God created man’s heart as His own dwelling place; it is man’s purpose to find this “deep heart” and to dwell there in communion with the Lord (Psalm 64:6) (The Hidden Man of the Heart, p.1). But finding our heart and remaining there is a challenge because it is man’s habit to extend his consciousness out into the world, immersing himself in his senses, and distracting himself with passionate desires to satisfy his prideful, selfish identity.
In scripture we are told to purify ourselves and to keep our heart with all diligence so that God will meet us there, but the passions (ie. gluttony, lust, greed, sadness, apathy, anger, fear, vanity and pride) and the distractions of our mind draw us out of our heart so that we live our lives outside and not from within our hearts (p.2).
We are told by the Fathers of the Church that “when all his being (man’s) is gathered in the unity of his mind and heart, there is a third kind of movement in which he turns his whole being over to God the Father” (p.6). But until we discover and develop the ability to find and dwell in our heart, we cannot make this effort to give ourselves to God, as we are instead, essentially slaves to sin, voluntarily and involuntarily giving ourselves to our passions and not to God.
How do we find our heart? To begin, humility draw’s man back into his heart, away from the hard-hearted pride of his life, and by humility man’s heart is softened (p.6). Humility helps man recognize the vanity of his life and the foolishness of his choices, and sets him on the path back to God.
Further, in humility, as man considers the shortness of his life, and his inevitable death, this awareness of his death carries him onward into a state of mourning for his life, and this inner state of spiritual mourning is transforming and very good for him (p.8). This mindfulness of death can horrify man and cause him to seek God; it also can give clarity as to the vanity of his life and his worldly pursuits, so that he begins to desire spiritual treasures rather than earthly ones (p.21).
In his despair of physical death, man then sees his only hope in God, and he struggles within himself to find God, fighting against his passions and his mind’s distractions which come between him and true relationship with God, so that he can find God in his heart, the place God created for union with man (p.24).
The “cultivation of the heart” includes both prayer and repentance as essential activities. Prayer especially focuses our attention on God. The Church Fathers stress the importance of continual prayer with the name of Jesus so as to keep the mind ceaselessly focused on Christ, helping to free the mind from its habitual distractions (p.8). In coordination with prayer they also stress the importance of vigilance and watchfulness of our mind’s thoughts and of the activity of our passions, so that we can, in time, gain the upper hand over these things acting within us (p.65).
Repentance helps man see his reality clearly—who man truly is in relation to God—and paves the way for man’s return to God (p.9). The place of the deep heart in man is concealed by vanity (p.47). Through genuine repentance man turns his entire being back towards God, it is the mourning over his sins that allows man to turn away from them, forsaking his former life and opening his heart to God. As we bear our shame in relation to God, trusting in His love and mercy, we open to His grace and salvation (p.53). Love and trust in God grows out of an initial fear of Him; we can’t but feel a little fear if we are honest about our sin, see it clearly in the light of God’s power and justice. The writer of Proverbs says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). But this is only the first step, as wisdom leads us into true love—born from an initial fear—but transforming our sinfulness into nobility, pride and vanity are conquered within us and love for God and our neighbor increases.
The Church Fathers say that “prayer is the highest and most noble activity of the human spirit” (p.69). They also state that prayer is the activity of love, and that in prayer to God for ourselves and for others we show our love for man and God. For anyone concerned with the health of others—particularly as pastors and counselors—but anyone who has begun the cultivation of their own heart in the ways described here, first and foremost we can offer ourselves as living examples to others, and then we can encourage them also to live in this way, guiding them to find their own hearts as the meeting place between themselves and God.
I wrote this a while back, as an encouragement to pray and to watch our thoughts, as we work to find our heart:
Watching and Praying
Where does your mind wander? Have you ever witnessed your consciousness extending out beyond yourself, becoming lost in the world of what you see, and what you hear, taste, touch or smell? Have you noticed? Have you watched this as it happens, been attentive to the way you lose yourself in your thoughts throughout the day?
And what happens when you pray, can you find yourself again? Have you felt your consciousness return to you when you walk alone beneath the trees, or when you meditate upon the truth of Love? What peace do you feel, when all that you’ve scattered abroad in this wide world comes back to you and rests safely again within your heart? You are yours once more…
I saw myself leave myself today; extending my thoughts to the objects of my love, reaching out with my soul, dissipating my concentration and my energy just a little bit; so I prayed with thanks to God for all things, and called upon His mercy. As I prayed, I felt myself returning to myself, and I felt peace; and I saw more clearly the objects of my love, as they exist outside of myself, but didn’t allow myself to be drawn out of my heart by any of them. As I prayed, I could love them without strings attached; simply with freedom and in purity.
When you lose yourself, if you do, have you ever tried to make prayer your constant companion; letting the words of your prayer and the meaning beneath the words permeate you, protect you, and draw you back in again? Do you call upon God’s grace continually, or struggle towards that goal? It is a difficult habit to inculcate but one that promises to add peace to our steps.
Archimandrite Zacharias (2013). The Hidden Man of The Heart: The Cultivation of the Heart in Orthodox Christian Anthropology. Dalton, PA: Mount Thabor Press.