Daily Meditations

The Search for the ‘Place of the Heart’: The Heart-Spirit

July 10th, 2019

So there has grown within the rich Christian tradition the idea of integrated knowledge, which assumes the necessity of reason, but in conjunction with the other faculties and senses, such as willpower, love, and the awareness of beauty. Integrated knowledge is knowledge in faith; it combines human nature in a personal movement of encounter and communion. By this communion the fullness of the godhead is communicated to human nature, reaching the very ground of the being, what the Fathers called the ‘earth of the body’; in other words, by way of the body, the earth itself. The whole person thus becomes a vehicle of worship, in a transition so peremptory and sudden as to seem almost physical.

The Fathers speak of ‘feeling God’ as well as of knowing him. While the body, being grafted by baptism on to the deifying body of Christ, is nourished in its depths by the energy of the Resurrection, the consciousness roams about ‘committing adultery with idols’. It is then that the great spiritual teachers of the Eastern Church recommend a simple and basic exercise: ‘incorporate the incorporeal in the corporeal’, attend carefully and thankfully to the humblest sensations, breathing, walking, eating. A poet has said that only a purified soul can appreciate the scent of the rose. The essence of the world is holiness, and we bear holiness in our bodies. It is important that our hearts are aware of it.

Integrated knowledge is therefore a faculty of the whole person, created in order to become a sanctuary of God’s presence in the midst of the world. But the human person, like a good musician, or a good musical instrument, must be made ready, tightened and stretched, tuned to resonate with the song of being. The focus of this activity is called, in line with the biblical and Christian tradition, the ‘heart-spirit’. Some people, starting from St Paul’s threefold division – body, soul and spirit – have tended to emphasize the last; the soul then means the mind, and the spirit the openness of the person to the Holy Spirit (when St Paul speaks of the spirit, it is often hard to tell whether he means the human spirit, or God’s). Others, following biblical symbolism directly, have laid more emphasis on the heart. When people finally realized that these were two ways of saying the same thing, they used the expression ‘heart-spirit’.

Throughout the Bible, but especially in the earlier, less sophisticated books, the heart is not merely the bodily seat of the emotions, but the centre, symbolic but real, of the person, the place where all the faculties are combined, and where the spiritual combat is fought. It is the inmost self, so that sin consists in the heart’s being at variance with the lips. It is the origin of the feelings, will-power, and passion, the last being transformable into com-passion. A joyful person is said to be ‘of good heart’; in sadness the heart is ‘sick’. And above all, the heart is the place of intelligence, both of its contemplative roots and of its mature expression. So it stands for the person, the place where nature opens upon the irreducible fathomlessness of personal existence. Therefore it is utterly mysterious; only God ‘knows the secrets of the heart’ (Psalm 44.21). And so the ‘bottom of the heart’ is the place where we encounter God, where we open or shut to the one who ‘stands at the door’, begging for love. Rejection of God, withdrawing into oneself, are called in the Bible ‘hardness of heart’. The faithful heart, on the contrary, is ‘fixed’ on God.

That is why God, using our experiences, cultivates our hearts like a good ploughman, breaking up the hard dry earth to let in water and seed. God is ‘near to the broken-hearted’ (Psalm 34.18). And the prophet, announcing the end of all things, which for us is the coming of Christ, describes both the heart and the spirit as being opened to the Holy Spirit: ‘A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you…’ (Ezekiel 34.26-27).

In the New Testament this unveiling of the ‘hidden man of the heart’ is dramatically accomplished. The light shed upon our hearts by the incarnate Word chases out the ravages inflicted there by the powers of evil. If we reject the light, our heart becomes ‘double’, and is given over to the devil who is called ‘legion’. From the heart arise ‘thoughts’ – the seeds of passions – which lead us to ‘pride, foolishness’ (Mark 7.21). Only by faith, only by a thorough ‘turning round’ can we receive a ‘new heart’ in Christ. Then are we filled in the depth of our being with all the fullness of God. But the baptismal ‘enlightenment’ is buried in the unconscious. The Christian Tradition tells us to ‘seek the place of the heart’.

~Olivier Clement, On Human Being:  A Spiritual Anthropology