it has been hacked. Do not click on links or even open odd-looking e-mails purportedly from me. Sorry. Straightening out the mess.
May the Spirit of God be with us, my friends in prayer, as we now reflect on the Sayings of the Fathers, offered to us by Fr. Matta on this most important topic.
Once again, I am going to share some of my reflections on a few of the sayings that moved me, without attempting any sort of exhaustive discussion. I welcome others to do the same if so inclined.
First, let us consider this profound passage from the writings of St. Isaac of Syria:
“What, succinctly, is purity? It is a heart that shows mercy to all created nature…And what is a merciful heart? It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection and the sight of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or the slightest sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy.”
If I am ever tempted to think that I have attained purity of heart, I need only read this passage to be freed from my delusion.
I will not consider mercy for the demons here – not because I think it is wrong but because I believe that it is too dangerous of a pursuit for the average person (which includes me). Let us instead turn our attention to “the beasts” and our fellow humans – both are sufficient challenges to our purity and mercy.
While we may not think it so hard to be compassionate toward the animals and to feel sorrow at their suffering, it very often depends on the animal and what it is doing.
Deer seen hiding in the woods during a hike are experienced differently than those who eat up gardens, even though the latter may be “suffering” more because they have lost their natural homes.
An injured dog will touch most of our hearts but few of us would feel much for a hyena – certainly not enough to pay a vet bill for one!
And while I love butterflies, I can squish a gnat with little if any remorse.
Hence, even among the creatures, I am quite prone to picking and choosing for whom I will feel mercy and compassion, with my choices largely guided by how I am affected – by whether they please or disturb me.
This is not the sign of a pure heart. God created them out of love for them. But I love them for my sake, not for theirs.
Humility demands otherwise and I am found lacking. The pure heart, the new heart that God gives, lives His life and therefore loves the beasts for themselves. It offers “the tearful prayer” with compassion for their sorrows and pains.
How much more difficult then to attain purity and a merciful heart toward other people, especially those who hurt and disappoint us.
St. Macarius the Great provides us with a very rich reflection on what purity of heart means in the eye of the Christian:
“Christians, therefore, should strive in all things and ought not to pass judgment of any kind on anyone, not on the prostitute nor on sinners nor on disorderly persons. But they should look upon all persons with a single mind and a pure eye so that it may be for such a person almost a natural and fixed attitude never to despise to judge or abhor anyone or to divide people and place them into boxes.
“If you see a man with one eye, do not make any judgment in your heart but regard him as though he were whole. If someone has a maimed hand, see him as not maimed. See the crippled as straight, the paralytic as healthy. For this is purity of heart, that, when you see the sinners and the weak, you have compassion and show mercy toward them.”
St. Macarius invites us to another level in understanding of mercy and purity of heart. We already know from the words of Jesus (Matthew 7:1) that we are not to judge others.
Yet we are steeped in a culture that is so constantly comparing and judging individuals and groups of people that our minds follow suit automatically. It is only with the help of God’s grace and great vigilance that we can train our minds to do otherwise.
But St. Macarius tells us that purity of heart is even more than this absence of judgment. It is “looking upon all persons with a single mind” such that we do not see different kinds of people – the whole vs. the crippled, the strong vs. the weak. A “pure eye” does not categorize people thus and put them “into boxes”.
A maimed person is a person. An injured person is a person. A weak person is a person. A sinful person is a person. The pure heart simply sees the person in their wholeness. For this is how Jesus has seen each of us – looking upon us in our brokenness and seeing us whole, thus enabling us to become what He sees.
As we are given the new heart and are brought deeper into the compassion of the divine life (which is our new life), we begin to see others as Jesus sees us. Our desire for others, as with the beasts, becomes for their sake rather than for how they act in relation to us.
Our pure hearts will increasingly long for mercy for all – for it could be no other way.
All praise and glory to God.
Greetings and blessings, dear friends who read and pray with me. If you are at all like me, you may find your soul not entirely free yet – for God is still at work in us – but perhaps He will permit us to move on to this next chapter nonetheless.
And this next chapter is a full and beautiful one. Whenever we begin talk of “the heart”, I am immediately drawn. Something in my core wants to know more of itself and its longings. Fr. Matta tells us that “the heart is the source of all the potentiality of the spiritual and physical life” – for both good and evil. The heart expresses “the final condition of man” and our words confess “what kind of faith is in the heart”. It seems that here, in my heart, it becomes evident who I truly am.
But what Fr. Matta says next is most interesting: that it is possible for “two kinds of heart to exist side by side in man, one expressing his true nature and another falsifying his thoughts, words and deeds. In the latter case, a person talks of good deeds and actually does them to give people the false impression that he is virtuous, while in fact he is wicked.” This other heart, he says, is the work of the devil who wants to keep secret the evil intent, thereby safeguarding it.
- Let us consider these ideas. First, the heart. When I think of my heart (i.e. to love God with all my heart), what does that mean to me? Our culture tends to associate heart and emotion…how is our spiritual meaning similar or different?
- It is perhaps easier to see the second kind of heart in others than it is to see it in myself, something akin to what we call hypocrisy. However, let us take some time to reflect on how this may happen in us. I may not want to think of myself as “in fact…wicked”, but it is not so difficult to see how I might do good deeds to create a favorable impression or gain admiration. How might this lead me away from God? How and why might the evil one keep this intent “secret” from me?
- Can you think of other examples of this second kind of heart in our daily lives? If our more evil intents are kept secret even from us, how might we know that they are there so as to unveil them? (Do we feel any reluctance to uncover them?)
Next, we are instructed about what God wants to do about this situation – to completely remove the evil heart and create a new one. “Thus, when man’s heart is transformed into a new heart, man of necessity is turned into another man.” Fr. Matta notes the needed actions for this to happen and their Biblical references: contrition in our hearts, a complete cleansing from within and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. He notes that this was an exceptional event in the Old Testament. However, in the New Testament, “the act became universal, not merely to create a new heart, but for creating a whole new man”. And these actions are the core of our sacrament of Baptism. Yet Fr. Matta does not suggest that this cleansing and purging are a single event in our lives.
- Those of us baptized as infants may not find it so easy to identify Baptism with this process. We have not “turned” from anything at the beginning of our lives. How might we move into deeper understanding of Baptism now, if it has been many years since we received the sacrament?
- I had never thought before about being made “a new person” as an exceptional event in Old Testament times but I see now how it is so. I may want to reflect on how great a gift it is to have this offered to me, someone of no significance among the people of God…
Finally, Fr. Matta makes an important distinction between the work that we do with faith and repentance and our actual acceptance of the new heart given to us by the Holy Spirit. We cannot create a pure heart for ourselves or make ourselves a new person. We must allow God to do that for us – yet our work in the process is vital. With the power of our new nature, “we become able to face the truth, letting it live within us and penetrate to the very roots of our being”. We become able to put off the evil of our old selves and embrace the divine nature in Whose image we are made.
Fr. Matta uses a number of images for the heart. Citing St. Macarius, he describes the heart as the captain who rules and directs, a chariot under one driver, a palace where Christ comes to retire. He describes the heart as the “holy of holies” which “makes it fit for the indwelling of God”.
- It is not so easy for me to accept the new heart – because, with it, I will become able to face the truth. Why is it so hard for me to face the truth – to see that I do have this “second heart” and that I am “in fact…wicked”? Yet if I do not face it, can I truly repent?
- If I am being deceived, how can I know whether I have truly uncovered the evil in myself to repent of it? (Of course, I cannot know – which helps me remain humble before God, totally unworthy to receive the new heart, yet completely in need of what only He can give me.)
- We may want to use St. Marcarius’ images (or our own) for further prayer and reflection on the heart, so as not to be drawn into worldly notions but rather to understand more deeply the new heart for which the Lord Jesus died to give us.
I’m sure there is much more here than the few points I have touched upon. You are most welcome to add your reflections in a comment.
“A clean heart create for me, God; renew within me a steadfast spirit.” (Psalm 51:12)
Warm greetings in Christ, my friends in prayer. I wish you all many blessings in your struggles and prayer, despite my less frequent presence here.
I have decided to comment a bit differently this time around. Rather than providing a summary of this section’s content and questions, I will trust that you have read it and simply write a short essay of my own.
(I may not do this every time but I fear that my format may have become tedious and therefore am trying something different. If I both ask the questions and post my own answers to them, surely anyone left reading will find me tiresome!)
As I was reading the wise words of the Fathers on freeing the soul, I found myself wondering, “How does someone like me who is in the world, i.e. not living behind monastery walls, practice this? What is this world that I am leaving totally behind when I submit completely to God?”
Certainly there are many “worldly” things I do not partake of, some of which probably no Christian should, and others of which I simply feel called to abstain from. However, if I withdrew from all that was of this world, I would not be typing this message.
For someone with spouse and children, I can only imagine this being far more complicated. A spouse’s needs and desires cannot be ignored. It is detrimental to young children to be raised as though they were little monks, not attached to their toys or not allowed to seek comfort from parental embrace.
However, I have even considered something as mundane as my butterfly garden. I put considerable time and some money into trying to develop a habitat for my little winged friends – but they are of this world, with life spans of no more than a few days. Should I not “cling” to this activity?
In conversation with a Buddhist the other day, I spoke of “attachment”, a concept that is part of their tradition and, I believe, vital to what the Fathers are attempting to convey. Aside from things that are intrinsically evil, there are a great many thoughts, feelings and activities that are harmless in themselves but can serve to separate us from God if we cling to them.
What of my hobbies, my healthy pastimes, whether they be hiking, gardening, painting, playing games or sports or any of a multitude of other wholesome activities? Our time must be occupied in some fashion – but are these part of the “world” we must not cling to? I know from experience that most any of these activities can become an obstacle to my soul – but they can also set it free to fly into the arms of God. Who am I doing them for? Would I, could I, drop them in a second if God called me to something more important but less enjoyable?
What of my health? I cannot help but notice and feel concern if I am in pain or feel other symptoms of illness or injury. However, I can be overly attached to how I feel and allow this to become a preoccupation. On the other hand, I may notice my symptoms, take any needed action and trust that God will provide me relief at the time He knows is best for me.
What of my legitimate worries or setbacks with work, finances or relationships? It is inevitable that my attention will turn to such matters “of the world” when there are troubles. Still, I can easily become too attached to my security in any of these areas, focusing on my fears more than God. Yet He knows my situation and understands it better than I do.
And then there is my prayer, my spiritual life. Certainly, I cannot be too attached to that, can I, unlike my hobbies, health or worries? And, of course, I can. I can become too attached to how I want to feel when I pray. Spiritual joy is a great grace – but I must not cling to it, for it is not the goal of my prayer. Commitment to regular prayer is vital but I must not cling to any prayer or plan to pray such that I will not allow it to be interrupted for someone’s greater need. I can be too attached to my imagined spiritual “progress”, to my perceived holiness and so on.
The sad truth is I can become overly attached to anything because I am overly attached to me.
In the total submission of my self to God, nothing else matters but Him. I will notice and experience the comings and goings of physical, mental and spiritual sensations. Things will happen in my world and in the larger world around me, some of them very serious. But all of these things will be seen and understood in the light of His power, dominion and overwhelming love over all and for all. Over me and for me.
I cannot cling – I must go to Him. But I can only do so with His grace and in His time – for to try to do otherwise would be but one more clinging to my perception that I am in control.
I am not. Nor do I want to be.
All glory to Him forever.