Thursday, April 7, 2011
On Guarding the Heart
About Guarding One’s Heart
I mentioned briefly that guarding one’s heart will be helpful in the battle against Logisimoi. While a must-have weapon against the distractions of the devil, we should not limit this merely to a mental exercise of “mind over matter”. Rather, one’s heart, our conscience, should be transfigured in Christ. We should strive to keep it free of corruption: from our own selfish desires, from the negative influence of others, and the destitution of the devil.
Why should we guard our Heart?
“The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)1
The prophet Jeremiah laments the human condition, that our heart along with all our being is fallen. In fact, it is so wholly corrupted, that he asks, who could know it? Who could love it? This is the echo of all mankind that has longed for God through the ages. How could anything so thoroughly polluted be of any value? Our hearts, having succumbed to so many evils since our exile from paradise, loom heavy over us. As soon as we are born, we are influenced by evil; the misdeeds of our parents, of our ancestors and family, the society which we are formed in, the very world itself, is sick with humanity’s sinfulness. It would seem impossible to purge our heart of these ills if we did not have help. Sure we could follow one moral thinker over another and try to emulate their life. But the entire task, the whole weight would be a lone affair and most men would simply stop in frustration and weariness. Without help though, it is difficult to see progress being made, or whether we are even moving in the right direction. Dead men simply cannot help beyond the encouragement of their words. But as Christians, we are given LIVING help. Christ in becoming human made God approachable to us, and gave us the Holy Spirit. He shows us in his life’s ministry that humanity can be transfigured, and that a man’s heart, could be converted, could be redeemed, to loving the Father and all of His creation, which we had enjoyed in Paradise. Joy, not sorrow would abide in man’s heart as he in Christ would be raised up from a spiritual death to stand on his own two feet. As Christ is the Living God, he continues to help us, to guide us in the ways of righteousness. He is not merely ink on a page as He reminds us: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)2
“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” (Proverbs 4:23)3
When we allow Him to dwell within us, our hearts un-harden, and we become able to love even in the face of mockery and hate. We can only do this with His help, because we still live in a world tainted by our past sins and the world’s corruption. The author of the Proverb seemingly contradicts Jeremiah, but they are really two sides of one coin. Man’s heart is capable of so much depravity, yet, because it was created by the God of Love, the human heart is also capable of enjoining in that Love poured out by the Father for all creation. When we “Put on Christ” (Romans 13:14), we take into ourselves the Holy Spirit which becomes the fire that cleanses our hearts of all sinfulness.4 Man is brought back to life, life in Christ, true life, Eternal life and our hearts beat in unison with Him, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit flows from us as a purifying and life-giving wellspring whereby, all our actions and all our thoughts are sanctified in Him.
How can we guard our Heart?
It is well to say that we should guard our heart, but how exactly does a person accomplish this?
Saint Isaac the Syrian tells us that a heart that extends itself to Love (such love that everything is seen as beautiful and a reflection of the Creator’s Love, from the earth, to the animals, to all of humanity, even for the pitiable demons), we can overlook offenses and corruption in one another to see our original beauty.5 By humbling ourselves, such that we seek to see the good, to see God in everything around us, we begin to purge our hearts of judgements and prejudices that color all our thoughts and interactions. In the offender, whatever they have done against you, or your fellow man, do not dwell upon the wrong in your mind, but look upon what they have done to honor Him and all the love they have shown in your relationship. When you place yourself as the least amongst God’s children, you open your heart to Christ, whose heart was so humble, he gave himself for all the world.
Humility works in the heart by no longer thinking oneself to be better than anyone or anything.6 By trusting in the merciful love of the Father, we place ourselves as helpless servants, who only by the Master’s hand, can be made worthy to stand beside our fellow man. Humility cuts down our judgements of others in our heart, driving us to compassion; to treat our fellow man as a king, as having higher honor than ourselves, such that even the homeless drug addict whose lies and refusal for help, which might normally spurn contempt in our heart, moves us to charity. By doing this, by acquiring humility, we change our heart and allow God to work with us and within us, to overcome our prejudices, which the world and the serpent have embedded in us to indulge our comfort, or ego and the fantasy of self worth. We are worth nothing alone, but in Christ, we are magnified above the angels.
We should strive to recognize, curtail, and expunge thoughts which bring us to sin. As Christ said, if we even covet our neighbor in our mind, we have fallen into sinfulness and given in to the enemy’s snare (Matthew 5:28).7 We must be ever vigilant about our thoughts. Discerning their origin and their intention. Saint Philotheos of Sinai tells us that in recognizing a thought of evil origin, we should cut it out of mind. Striving not follow it to it’s end, and calling upon Christ to save us from our weakness that we might be fortified by him so we do not follow it to sin. 8
In the Italian spiritual classic “Unseen Warfare” the author (Lorenzo Scupoli) implores us to examine our thoughts.9 Some of the indicators that let us know we are being tempted, are the lack of humility, love, charity, of faith in our thinking. If we are not humble, than our thoughts potentially will lead to vainglory and pride and to the depreciation of our fellow man. Without love, there is only lust, objectification or fleeting pleasure. Without charity, we enkindle hurts into grudges, we hold back from helping others because of disdain. Without faith, we are given over to fear, fear of judgement, fear of loss, fear of death. We cease to be humans, reacting basely to our thoughts without any discernment, becoming mere animals to the mockery of our nature and the entertainment of the devil. Our conscience, our heart is a gift from God, separating us from animals. It is to our benefit we sanctify it, and use it. When our conscience is aligned with Christ, we begin to recognize more easily the snares of the devil.
Some thoughts may appear without consequence or even seem tantalizing. But as Lorenzo Scupoli says, we will know their nature by their fruits. Anything that is not of Christ will in some way lead to a further gulf in our relationship with him. It could be as innocent as a thought about sleeping, whereby we could be ignoring a liturgical service or neglecting our studies. It could present itself as love for another, and desire sexual intimacy that while seemingly innocent, the reality of which is emptiness, fear, or shame. Subtlety is the speciality of the devil, and we sometimes prefer to deceive ourselves even if we recognize warning signs, because we afraid to confront the reality of our thinking, and the consequences of change.
If you cultivate a thought long enough, it will become habitual and is far more difficult to overcome. We must always be watchful as Saint Isaiah says, for only attentiveness in our thinking can keep us from temptation.10 Examine yourself, your thoughts. How have similar lines of thinking ended in helping or hindering your relationship with Christ. Do you notice patterns? Do these thoughts encourage participation in church, and move you toward Christ? Or do they indulge in idleness and empty relationships? Stay true to the Lord’s statutes. Once we begin to recognize bad thoughts, we can begin to excise them, to nullify them before they can begin to bear bad fruit. We allow the spirit to grow within us and transform us into the likeness of God, and restore our relationship with Him which we had in paradise. Freedom is choice, to chose freely to glorify God or turn away from him. When we overcome our slavery to the passions, it is like a fog lifting from a valley floor; we begin to see everything, chief amongst this: our choices, and whether they will be in accord with Christ, or against His kingdom. In Christ we are free.
The Old Man with Cancer
A story related by Bishop Anthony Bloom talks about a man who acquired the peace of the spirit and transformed his heart. This man was at a hospital with terminal cancer and awaiting his death. He was angry, and upset at those around him. As a priest, Father Anthony Bloom came to minister to him at the hospital. This man said he did not need the pity of a priest. But time and time again Father Anthony came to see the man. Eventually the man began to open up and tell Father Anthony about his life. The man could not realize why he had been afflicted by cancer and was no longer in control of his fate. He no longer had the time to do what he had wanted. The priest said to the man, “Look, you still have your freedom. You have all the time in the world to make ready yourself. Be grateful that God has slowed time down for you. You no longer have any commitments but to yourself. Heal your soul, and let the doctors tend to your body.” So over time the man began to pray, and little by little a change in his attitude was noted by the nurses and found himself reconciled with his family and those whom he had offended.
Months later, Father Anthony came in one day to check on the man. He was barely recognizable, all the muscle had left his body, and he was hunched over as he ate dinner. Father Anthony came to the man and spoke with him about how great it was to see his change of heart. The man said “Here I am, an old, weak man who can barely hold his spoon, and yet I feel more alive than I was in life. I owe all this to Christ who changed my heart.” The man died a few weeks later, but he had reclaimed his freedom from his passions. Even with a death sentence, we still have the choice to change ourselves, to allow Christ into our hearts. Only despair can rob this from us. We can die alone, wallowing in our own pettiness, or embrace the Light and the Life, allowing Him to be that wellspring in our heart, whereby we can acquire the Spirit of Peace.
Prayer, the reading of Holy Scripture and the lives of the saints coupled with discernment, discipline, and humility; these tools that cultivate the Holy Spirit within you, and through it’s ministry, we can begin to have mastery over our thoughts, and our conscience, and begin to climb out of the pit to begin our healing. We no longer are condemned to be slaves to our passions, but now have true freedom, to choose what we know is good and right.
1 Jeremiah 17:9 NKJV
2 Matthew 28:20 NKJV
3 Proverbs 4:23 NIV
4 Romans 13:14 RSV
5 “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.” - St. Isaac of Syria
6 This shall be a sign for you, a luminous sign of the serenity of your soul: on examining yourself, you will find yourself full of compassion for all humanity, and your heart is afflicted with pity for them, burning as though with fire, without making distinction between one person and another. -St. Isaac of Syria
7 Matthew 5:28 NIV
8 "Be extremely strict in guarding your intellect. When you perceive an evil thought, rebut it and immediately call upon Christ to defend you; and while you are still speaking, Jesus in His gentle love will say: "Behold, I am by your side ready to help you." When the whole detachment of the enemy has been put out of action through prayer, again turn your attention to your intellect. There you will see a succession of waves worse than before, with the soul swimming among them. But again, awakened by His disciple, Jesus as God will rebuke the winds of evil. Having found respite for an hour perhaps, or for a moment, glorify Him who has saved you. - St. Philotheos of Sinai
9 "Guard yourself from thoughts, which appear holy and inflame an unreasonable zeal for themselves, of which the Lord speaks allegorically: 'Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. You shall know them by their fruits'. Their fruit is the languishing and breaking of the spirit. Know that everything which draws you away from humility and from inner peace and quiet, however beautiful it may seem, is nothing but false prophets who, under the cover of sheep's clothing, that is, of a hypocritical zeal to do good to their neighbors without discrimination, are in truth ravening wolves who steal you of your humility, peace and quiet, so necessary to every man who desires steady progress in spiritual life." - Lorenzo Scupoli
10 "Be attentive to your heart and watch your enemies, for they are cunning in their malice. In your heart be persuaded of this: it is impossible for a man to achieve good through evil means. That is why our Savior told us to be watchful, saying: 'Straight is the gate, and narrow is the way that leads to life, and few there are that find it.’ - St. Isaiah the Solitary