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.