By the Rev. Mike Marsh
What comes to mind when you hear the word “space”? Physical surroundings? The beauty of creation? The wide-open spaces of West Texas? The final frontier and the voyages of the starship Enterprise?
We tend to think of space as a physical reality that is outside of us. We exist in and occupy space. We look at office space, the spaciousness of a new home, the expanse of the night sky. We judge the beauty and potential usefulness of a particular space. All of this is to one degree or another outer space. But is that all there is? What about inner space? Perhaps the outer space we experience every day points to a deeper reality. Perhaps the outward and visible space is mirrored by an inward and invisible space. This is the testimony of Scripture and the early church.
Jesus points us to that interior space saying, “The kingdom of God is within you” (Lk. 17:21) and again “Go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Mt. 6:6). The early church understood the importance of this “within-ness” and the inner room as revealed by one of the most well-known sayings of the desert tradition: “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
Scripture and the early church mothers and fathers understood this interior place to be the heart. Our hearts are the dwelling place of God, the temple where we meet with the Lord. Too often we live, speak, think, and even pray as if God were outside of us. The spiritual journey is the journey into the heart. Recall Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God” (Mt. 5:8). Our work, then, is to discover, purify, and live in the heart.
The spiritual heart is in the chest and coincides generally with the physical heart, but when we are graced by union with Christ our whole being becomes a heart. Modern culture tends to associate the heart with emotions, feelings, and sentimentality. This is not, however, the teaching of holy Scripture or the church mothers and fathers. Christian anthropology places the emotions and feelings in the gut, not in the heart. The heart is the place of spiritual intellect and knowing. It is the place where Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them” (Lk. 2:19).
The heart is the point of self-transcendence, where our human personhood is taken up into the life of God. It is the meeting place of divinity and humanity, the uncreated and the created, the spiritual and the physical, the eternal and the temporal, God’s grace and human free will. Listen to what St. Macarius says about the heart:
Within the heart there are unfathomable depths; there are reception rooms and bedchambers within it, doors and porches and many offices and passages. In it is the workshop of righteousness; in it is the workshop of wickedness. In it is death, and in it is life.
The heart itself is only a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil; there are rough and uneven roads; there are precipices; but there too are God and the angels; life is there, and the kingdom; there too is light, and there the apostles, and heavenly cities, and treasures of grace. All things lie within that little space.
The heart then is the innermost self. It is the spiritual center of the whole person; the place where we encounter the power of evil and sin within us and the place where we meet God. The heart is the battlefield for our salvation. Abba Pambo said, “If you have a heart, you can be saved.”
To purify and live in the heart is to live in constant awareness of God’s presence and to live in awareness of our deepest identity as grounded in the image and likeness of God.
If the heart is the truest dwelling place of God, then it is also our truest home. It is the deepest and most authentic part of our humanity, the place of wholeness and integration. The heart is not only the physical but also the psychic and spiritual center of the human person. It is the point of convergence and union of body, soul, and spirit. It is the means through which we enter into communion with God, discover the true dimension of our personhood in God, and realize ourselves as created in the Divine image and likeness.
A few points need to be established before we begin to address the question of how to enter the heart. First, entering the heart is not necessarily a one-time event. Entry into the heart is not the same as entering physical space. In physical space we are either here or there, in or out. Entry into the heart is an ongoing process. The human spirit naturally longs to know God. There is no end to this learning or longing. We aspire to ever-deeper knowledge of God, to enter ever deeper into the heart.
Second, entry into the heart is a relationship of intimacy with the Blessed Trinity. In this regard entering the heart is more about a way of being than it is about taking a particular action.
Finally, there is no one “right” way to enter the heart, just as there is no one “right” way or method of falling in love. God’s relationship with each one of us is unique and personal; so is our entry into the heart.
So, how do we enter the heart? Prayer is always the starting point. The classic prayer for entering the heart is the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” The continual invocation of the Holy Name guides us into inner stillness, silence, and awareness of God – the place of the heart. The Jesus Prayer is generally practiced in two ways. First is the continual repetition of the prayer as we go though our day tending to our work, running errands, waiting in line, driving. Regardless of where we are, who we are with, or what we are doing, this prayer is silently repeated. Second, we set aside regular fixed periods of time in which we sit in silence and solitude saying the prayer either silently or aloud. At these fixed times our sole purpose is to be present with God, to more deeply enter the heart.
The Apostle Paul understood the way to the inner heart. In this knowledge, he prayed for his disciples, saying,
I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.
I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:16-19)
The Rev. Michael Marsh is rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in UvaldeTX. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org