a mysterious sanctuary where we are inseparably joined to God

And so there is, over and beyond our faculties, at the point where they originate, a mysterious sanctuary where we are inseparably joined to God and maintained by him upon the abyss of void, posed as a living mirror of his life and being. In this mirror, beyond habitual consciousness, our interior gaze meets that of our Creator, outside the confines of space and time.

From The Song That I Am: On the Mystery of Music by Elisabeth-Paule Labat (translated by Erik Varden).

This passage was a generous gift this morning from a mother in the faith. I love this description of a “mysterious sanctuary” existing at “the point where our faculties originate” in which “we are inseparably joined to God and maintained by Him” and also where “our interior gaze meets that of our Creator.” In the last line, however, I would suggest that “outside the confines of space and time” should be amended to say “deeply within the confines of space and time.” Three realities indicate that our union with God is bodily (and therefore profoundly within the confines space and time):

  1. our being made in God’s image,
  2. the incarnation of God the Son (the Logos) as Jesus Christ,
  3. and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ to ascend into heaven and to be seated on the throne of God.

God placed us in time and space as a means of communion with Him (who transcends time and space). Within the Christian tradition, I’ve read of three ways in which our communion with God is strictly within time and space:

  1. God is only in the present moment. The present is the only time in which we touch God’s eternity and commune with Him. We can be lead astray from God into the past (nostalgia or pride) or the future (worry or hubris). There are right relationships with the past (gratitude) and the future (hope) but only when we are grounded in our present communion with God.
  2. God only meets with us in our particular place (via our bodies and the material world that we inhabit). All of creation is designed to be sacramental and to bring our bodies into communion with God. Material things of all kinds (from the waters of baptism to the bones of saints) can carry great sanctity and be the gracious means of God’s communion with us.
  3. God stands at the door of our heart and knocks. All the saints who speak of communion with God in prayer speak of it as an inward but still clearly an embodied experience (or vision) of transcendent and unifying love, heat, or light. “To stand guard over the heart, to stand with the mind in the heart, to descend from the head to the heart—all these are one and the same thing.” Our intuitive perception of eternal or ultimate truth and love are from the heart (a perceptive capacity that is called the nous). Our intellect (in our head) can perceive with bodily senses and can analyze these perceptions using rational thoughts. Our passions or desires were long associated with the stomach or liver. In between these upper and lower faculties is the heart. C.S. Lewis describes modern people as having become “men without chests” (in The Abolition of Man) because we have lost this middle capacity that unifies our thoughts and feelings with an intuitive inner vision of God’s love. This nous in our heart sees immaterial things, but it still has a strong association with a particular part of our body. Some desert fathers were very specific: “not in the head but in the chest, close to the heart and in the heart …close to the left nipple of the chest and a little above it.” (This quotation and the one near the start of this bullet point are from The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, edited by E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer, which I posted about here.)

Therefore, to enter this “mysterious sanctuary” wherein “our interior gaze meets that of our Creator,” we must not let our minds or our feelings run freely. We must “descend into our heart” or “stand guard over our heart” and listen quietly there for God. This is not an emptying of our intellect; it is not a denial or leaving of our body; it is not an insensibility to the surrounding world or to the input of our five senses. Instead, this communion with God in the quietness of our hearts unifies and fills all of these other things. Out nous allows all of our other faculties (sensations, thoughts, and feelings) to be made potent and meaningful while remaining only supportive agents of our primary purpose: this steady gazing and quiet listening of our heart’s interior ears and eyes. There we may learn to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

True, at this table of the Lord, we do feast outside of time with those from many other places and many others times. However, all of us gathered there are doing so within each of our hearts in the reality of our particular places and our present moments. In doing so, we mysteriously bring together many particular times and places—transcending, unifying, and sanctifying these places and times without discarding or annihilating them. Each present time and unique material place gives access to the throne of God, where all times and places have their origins and find their true identities.

do whatever you see that your soul desires according to God

One of the fathers asked Abba Nistheros the Great, the friend of Abba Antony: “What good work should I be doing?” He said to him:

Are not all actions equal? Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable, and God was with him. David was humble, and God was with him. Elias loved interior peace, and God was with him. So, do whatever you see that your soul desires according to God, and guard your heart.

not in the head but in the chest

The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, edited by E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), pp. 190 to 194:

To stand guard over the heart, to stand with the mind in the heart, to descend from the head to the heart—all these are one and the same thing. The core of the work lies in concentrating the attention and the standing before the invisible Lord, not in the head but in the chest, close to the heart and in the heart. When the divine warmth comes, all this will be clear.

…When we read in the writings of the Fathers about the place of the heart which the mind finds by way of prayer, we must understand by this the spiritual faculty that exists in the heart. Placed by the creator in the upper part of the heart, this spiritual faculty distinguishes the human heart from the heart of animals…. The intellectual faculty in man’s soul, though spiritual, dwells in the brain, that is to say in the head: in the same way, the spiritual faculty which we term the spirit of man, though spiritual, dwells in the upper part of the heart, close to the left nipple of the chest and a little above it.

From The Heart of Centering Prayer by Cynthia Bourgeault:

It is certainly true that the heart’s native language is affectivity—perception through deep feelingness. But it may come as a shock to contemporary seekers to learn that the things we nowadays identify with the feeling life—passion, drama, intensity, compelling emotion—are qualities that in the ancient anatomical treatises were associated not with the heart but with the liver! They are signs of agitation and turbidity (an excess of bile!) rather than authentic feelingness. In fact, they are traditionally seen as the roadblocks to the authentic feeling life, the saboteurs that steal its energy and distort its true nature.

And so before we can even begin to unlock the wisdom of these ancient texts, we need to gently set aside our contemporary fascination with emotivity as the royal road to spiritual authenticity and return to the classic understanding from which these teachings emerge, which features the heart in a far more spacious and luminous role.

According to the great wisdom traditions of the West (Christian, Jewish, Islamic), the heart is first and foremost an organ of spiritual perception. Its primary function is to look beyond the obvious, the boundaried surface of things, and see into a deeper reality, emerging from some unknown profundity, which plays lightly upon the surface of this life without being caught there: a world where meaning, insight, and clarity come together in a whole different way. Saint Paul talked about this other kind of perceptivity with the term “faith” (“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”), but the word “faith” is itself often misunderstood by the linear mind. What it really designates is not a leaping into the dark (as so often misconstrued) but a subtle seeing in the dark, a kind of spiritual night vision that allows one to see with inner certainty that the elusive golden thread glimpsed from within actually does lead somewhere.

…Unanimously, the Christian wisdom tradition proclaims that the source of this lower-level noise is “the passions.” As the Philokalia repeatedly emphasizes, the problem with the passions is that they divide the heart.15 A heart that is divided, pulled this way and that by competing inner agendas, is like a wind-tossed sea: unable to reflect on its surface the clear image of the moon.

Here again is a teaching that tends to set contemporary people’s teeth on edge. I know this from personal experience, because the issue comes up at nearly every workshop I give. To our modern Western way of hearing, “passion” is a good thing: something akin to élan vital, the source of our aliveness and motivation. It is to be encouraged, not discouraged. At a recent workshop I led, a bishop approached me with some concern and explained that in his diocese, following the recommendations of a church consultant, he had managed to boost morale and productivity by significant percentages simply by encouraging his clergy “to follow their passions.”

Well-nigh universally today, the notion of “passionlessness” (a quality eagerly sought after in the ancient teachings of the desert fathers and mothers) equates to “emotionally brain dead.” If you take away passion, what is left?

So once again we have to begin with some decoding.

If you consult any English dictionary, you will discover that the word “passion” comes from the Latin verb patior, which means “to suffer” (passio is the first-person singular). But this still doesn’t get us all the way, because the literal, now largely archaic, meaning of the verb “to suffer” (to “undergo or experience”) is literally to be acted upon. The chief operative here is the involuntary and mechanical aspect of the transaction. And according to the traditional wisdom teachings, it is precisely that involuntary and mechanical aspect of being “grabbed” that leads to suffering in the sense of how we use the term today. Thus, in the ancient insights on which this spiritual teaching rests, passion did not mean élan vital, energy, or aliveness. It designated being stuck, grabbed, and blindly reactive.

This original meaning is clearly uppermost in the powerful teaching of the fourth-century desert father Evagrius Ponticus. Sometimes credited with being the first spiritual psychologist in the Christian West, Evagrius developed a marvelously subtle teaching on the progressive nature of emotional entanglement, a teaching that would eventually bear fruit in the fully articulated doctrine of the seven deadly sins. His core realization was that when the first stirrings of what will eventually become full-fledged passionate outbursts appear on the screen of consciousness, they begin as “thoughts”—logismoi, in his words—streams of associative logic following well-conditioned inner tracks. At first they are merely that—“thought-loops,” mere flotsam on the endlessly moving river of the mind. But at some point a thought-loop will entrain with one’s sense of identity—an emotional value or point of view is suddenly at stake—and then one is hooked. A passion is born, and the emotions spew forth. Thomas Keating has marvelously repackaged this ancient teaching in his diagram of the life cycle of an emotion,16 a core part of his Centering Prayer teaching. This diagram makes clear that once the emotion is engaged, once that sense of “I” locks in, what follows is a full-scale emotional uproar—which then, as Father Keating points out, simply drives the syndrome deeper and deeper into the unconscious, where it becomes even more involuntary and mechanically triggered.

What breaks the syndrome? For Evagrius, liberation lies in an increasingly developed inner capacity to notice when a thought is beginning to take on emotional coloration and to nip it in the bud before it becomes a passion by dis-identifying or disengaging from it. This is the essence of the teaching that has held sway in our tradition for more than a thousand years.

Now, of course, there are various ways of going about this disengaging. Contemporary psychology has added the important qualifier that disengaging is not the same thing as repressing (which is simply sweeping the issue under the psychological rug) and has developed important methodologies for allowing people to become consciously present to and “own” the stew fermenting within them. But it must also be stated that “owning” does not automatically entail either “acting out” or verbally “expressing” that emotional uproar. Rather, the genius of the earlier tradition has been to insist that if one can merely back the identification out—that sense of “me,” stuck to a fixed frame of reference or value—then the energy being co-opted and squandered in useless emotional turmoil can be recaptured at a higher level to strengthen the intensity and clarity of heart perceptivity. Rather than fueling the “reactive ego-self,” the energy can be “rejoined to its cosmic milieu, the infinity of love.” And that, essentially, constitutes the goal of purification—at least as it has been understood in service of conscious transformation.

See also my previous post: Tips I’ve Heard About How to Pray and Worship in an Orthodox Church.

the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God

What is a merciful heart?
It is a heart on fire
for the whole of creation,
for humanity,
for the birds,
for the animals,
for demons,
and for all that exists.
By the recollection of them
the eyes of a merciful person
pour forth tears in abundance.
By the strong and vehement mercy
that grips such a person’s heart,
and by such great compassion,
the heart is humbled
and one cannot bear to hear or to see
any injury or slight sorrow
in any in creation.
For this reason, such a person
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…
because of the great compassion
that burns without measure
in a heart that is
in the likeness of God.

+ St. Isaac the Syrian

marvelous error

“Last Night As I Was Sleeping”
by Antonio Machado

Translated by Robert Bly:

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.

Translated by Armand F. Baker:

Last night when I was sleeping,
I dreamed—blessed illusion!—
there was a fountain flowing
deep within my heart.
Water, tell me by what hidden
channel you come to me,
with a source of new life
I never drank from before.

Last night when I was sleeping,
I dreamed—blessed illusion!—
I had a beehive
deep within my heart;
and the golden bees
were using old
bitterness to produce
white wax and sweet honey.

Last night when I was sleeping,
I dreamed—blessed illusion!—
a blazing sun was shining
deep within my heart.
It burned because it gave off
heat like a red hearth;
it was a sun that illumined
and also made me cry.

Last night when I was sleeping
I dreamed—blessed illusion!—
it was God that I felt
deep within my heart.

Antonio Machado (1875-1939), a school teacher and philosopher and one of Spain’s foremost poets of the twentieth century, writes of the mountains, the skies, the farms and the sentiments of his homeland clearly and without narcissism: “Just as before, I’m interested / in water held in; / but now water in the living / rock of my chest.” “Machado has vowed not to soar too much; he wants to ‘go down to the hells’ or stick to the ordinary,” Robert Bly writes in his introduction. He brings to the ordinary, to time, to landscape and stony earth, to bean fields and cities, to events and dreams, magical sound that conveys order, penetrating sight, and attention. “The poems written while we are awake are more original and more beautiful, and sometimes more wild than those made from dreams,” Machado said.

a profound and meaningful silence

Having life “abundantly” has something to do with quality, not quantity. Quantity belongs to the mind. Issues of quality belong to the heart.

…The language of the heart is silence–not a bleak, empty silence, but a profound and meaningful silence that ceaselessly sings the glory of God.

From Bread & Water, Wine & Oil by Archimandrite Meletios Webber (24-25).

a constellation of practices, rituals, and routines

Education is not primarily a heady project concerned with providing information; rather, education is most fundamentally a matter of formation, a task of shaping and creating a certain kind of people. What makes them a distinctive kind of people is what they love or desire – what they envision as ‘the good life’ of the ideal picture of human flourishing. An education, then, is a constellation of practices, rituals, and routines that inculcates a particular vision of the good life by inscribing or infusing that vision into the heart (the gut) by means of material, embodied practices. And this will be true even of the most instrumentalist, pragmatic programs of education (such as those that now tend to dominate public schools and universities bent on churning out ‘skilled workers’) that see their task primarily as providing information, because behind this is a vision of the good life that understands human flourishing primarily in terms of production and consumption. Behind the veneer of a ‘value-free’ education concerned with providing skills, knowledge, and information is an educational vision that remains formative. There is no neutral, nonformative education; in short, there is no such thing as a ‘secular’ education.

From Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Cultural Liturgies) by James K.A. Smith.