“You must descend from your head into your heart.
At present, your thoughts of God are in your head. And God himself is,
as it were, outside you, and so your prayer and other spiritual exercises remain exterior.
Whilst you are still in your head, thoughts will not easily be subdued but will always be whirling about, like snow in winter or clouds of mosquitos in summer.”
~ St. Theophan the Recluse
Theophan the Recluse (1815 - 1894) was a Russian Orthodox bishop of Tambov in Russia.
I have been sitting with this thought of St.Theophan for several months. I know there is something here for me beyond the face value. Something more than an "Amen! Indeed, it's all about heart," and while I resoundingly agree, it strikes me that this is somehow not enough. It is not enough to file this away as just another lovely thought, another sound bite. Rather, it is to be ingested, to be tossed around in one's mouth as one savours wine, and let it slide gently down your throat to be digested and become a part of you. As I say this, I think of "taste and see that the Lord is good." And who can forget "take this bread"? It is my body broken for you, and drink this wine for this in my blood shed for you." Jesus also said, "I am the bread of life" or "I am the Living Water" and a promise that whoever eats and drinks will never be hungry or thirsty again. They will be satisfied! It all speaks to me of a deeper knowing, an experience with God rather than just experience with ideas about God. In this, we are truly satisfied.
I am a big fan of healthy thinking about God because healthy thinking produces healthier actions, and yet, I am coming to see that healthy thinking in a classic western way seems like a rather anemic way of knowing. My personal experience in these kinds of matters, that when I am over thinking something when my mind is awhirl with thoughts that spin and spin, I feel like the Lord stops me mid-thought to say, "Michael, shut up and kiss me!"
As many of the early Christian mystics did, I am coming to see that sometimes, even our best thoughts about God can get in the way of knowing God. In the West, especially from enlightenment, scientific perspective, we are taught to learn, to think by observation. We are taught to be objective observers, separate from that which we observe.
To grasp that even as individuals, we are a part of a moment, even in our observation - we are a part of a bigger context itself. For example, we are part of a community, which helps us grasp our individuality and give it meaning. It is in our intimacy (being a part of) that we can move from knowing about to actually knowing. To experience is to be participatory, a partaker of the divine nature. “We are a part of something more than we observe something.” “When it's all about ideas, you don’t have to be a part of it - you just need to speak correctly about it.” When healthy thinking and heart experience combine, something much more full happens, as my friend and spiritual director describes it:
"the sacred space beyond duality where "thinking" and "hearting" are siblings not afraid of each other, sibling who playfully collaborate until in some wild way there is a head in the heart and a heart in the head!"
We also tend to make our ideas about God somehow holy. Our good thinking about God, in a weird way, becomes God. C.S Lewis speaks of this phenomenon in his book A Grief Observed. Lewis speaking of his memory of his wife and his ideas about God, writes:
"Images of the Holy easily become holy images - sacrosanct. My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself.... Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.”
Forgetting that we all see through a glass darkly, we can take our best thoughts, the noblest and pious, and lend to them the divine. For many of us, what we think about God forms a rigid image of what God is like, a God box to be kind, and an idol at worst. The mystics tell us that as soon as we name God, we shrink God. This seems true because God is always much bigger than we can conceive! It is so easy to substitute what we know about God for God Himself.
The truth is, God is much bigger than our biggest, best thoughts about God. How often do we miss the things of God when He moves in a way that is outside our God box? I think this is why we chafe at the counter-intuitive things Jesus says, like becoming like a little child, for example. Do we overthink and make simple things complicated or, worse yet, miss them altogether? Always looking but never seeing, always listening but never hearing, always thinking and never knowing?
Could it be that even our best thinking can only get us so far? Could it be that we don't "get' God with sound logic and theological rigour exclusively? Perhaps we "get" God as a gift. Ponder Peter's profession of "you are the Christ!" It was a gift, not something he worked out, and it seems that intellectually, he really didn’t understand the profundity of what he said. Our faith is not a puzzle to be solved but a gift to be received.
So what is the way through? If you are like me, I am so weary of the head or heart dichotomy. I am coming to recognize it is simply not an either/or situation; it is, in fact, a both / and. I am not talking about a mixture like 50% head and 50% heart. We need to recapture wholeness as humans. We are more than our thoughts, feelings or experiences independent of one another. As whole human beings, we think, we feel, and we experience - we are! We must enlarge the way we think about knowing with both head and heart.
So our call is to another seeming paradox, an unknowing knowing. A way of head and heart that are in unity with each other - as a whole person. Keeping our healthy ideas of God supple and able to stretch and grow, to be wineskins that can hold wine without getting dry, stiff and cracked. To be open to being surprised by God, knowing that He is infinitely more than we can ask or imagine! To learn to know God beyond our ability to understand God.
[republished from 2013]