Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas is the Presiding Priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
Orthodox spirituality concerns itself directly with the human heart. Originating not in the concepts and, as Dostoevsky wrote, “the empty firmament of the mind”, our spirituality ultimately takes root in the heart where a special connection is made between God, whose seeking us out never ends, and ourselves, the searching believers, who find no rest without being found by Him. It is not the organ in our chest, it is the deepest “place” in the center of our spiritual being, the dwelling of transcendence, as in Jerusalem’s Temple, it is our “holy of holies.” The heart is a “divine link” that at once inspires and focuses us on the interior life. It can move us to an experience far beyond our human ability to grasp “the why”, far beyond our ability to describe that encounter through the limitations of our reason or language. We just “know” God to be present there. We “feel” He is there. It is the “insinuation of the Divine” into our time and space – and its gateway is the human heart. Our holy father, St. Theophan the Recluse, reminds us of the importance of the heart when he wrote: “Developing the heart means developing within it a taste for things holy, divine, and spiritual, so that when it finds itself amid such things it would feel as though it were in its element. Finding them sweet and blessed, it would be indifferent to all else, with no taste for anything else; and even more — it would find anything else revolting. All of man’s spiritual activity centers in the heart.”
In the month of August, the Church commemorates an inspired theologian, the Hieromartyr and Bishop St. Irenaeus of Lyons (130 AD to 202 AD, August 23). Generally recognized as the first “formal theologian” of the Church, meaning the first to compile his writings and teachings into a complete whole, a “system”, Irenaeus labored to battle various heresies in the 2nd century. When challenging the heresies, he not only exposed and overthrew their errors but also articulated the Orthodox interpretation and teaching. In spite of Irenaeus’ interest in guarding his flock from different errors, his main concern as a pastor was the individual and his/her salvation. He was, in all his instruction, preoccupied with the person’s spiritual progress in order that he/she may achieve what Irenaeus termed “the vision and enjoyment of God.” Far from being speculative, his theology, while profound and complex, was certainly concerned with finding ways to help his flock apply it to their lives. He was concerned with the spiritual tending of our heart, indeed, what the ascetic Fathers who followed him would call “the guarding of the heart.”
A theology that cannot be lived, incarnated, is merely an exercise in intellectual gymnastics. Irenaeus was concerned especially that believers mature in their faith, that they grow in the spiritual life much as they do in their natural life. This underscores his emphasis on the human person living up to his spiritual potential as much as possible. Perhaps the most notable citation from Irenaeus regarding this is: “The glory of God is the human being fully alive; and to be alive consists in beholding God in the heart.” This idea of full human living, living rooted in the heart, as beholding God, is centered in Irenaeus’ conviction, (echoed later by St. Athanasios the Great), that “Jesus Christ in His infinite love, has become what we are, in order that He may make us entirely what He is.” What does this mean for each of us, as believers? If true, authentic Christian discipleship begins and ends in the human heart, how is it done? How can we live in the heart in a time of chaos, noise, and human fragmentation? How do we nuture our interior life?
Firstly, God begins His work with the people we are. God doesn’t expect us to be “all together” before he reaches out to us. The Lord was clear: “When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick do; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) In other words, He came not to call the all-together, but the broken. We need not have an exceptional degree of holiness or apparent moral perfection in order to feel Him work in us. He enters our heart as it is – weak, fragile, needing, doubting, imperfect and incomplete – even perhaps, broken. He plunges His hands into the soil of the person we are and stirs it, disturbs it, presses it firmly in his hands and brings new life to it. This is God’s point of departure. In fact, St. Irenaeus taught that even if mankind had never sinned, God would still have sent His Son into our lives and history – so great is His love and desire for us. Still He would touch the soil of who we are. While it is true that we seek God, it is even more certain that He longs to dwell in our hearts, to renew and remake, to transform and reshape. We begin the process of spiritual maturation and the care of our heart, then, with hope – a good place to start.
Secondly, maturing spiritually calls us to be “fully alive.” This means that you and I are called to live our lives to their spiritual fullness. We are not summoned to crowd our lives with every experience, impulse, activity, sight and sound that comes our way or by which we are tempted by the siren call of a troubled, spiritually anemic world. Living fully means using our God-given talents, gifts, and skills to serve Him, to live His purpose for us, and to support one another in kindness, gentleness, and love – from our hearts. It means that we have to choose what people, experiences, things and influences in our life are good for our heart and soul and which ones must be put aside. These are difficult decisions but that is the essence of maturing spiritually – even if that growth causes emotional pain and inconvenience – even if we are called to break old habits and adopt a “Christo-centric” way of living. St. Irenaeus wrote: “God did not tell us to follow Him because He needed our help but because He knew that loving Him would make us whole.” Truly loving God and making that the priority of our daily lives, can actually complete us!
Lastly, at the center of being fully alive is “beholding God.” You and I literally should “practice” the presence of God. Growing mature spiritually calls us to be actively aware of His presence in the people, events, and experiences of our daily lives — in a child’s facial expression, in the anxious look of a sick person, in the joy of a promotion, a baby born, an insight received, in our family life, in the worn face of a street person, in the sun and in the rain, in the vast beauty of nature, and even in our moments of sin and suffering – we learn to see God’s hand and face, we can feel His power, and even feel Him touch gently our heart – holding it in the warmth of His own. In the words of the Hungarian-British philosopher and mathematician Michael Polanyi: “We gather and sort out the panoply of clues we encounter everyday, and come to discover the shape of our destiny and the very face of God.”
This makes us mindful of the passage by the Monk Lawrence (16th cent.) from his small book The Practice of the Presence of God: “It is my conviction that the practice of the presence of God is the center of the spiritual life. Whoever truly practices it will soon become spiritual. But to truly practice it, the heart must empty out everything else so God alone may possess the heart and do whatever he wants with us. There is nothing in all the world that we can find in life more pleasant and joyful then a continual conversation with God. Those who never experienced it cannot understand. But it is not for the pleasure to be gained that we should seek God’s presence but pursue it out of love for him and because God wants us to.”
In our heart, we need to return to God’s way — become like Him. We need to do this continually, becoming more like God and less like self-centered, self-aggrandizing, self-promoting individuals. God has given us the many ways to become more like Him and to restore the likeness of God’s ways in our hearts. Yes, this process is difficult. We all need help with it. But we are given the power of God, His grace and mercy, as well as His community, the Church to help us to mold our hearts anew in this process. So, have we begun to know our hearts? Have we started working on our hearts to make them God-like? Are our hearts Orthodox? Are we more interested in knowing others’ hearts, or our own? Do we spend more time predicting the actions of others based upon how we perceive them in their hearts … or do we spend more time considering our hearts, and predicting what our actions will be? Orthodox Christianity teaches us that we must be concerned about our own hearts. The disciplines of prayer and our services become important to continually maintain our hearts toward God. The mysteries of the church are given to us to help us in this journey. Even in the mundane times of everyday life, our hearts can be directed to, and made more like God intended them to be. When you think of heart-health, remember not only the muscle in your chest, but the spiritual destiny of your life. Remember what Jesus said in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).