Friday, July 20, 2007

Transforming the heart.

In eastern thought the psychosomatic presence of the heart is very important. I say psychosomatic because though it is thought of as lying within the body, it is nevertheless not that heart which is a physical organ. “A wise man’s heart is at his right hand, but a fools’s heart is at his left” (Ecclesiastes). It is with this “wise man’s heart” that Yoga is deeply concerned. But this concern is not confined to Eastern Yogic disciplines, nor is the literature related to the experience of this “heart” confined to Hindu, Buddhist or Taoist works on Yoga. The Yoga of the heart, if we can call it that, has a very central place in the practice of the Eastern Christian art of the icon, as will be explained later, and the inner experience out of which the practice is developed can be found described in the Bible. Both the Old and the New Testaments are full of references to the heart from the study of which we can find a completely scriptural basis for that Christian Yoga practiced by the Fathers of the Desert, and particularly that school of Christian contemplatives called the Hesychasts of which St. Gregory Palamas was the great doctor.

In the Old Testament the heart is generally understood as the centre of carnal man, the hub of his passions. Christ himself sums up the Old Testament teaching when he says “out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.” But we are told, this carnal man can be changed through repentance. “Rend your hearts, not your garments”. “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart, and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit”. This sorrow of the heart was much prized by the Desert Fathers who prayed for tears of the heart.

When the heart has been cleansed of its passions through tears of sorrow, it is invited by the Lord to turn towards Him. In Hindu thought this is the point when the Sat Guru, the divine teacher who is to lead the heart to rebirth, takes His position in the heart. The “Law of the Lord” of the Old Testament now becomes the ruler of the heart. At this point the heart is drawn up by Wisdom that instructs it to lift itself up, not through pride, but through joy. This done, the heart is sealed with the name of Christ. We have now already passed beyond the limits of the Old Testament teaching on the heart. St. Paul confidently affirms “the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not in the tables of stone” (i.e., not in the law of human pride) “but in fleshly tables of the heart” (i.e., in the heart softened by repentance).

Hesychasm appears to reverse the above process, making the prayer of the Word, i.e., the repetition of the prayer of Jesus, descend into the heart where it becomes independent of the conscious mind, becoming a deeper, interior awareness residing in the heart. These two apparently different process (the heart which is lifted up, and the word which descends) are, I think, simply two aspects of one and the same “heightened consciousness.” Directly after this a quietness is described which is the opposite of elation. St. Peter describes this state as the “hidden man”. (“Let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit which is in the sight of God of great price.”) This is the new man who is born in us: “I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” It is a state of internal stillness and pondering. Mary, we are told “Kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Her life was spent in prayerful contemplation of the Incarnation. The psalmist phrases it beautifully : “stand in awe and sin not, commune with your heart upon your bed and be still”, and then stirred by an exultation which can hardly be expressed he cries “Thou hast put gladness in my heart more than in the time that their corn and their wine increased.”

At this stage the heart ascends to Mount Tabor to see there the Transfiguration: Christ suffused with uncreated light. Man does not see this light in itself but discovers the world in it, as St. Benedict saw it descend upon earth so that the whole world became, as it were, a point in it. It is the light described by St.. Gregory Palamas and the Hesychasts. St. Peter speaks of it when he says “Ye do well that ye take heed as unto a light that shineth in the dark place until the day dawn and the daystar arise in your hearts.”

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