Purity of Heart in the Writings of the Philokalia
What is the purpose of the asceticism and repentance that have been described in the previous posts? Again, it is a question the Fathers often asked of themselves, realizing how easy it is to make these practices ends rather the means to an end. As with so many things in life we can be investing a lot of energy, working very hard but lose sight of where we are heading or what we are seeking. In this the spiritual life (as we often make it) can become, strangely enough, analogous to an infatuation. The word infatuation comes from in-fatuous which means “false light”. Following a false light is the experience often had by those traveling in the desert at night. They believe they see a light in the distance and so set out to reach it and find warmth and comfort for themselves. However, it is actually an optical illusion and more often than not they would travel a great distance, expending much effort, only to realize that what promised light and warmth was nowhere to be found.
Thus, knowing what our immediate purpose and ultimate end are in the spiritual life is essential and there is no better place to begin than with those who walked the path, the “narrow way,” before us. In particular, there is a notable conversation on this very subject in the Philokalia. John Cassian and his fellow monk and friend Germanus travelled from Gaul to Egypt in the 4th century to live with the Eastern monks in the Nile delta in order to bring back the wisdom of the Hesychast tradition to the West. For nearly 20 years they lived with the monks and hermits in order to observe their way of life and learn from their collective wisdom.
In the first volume of the Philokalia we find Cassian and Germanus engaged in a discussion with Abba Moses who puts this question to them:
“‘You have given up your country, your families, everything worldly in order to embrace a life in a foreign land among rude and uncultured people like us. Tell, what was your purpose and what goal did you set before yourselves in doing all this?’ We replied: ‘We did it for the kingdom of heaven.’ In response Abba Moses said: ‘As for the goal, you have answered well; but what is the purpose which we set before us and which we pursue unwaveringly so as to reach the kingdom of heaven? This you have not told me.’ When we confessed that we did not know, the old man replied: ‘The goal of our profession, as we have said, is the kingdom of God. Its immediate purpose, however, is purity of heart, for without this we cannot reach our goal. We should therefore always have this purpose in mind; and, should it ever happen that for a short time our heart turns aside from the direct path, we must bring it back again at once, guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as if it were a carpenter’s rule. . . .If we forget this purpose we cannot avoid frequently stumbling and losing our way, for we will be walking in the dark and straying from the proper path’” (Philokalia, Vol. 1, 95).
Yet, what is this purity of heart of which Abba Moses speaks? Throughout the Philokalia it is described in various ways but most often the Fathers speak of purity as having God at the center of all of our thoughts, words and actions - having God as our one true desire, our beginning and end. Anthony Coniaris captures this with great clarity and simplicity:
“Purity of heart is not, first and foremost, a matter of avoiding all sorts of bad things; it is more so, desiring one supreme good above all. It is to want one thing, to focus our whole life on that one thing. What is that one thing? It is to know God, love HIm, and serve Him with all our mind, heart and soul and strength. When you are pure of heart, you place all your focus on what God wants of you. You want to be godly, a person of integrity. Your deepest desire is for God, not for the approval of people. Thus, purity of heart means loving all people and having a single supreme purpose and direction, not being double minded and unstable (James 1:8). Such purity or singleness of heart leads to illumination which, in turn, leads to glorification and union with God” (Coniaris, “A Beginner’s Introduction to the Philokalia”, 122-123).
Here we begin to see why purity of heart is so important, why it is the purpose of our asceticism, and something to which we must be entirely and exclusively consecrated. Alphonse and Rachel Goettmann in their work “Prayer of Jesus, Prayer of the Heart” express it ever so pointedly:
“To be on the way with a divided will, a small fraction of our energy and a mental hesitation, leads nowhere! We must break radically with our habits, with our way of being and introduce into ourselves - through a decisive act which shakes our whole nature - a new idea force, a consecration of our energies to Jesus Christ so complete that to live from Him becomes for our heart the only desire, and for our will the only activity in all that we live and do. . . .all life becomes a single adoration. Behind everything, there is the presence: we must feel it always and everywhere, awaken to its constant, intimate, enveloping nearness, intensely perceive it and commune with it in every moment. To turn all our emotions toward the presence of Christ is the most intense way of purification for the heart. Sooner or later ‘the pure in heart will see God,’ will feel Him, touch Him, hear Him, smell Him” (155-156).
Indeed, the more we are purified the more we shall see. This is captured in exquisite fashion by St. Maximus the Confessor who wrote in the 7th century:
“If, according to the words of the Divine Apostle, Christ dwells in our hearts by faith and in Him ‘are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’, then in our hearts are to be found all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. And they (these treasures) are revealed to the heart according to the measure of purification of each person by the commandments. This is the ‘treasure hid in a field’ of your heart, which you have not yet found because of your inaction. For if you had found it, you would have sold all that you had and bought that field. But you have abandoned that field and work nearby, where there is nothing but thorns and thistles. Therefore, the Savior says, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.’ They will see Him and the treasures that are in Him, when they purify themselves by love and self-mastery; the more they are purified, the more (of God) will they see.”
Ultimately, the importance of purity of heart lies in our destiny. “The more of God’s love and mercy we receive, the more we commit ourselves to Him, the more we love Him and serve Him, the more we shall be able to experience His kingdom within us, and the better prepared will our eyes be for the brilliance of heaven” (Coniaris, 132).