What is Primary to Orthodox Spirituality?


by Rick Burns

We would think that this would be an easy question to answer … but if we ask around, we will get many different answers. Some will tell us that we need to know the Traditions of the Church. Some will say that we need to know the Bible, others may say we need to know the Saints, while still others recommend that we need to know the liturgical services. While all of these answers are excellent, how much do we need to know about these things to begin the Orthodox journey? Certainly, as we mature as adults, our understanding of these and many other important topics regarding the Orthodox faith should increase. But what is primary to begin and live the faith that will count us among the Orthodox believers?

Consider this primary thought: We must know who we are in our hearts.

Inside every human is the heart, the rudder of our ship. It is the center of our being. It is the place where we converse with both God and ourselves. It is where we decide who we will be and what we will be like. It is the primary starting place for us to understand Orthodox spirituality

The heart has been the main topic in the writings of poets, musicians, Valentine card authors, and Saints. We often use such phrases as “good hearted;” “a perfect heart,” “the heart of the matter,” “a hardened heart,” “a pure heart,” “a foolish heart” or “a broken heart.” Many of these expressions have come from the writers of the Bible. Indeed, the word “heart” or its derivative occurs almost 1000 times in the KJV of the Bible from the front cover to the end.

The heart has been the main topic in the writings of poets, musicians, Valentine card authors, and Saints. We often use such phrases as “good hearted;” “a perfect heart,” “the heart of the matter,” “a hardened heart,” “a pure heart,” “a foolish heart” or “a broken heart.” Many of these expressions have come from the writers of the Bible. Indeed, the word “heart” or its derivative occurs almost 1000 times in the KJV of the Bible from the front cover to the end.

Do we need to be a theologian, a monk, a physiatrist, or an intellectual to understand this? No, surely not. Most of what we need to know is just plain common sense. After all, no one can deny that we have this place in our being that makes us run. It is our personal identity. Our heart makes us who we are. It is easy to us to talk about the “heart of the problem.” Indeed, everyone has a heart to understand, and recognizing this is the first step to becoming identified with our Lord Jesus Christ.

The effects of sins of our hearts

My daughter just had a child. Holding him, I thought, “It is so difficult to believe that an infant’s heart is sinful.” Many teach this, but not Orthodoxy. We do not believe that we are totally depraved, as many protestants do. Nor do we believe we are born with the guilt of sin, as the Romans teach. Instead, we are born in innocence and our heart is pure. To be sure, we all sin. Yet some, as did our Lady the Theotokos, continue in purity of heart the rest of their lives, as blameless. Since our teaching is different than the Roman view, we did not need to invent a doctrine of Immaculate Conception. Mary, the Theotokos, was as human as we are, yet morally pure throughout her life. We are all born in the same condition and we have the choice to keep our hearts pure and directed towards God, or to sin and rebel against the purity of a loving heart. Our lives become a continual struggle to conform our hearts to purity and holiness. Recognize this, and we are on our way to becoming Orthodox. Saint John Chrysostom puts it this way: “When Christ says to follow the narrow path, he addresses every man. The monk as well as the lay person can attain the same spiritual heights.”

Some, however, in spite of the effects of sin on humanity, are born in this blameless state and may continue for their lifetime. To be clear, Jesus Christ is the only Sinless One. Yet, these that I am thinking of, the mentally or physically incapable, will never be responsible for what they think in their hearts or turn into actions. God’s mercy is given to them in a very special way. For the rest of us, we must consider these things to the best of our abilities. We are all held accountable to the light we are given. For most of us, certainly those reading this essay, are able to mature and develop and make progress this center of our being, the heart. Just as Adam and Eve, we are given the choice about what we put into our hearts and can determine what our hearts are like. Simply put, this is the first step to becoming an Orthodox Christian. Often with baby steps, our initial decision continues increasingly throughout our lives. This is the process of becoming Orthodox: Becoming God-like by restoring the likeness of God in our hearts and our daily lives.

So, do we want to decide to develop the likeness of God in our hearts?

Often, maybe most often, we choose in our hearts, to turn from God’s way to our own but let’s say we want to become like God. Or, we may out of complacence shrug these words off, and do nothing at all. After all, we have more important things to do with our time. But, if we are to take this all to heart, what do we do next? St. John the Baptist tell us, “Repent and be baptized.” Orthodoxy teaches us that this is the first step to entering His Church. The Church also teaches us that repenting and remembering our baptism is an ongoing activity for us each day. We can be helped from both the writings of the Saints and the Bible. In fact we should not overlook the examples of good hearts that are around us every day.. With this help, the truth of “As a man thinketh in his heart so is he” (Proverbs 23:7) becomes a reality.

In the classic writing “Unseen Warfare” written in the 16th century by the priest Lorenzo Scupoli, and revised by St. Theophan, we learn of the peacefulness of the heart, and that our foremost directions of the heart is towards peace. “So strive above all things to establish and make firm the peaceful state of your heart. All your virtues, all actions and endeavors should be directed towards achieving this peace, and especially your valiant feats of struggling against the enemies or your salvation: Make it your whole care that your inner state should be in accordance with God, and you will vanquish your outer passion.”

In “The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology,” we read: “Activities are not the main thing in life. The most important thing is to have the heart directed and attuned to God. Learn to perform everything you do in such a way that it warms the heart instead of cooling it. Whether reading or praying, working or talking with others, you should hold fast to this one aim — not to let your heart grow cool. Keep your inner stove always hot by reciting a short prayer, and watch over your feelings in case they dissipate this warmth. External impressions are very rarely in harmony with inner work.” And “Look to yourself, and have more concern with the heart.

The Saints often talk of a more informal contemplative approach, which is often missing from the busy lives of the digital society in which we now live. St. Theophan the Recluse, in The Path to Salvation, reminds us: “True self-knowledge is to see one’s own defects and weaknesses so clearly that they fill our whole view. And mark this — the more you see yourself at fault and deserving of every censure, the more you will advance. Until the soul is established with the mind in the heart, it does not see itself, nor is it properly aware of itself.”

St. Anthony the Great recommends this norm for those who want to improve their hearts. His prescription allows all of us as we do mundane tasks everyday, to talk to God. Every monk or nun has a task to carry out in the course of the twenty-four hours. Since these tasks are a matter of routine, they do not demand any special attention; and so the hands can be at work while the mind converses with God and thus feeds the heart.

In the “Early Fathers From the Philokalia” we read: “So, if a man lacks extreme humility, if he is not humble with all his heart, all his mind, all his spirit, all his soul and body — he will not inherit the kingdom of God.” A truly humble heart is an Orthodox heart. Humility, a subject all of its own, is what Orthodox Christians must learn to develop from the outset and continue to develop for a lifetime.

This is a very long passage from St. Theophan the Recluse, “The Path to Salvation,” but I cannot say it better:

“Just as friction causes warmth, so do good works warm the heart. Without them a good spirit also grows cold and evaporates. This is what usually befalls those who do not do anything, or those who limit themselves to merely not doing evil and unrighteousness. No, we must also find good works to do. Incidentally, there are also those who make too much fuss over their works, and therefore quickly exhaust themselves and dissipate the spirit. Everything should be done in moderation. And … developing the heart means developing within it a taste for things holy, divine, and spiritual, so that when it finds itself amidst such things it would feel as though it were in its element. Finding them sweet and blessed, it would be indifferent to all else, with no taste for anything else; and even more — it would find anything else revolting. All of man’s spiritual activity centers in the heart. The truths are impressed in it, and good dispositions are rooted into it. But its main work is developing a taste for the spiritual, as we have shown. When the mind sees the whole spiritual world and its different components, various good beginnings ripen in the will. The heart, under their influence, should taste sweetness in all of this and radiate warmth. This delight in the spiritual is the first sign of the regeneration of a soul deadened by sin. Therefore the heart’s development is a very important point even in the early stages. “The work directed at it is all of our Church services in all forms — common and personal, at home and in church — and it is mainly achieved through the spirit of prayer moving within it. Church services, that is, all the daily services, together with the entire arrangement of the church’s icons, candles, censing, singing, chanting, movements of the clergy, as well as the services for various needs; then services in the home, also using ecclesiastical objects such as sanctified icons, holy oil, candles, holy water, the Cross, and incense — all of these holy things together acting upon all the senses — sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste — are the “cloths that wipe clean” the senses of a deadened soul. They are the strongest and the only reliable way to do it. The soul becomes deadened by the spirit of the world, and possessed by sin that lives in the world. The entire structure of our Church services, with their tone, meaning, power of faith, and especially the grace concealed within them, have an invincible power to drive away the spirit of the world. In freeing the soul from the world’s onerous influence, it allows the soul to breathe freely and to taste the sweetness of spiritual freedom. Walking into church we walk into a completely different world, are influenced by it, and change according to it. The same thing happens when we surround ourselves with holy objects. Frequent impressions of the spiritual world more effectively penetrate within and more quickly bring about a transformation of the heart.”

St. Peter tells to take action to add virtues to our whole being. As we understand, the knowledge that he is talking about is not merely head knowledge, but that knowledge that is spiritual and invasive to the heart, mind, soul and body. As a reminder, here is a passage from St. Peter’s second epistle.

Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins. Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble; for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

In our heart, we need to return to God’s way — become like Him. We need to do this continually, becoming more like God and less like self centered, self-aggrandizing, self-promoting individuals. God has given his people the many ways to become ,ore like Him and to restore the likeness of God’s ways in our hearts. Yes, this process is difficult. We all need help with it. But we are given the power of God, His grace and mercy, as well as His community, the Church to help us to mold our hearts anew in this process.

Begin the process of working on our hearts.

So, have we begun to know our hears? Have we started working on our hearts to make them God-like? Are our hearts Orthodox? Or, are we more interested in knowing others hearts, or your own? Do we spend more time predicting the actions of others based upon how we perceive them in their hearts … or do we spend more time considering our hearts, and predicting what our actions will be? Orthodox Christianity teaches us that we must be concerned about our own hearts. Help me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother. The disciplines of prayer and our services become important to continually maintain our hearts toward God. The mysteries of the church give to us to help us in this journey. Even in the mundane times of everyday life, our hears can be directed to, and made more like God intended them to be. For “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).

Courtesy of the

November 2006 issue of The Word magazine.

Return to The Word article listing.