Into the Heart of the Capitol

It seems to be common in our present cultural circumstance to hear that the crises confronting us are of too great a moment to pay attention to the quiet of the heart. The issues seem overwhelming in the immediacy or their goodness. That, I think, is among the great fallacies of the modern world.
Archpriest Stephen Freeman | 14 January 2021
Into the Heart of the Capitol

The love of truth is similar (and related) to the love of beauty. The truth is not found through suspicion, anger, hearsay, or such things. The truth ultimately is a gift from God and strengthens the heart. It is better, when we cannot arrive at the truth because of suspicion or such, to say, “I don’t know,” than to grasp at things we suspect or imagine.

The origin of conspiracy theories begins in a heart that cannot bear the shame of its own ignorance.

I wrote the short thought above for a post on Facebook last week as passions swirled and the various competing stories carried people along. The response was, on the whole, positive, though I was assured any number of times that conspiracies are real and that we must resist them and stand ready to fight. I was even reminded of what the Bolsheviks once did to innocent people (etc.). For myself, I remembered trying to calm an anxious/angry/crying child. Telling them to calm down is rarely effective.

Conversations on the blog are far less explosive. In the world of social media, a blog can be like a quiet meeting in a lecture hall, or seminar room, with questions, answers, and comments largely measured with self-control and thoughtfulness. Facebook is often like a shouting match in the town square. Nonetheless, if you are a preacher, you speak where people gather. St. Paul ventured onto the Areopagus, found a small audience, and left as he was derided with laughter and disbelief. He gained at least one convert – who later became a bishop.

I wanted to revisit this short post in the relative quiet of the blog in that it seemed to me to deserve greater reflection.

As far as I can gather, most people in our culture who are struggling with the passions (anger, anxiety, fear, etc.) are convinced that others are to blame. We do not believe the dividing line between good and evil to be within our own heart. Rather, it is between them and us. I was staggered this past week when things reached a crescendo at the nation’s Capitol building that, after but a moment, all of the passionate voices resumed, only at a louder pitch. We are enthralled – in the true meaning of that word – “locked in” with chains surrounding us. To my mind, this alone constitutes the present danger in our world.

The shame of our own ignorance is also coupled with the shame of our impotence. The things we fear seem beyond our ability to control, just as the things we don’t know seem to defy the transparency that alone would reassure us. As such, we are left with our fantasies.

Bearing shame is in very short supply. I can recall years ago, in attempted arguments with my devout, Baptist, Father-in-law, his amazing patience with me. His standard rejoinder to my well-honed theological critiques was, “Well, I don’t know about that.” And, he meant it. I can see now that I was always trying to draw him into my own fantasies and speculations. He tended to prefer steady, solid ground. He would have claimed to know very little – though, he was utterly consistent in walking faithfully in all he knew. It took years for me to realize that I was witness to a very profound Christian heart.

I remember that he was interested in government (as opposed to politics). He watched CSPAN for entertainment. He also attended every City Council meeting in his small town and sought to know and understand the issues of his time. He always had a small Bible with him, but also had a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution. He wondered, he told me, about capital punishment. He signed up to be a witness (12 are required at an execution) at the rather common executions of that time. He was, I think, seeking to discern what he should think. As I recall, he came to oppose the practice.

I think of such sobriety in the face of our present noisy world in which we not only boast of our opinions, but constantly repeat information that we do not actually know for ourselves, apart from having seen it on a site whose sympathies we like (or heard from someone who heard from someone). Our actions reveal the unredeemed shame of our hearts. Ignorance and impotence are rarely acknowledged. We imagine that we know when we don’t, and we think we are making a difference when we are not.

Our lives, for all of their angst, are often without substance. And for all that, we still do not weep and repent. The passions never give substance to our lives. They are like parasites on the soul, giving rise to a false self. They do not give us peace. We cannot rest in them. They contain no beauty and never satisfy us. Oftentimes, they simply leave us empty, even when the object of our passions is obtained. None of the passions represents true eros, true desire. The soul desires beauty, truth, and goodness (all of which find their utter and complete fulfillment in God Himself).

It seems to be common in our present cultural circumstance to hear that the crises confronting us are of too great a moment to pay attention to the quiet of the heart. The issues seem overwhelming in the immediacy or their goodness. That, I think, is among the great fallacies of the modern world. There are, no doubt, enormously noble ideas that people can pursue. The danger, however, is that noble ideas only take shape in very particular contexts, and that context is always the human heart.

My counsel regarding the heart was dismissed as “Quietism,” an apparently discredited version of Protestant pietism. Orthodoxy, however, is grounded in Hesychasm (a Greek word that would translate as “Quietism” or “Stillness”). It is not the discredited Protestant phenomenon, but a profound teaching that human action proceeds from the abundance of the heart (Luke 6:45) – both good and evil. It is a recognition that my heart is the source of all evil in the world. If you actually care about the world, then it is your own heart that must be addressed. This can only be done through hesychia (stillness).

I noted to someone recently that I was raised as a racist, in a deeply racist culture. I cannot exaggerate how serious this condition in the world of my Jim-Crow-South childhood was. It was horrific and evil. I can remember, however, how I came to see that it was wrong and to embrace a different way of seeing the world. That change only came about when I encountered the beauty of a heart that was free of this enchantment. It is desire (eros), drawn to beauty, that brings us to the truth and gives birth to goodness. This is the way of the Fathers.

If Orthodoxy is nothing more than an anxious voice among many, begging to be heard and believed because its description of its fears are persuasive, then it will, in the main, disappear. Alasdair MacIntyre, in a paragraph on modernity that has become famous, said that the world is waiting for a new St. Benedict. He is wrong. God is already sustaining the world by his hidden saints, and holds all things in existence through their prayers. The Orthodox faith bears witness to this and invites her children into that great reality.

I can think of no Church Father who spoke more forcefully or critically about the moral failings of his time than St. John Chrysostom. He did not hesitate to call out the Emperor, or problems within the larger Church. Eventually, his words brought about his exile. Banished to the very edge of the empire, he died in isolation. Writing to the Deaconness Olympia, his closest friend and confidant, he expressed the very heart of Orthodoxy in troubled times:

“Therefore, do not be cast down, I beseech you. For there is only one thing, Olympia, to fear, only one real temptation, and that is sin. This is the refrain that I keep chanting to you ceaselessly. For everything else is ultimately a fable – whether you speak of plots, or enmities, or deceptions, or slanders, or abuses, or accusations, or confiscations, or banishments, or sharpened swords, or high seas, or war engulfing the entire world. Whichever of these you point to, they are transitory and perishable, and they only affect mortal bodies; they cannot in any way injure the watchful soul. This is why, wishing to express the paltriness of both the good and the bad things of this present life, the blessed Paul stated the matter in one phrase, saying, ‘For the things that are seen are transient’ (2 Cor. 4:18).”  From Letter 7, Saint John Chrysostom’s Letters to Saint Olympia.

True to his own admonition, his last words before dying were: “Glory to God for all things!”


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