O Heavenly King: reflections on purity of heart

chapel at New Skete

(lecture given by Jim Forest at New Skete Monastery in Cambridge, NY on 4 October 2010)

What I would like to do is take a closer look at one of our most-used prayers, “O heavenly king,” giving special attention to the words, “cleanse us from all impurity.” But first please stand up for a moment and let’s say the “O heavenly king” prayer together, using the New Skete translation:

O heavenly king, consoler, spirit of truth, everywhere present and filling all things: treasury of blessings and giver of life, come dwell within us, and cleanse us of every stain, and save our souls, O good one.

Not many words — less than forty. This is one of the oldest Christian prayers. It’s a prayer especially associated with Pentecost — the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, on the Apostles — when at last Christ’s followers understood what they had witnessed and what Christ had prepared for them to do. It’s a prayer most Orthodox Christians know by heart, used in the home even in the shortest offices of morning and evening prayer. It’s also placed at the beginning of the Office of Oblation that precedes the Eucharistic Liturgy. We say and sing the words so often that they recite themselves. I am guessing that all of us who use the prayer have moments when one or another phrase hits us like an arrow shot into the center of our heart. Because it’s aprayer connected with every liturgy as well as morning and evening prayer, it is a prayer of prayers, a prayer that creates community. This is a prayer that puts us all on the same page.

The prayer does two things.

First it expresses the focus of all our prayers. It names names. In addressing the Holy Trinity, we are reminded that the Holy Trinity, the community of three Persons within the One God, is the focus and center of our lives. This is what our Christian lives are all about.

Second, it’s a fervent appeal that sums up all we are seeking. We want God to come and abide in us, to cleanse us from every impurity and to save our souls. It’s a prayer for a deep healing. We cannot cleanse ourselves or save our own souls, not without God’s help.

The first part can be broken down into three points: The first phrase — “O heavenly king, consoler, spirit of truth” — answers the question: Who are we praying to? The second — “everywhere present and filling all things” — answers the question: where are you? The third — “treasury of blessings and giver of life” — answers the questions: what do you do?

The beginning of the prayer reminds us that we are not people lacking a ruler. We have a ruler — a heavenly king — to whom we are uniquely responsible and whose demands on us have absolute priority. God has given us — not laws, in the usual sense — but a few commandments.

For example there is the Sermon on the Mount. It opens with the Beatitudes, which the Russian Church refers to as “the commandments of blessedness.” The Beatitudes are in fact a very brief summary of the Gospel. Each Beatitude has to do with aspects of living a Paschal life — that is a life not shaped by death. One way of reading each Beatitude is to use the phrase “Risen from the dead” at the beginning of each verse — for example, “Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit.”

There is also the command to forgive, and not just once but seventy times seven. Even once is rarely easy.

And there are the paired commandments — to love God (not as easy as it sounds) and to love our neighbor (much harder than it sounds). The commandment to love God is welded to the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. In the Gospel it is made clear that the neighbor referred to is not only a friendly person living next door with whom we sometimes have pleasant conversations and who might even go to the same church we do. The neighbor the commandment refers to is whomever God puts in front of us. We are not talking about relationships of mutual affection but of proximity, however brief, temporary and unsought: the beggar on the street, the atheist who despises Christianity root and branch, the fellow Christian who makes us run for cover, the politician who takes stands we find appalling, the person who just stole my wallet, the wounded stranger lying at the side of the road, the person who threatens my life or the lives of people dear to me.

We have a king and, if we are serious about calling ourselves Christians, we are people attempting to live under his rule. But it’s hard. We are sailors almost always sailing against powerful winds, the winds of our own insecurity, fears and selfishness, the winds of unhealed wounds and bitter memories, the winds of disbelief, the winds of politics, of propaganda, of slogans, of national identity, the winds of what we sense we should say and think in order to get ahead with our lives.

Our king is a heavenly king — a king, that is, not of this world — and yet a king who loves this world, who gives himself for the life of the world, a king who heals the sick of soul and body, a king who feeds the hungry, a king who forgives sins and saves the lives of sinners, a king who weeps, a king who prays for the forgiveness of those who are crucifying him, a king who hides himself in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless, the sick and the imprisoned, a king who regards our response to the least person as the ultimate criteria of salvation. Not your usual king.

Our king is someone whom we address as “consoler.” In the original Greek text, the word is “parakletos,” which can mean strengthener, advocate, counselor, consoler, encourager, comforter, helper, defender. In fact no single English word is fully adequate. Here at New Skete “consoler” has been chosen. The English word most often used in translation is “comforter,” which comes from a Latin root, “comfortare,” meaning to strengthen. God offers us simultaneously both strength for the struggle and consolation.

On the theme of strength, I often think of a remark made by Father Sergei Ovsiannikov, the rector of my parish in Amsterdam: “It is a question whether a Christian ought to a soldier, but it is obligatory for every Christian to be a warrior.” This is what Christ our King tells us when he says “I come not to bring peace but a sword.” This is not an order for us to go out and buy a sword. He neither possessed or used deadly weapons and reprimanded Peter when he used a sword against one of the people who had come to arrest Jesus. But every word Christ spoke and every action he performed cuts like a sword. Saint Paul describes the ideal Christian as a kind of a soldier who bears only one weapon, “the sword of truth.” In western iconography you can always recognize Paul not only because he is bald but because he carries a sword, a visual metaphor of his wielding the sword of truth. To use a phrase from one of the early theologians, Clement of Alexandria, we belong “to an army that sheds no blood.” We are on a battlefield but we seek no one’s death. We seek only to further our own incomplete conversion and to be made useful to God in the conversion of others.

God’s Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of Truth,” a phrase that often reminds me of the saying, “Speak the truth and shame the devil.” And there is the Russian proverb, “Eat bread and salt and speak the truth.” What a challenge it is to know the truth, speak the truth and to live a truthful life. To speak truthfully is something much more than saying what you sincerely believe on some topic, though that can sometimes be hard enough. Just to know the truth about simple things is not easy. How many innocent people are in prison today for crimes they didn’t commit, found guilty and sentenced because a witness mistakenly identified them as the guilty party. The witness gave his or her testimony in all sincerity but was in error and the wrong person now spends long years in prison as a result. Sincerity does not equal truthfulness. One can be sincerely wrong.

How great a challenge it is to live a life shaped by truth — to long to know the truth and to struggle day after day to free oneself from errors, many of which seem to enter our lives through the air we breathe. Sometimes atheists are braver than believers in this regard. To use the word “comfort” in its modern sense, it isn’t so comfortable living in a universe that has no actual meaning, held together by no glue other than gravity, with your consciousness and being ending forever the moment you die. On the other hand, in our time atheism can also be act of conformity — it is currently fashionable to be an atheist, a way of signaling that you are one of the bright ones — just as in other times it was often nothing more than an act of conformity to be a Christian.

Answering the question “where are you, God?”, we next have the phrase “everywhere present and filling all things.” We might sometimes wish, like Jonah, for God to be anywhere but here, but God cannot be unpresent. Light cannot hide itself in darkness. Even in hell God is not absent — it’s impossible. Hell is what we experience when we attempt to be absent from God, that is not to love. As Bernanos put it, “Hell is not to love anymore.” God is everywhere present. A well-made church does everything possible help make us aware of that presence and open our hearts to it, but God is not less present in your kitchen or in a bus or in prison or in a place where people are enduring torture. And not only is God present but all creation is filled with that presence. We may use what we mine from the earth to make deadly weapons, tools that remind us of hell, but the materials weapons are made from should remind us of God. “All creation sings Your glory,” we say in one of the evening prayers. All that God creates has a sacramental potential for us. All we need to bring to the encounter is a sense of wonder.

Answering the questions “What do you do? How do we know you?”, we address God as the “treasury of blessings and the giver of life.”

Who isn’t interested in treasure? As a boy I used to make treasure maps and imagine myself a pirate. I’ve outgrown that fantasy, but who doesn’t seek a treasure of blessings? Adam may be our legendary forefather, but Aladdin is one of our most popular role models. There must be a magic lantern somewhere, if only I could find it. But the treasury of blessings referred to in this prayer does not require a magic lantern and will not lead anyone to sacks of gold. The blessing referred to here is a life in communion, first of all with God, but also with each other. Connection. What a blessing it is to become capable of seeing the image of God in another human being. The more often it happens, the happier we are. To see God in others helps us to see God. It is a foretaste of heaven. It is being able to love, to experience and share in God’s love for others. The blessing of all blessings is to be aware of God’s presence — not the idea of God being present, but being alive and awake in that presence. Being unable to see the divine presence in others is a kind of blindness, worse than simply not seeing. I remember Dorothy Day saying, “Those who cannot see God in the poor are atheists indeed.”

Only now comes what we are actually asking for in this short prayer: “come and abide in us and cleanse of every impurity and save our souls, O good one.”

One could make a list a mile long of various impurities that most of us struggle with. I want to concentrate on only three: tribalism, fear, and living in a hurry. (I limit myself to three on the advice of Metropolitan Kallistos.)

Tribalism first. One aspect of our damaged human nature is a strong tribal tendency, bringing with it the illusion of separateness. While the life of anyone in this room could be saved by blood donations given by a Latin American Aztec, an Alaskan Inuit or an African Zulu, we prefer to recognize ourselves as chiefly linked with those who share our nationality, language and primary stories, or — when tribalism has a religious character — with those who share a similar ritual life, a similar religious vocabulary. Within our tribal and sub-tribal boundaries, we are willing to make notable sacrifices, even to risk and give our lives if there is no honorable alternative. Yet the tribe excludes far more than it includes. We see ourselves as radically and everlastingly separate from the vast majority, though in reality — if we mean what we’re saying when we pray the “Our Father” — they are our brothers and sisters, equally descended with us from those mysterious first humans we call Adam and Eve, and equally the object of God’s love and mercy. There is a rabbinic commentary that says the reason God made only one Adam and one Eve was that so no one could regard himself as being of higher descent, or being of separate descent.

We even have tribalism in the Orthodox Church. I’ve been in Orthodox churches where the unspoken question was, “Why are you here? Your ancestors did not come from the place where our ancestors were born. You are not welcome.” At a 19th century church council presided over by the Patriarch of Constantinople, the nationalizing or tribalizing of Christianity was called Ethnophyletism — literally “love of the tribe” — and declared a heresy, but it’s a heresy that thrives to this day.

Keeping the “other” at a distance is one of the hardest impurities for God to remove from us because we are so intensely attached to tribal identity. We are reluctant even to recognize the problem.

“The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God,” wrote Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon. “Once the affirmation of the ’self’ is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam in his freedom chose to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary precondition for reconciliation with any ‘other’.”

Who is “the Other”? Zizioulas capitalizes the word “Other” to stress its importance and mystery. The “Other” is anyone whom I am tempted to regard as better dead than alive or better far than near. In most cases it is someone outside my tribe, my ethnic, religious or national group. We tend to take a fair amount of care about intentional killing within the tribe — due process of law, etcetera — but not very much when killing outside the tribe. Americans carefully count Americans killed in war but try not to count others killed by us, though they are vastly more numerous. As a Christian, I may in theory believe that each human being — each “Other” — is a bearer of the image of God, but in practice? The truth is it rarely crosses my mind that people outside my tribe are bearers of God’s image. In fact I have a really hard time discerning that image within the tribe, indeed even within my own family.

What Metropolitan Zizioulas is saying is that, in rejecting the “Other,” I am not just rejecting a particular person but rejecting that person’s Divine parent. This is the essence of sin, the dividing of the human race into the “us” and the “non-us” — that is, assuming I have developed beyond the point of the even more primary division of “me” and “not-me.” Those who are “not-us” can be dehumanized and become targets of war without our even regarding it as a sin. Reconciliation, Zizioulas says, begins with God, but there can be no reconciliation with God if we refuse to seek reconciliation with “the Other.”

This insight is put even more simply by one of the saints of the desert, Abba Dorotheos of Gaza; “As you come closer to your neighbor, you come closer to God. As you go further from your neighbor, you go further from God.”

Then let us consider fear, fear being the primary force restraining us from acts of love.

If we would sum up the angelic message in a few words, it would be this: “Be not afraid.” But most of us are polluted by fear, and perhaps never more so than since the two towers of the World Trade Center fell. Back in 2001, many people, including to his credit President Bush, went out of their way to make clear that it wasn’t Muslims who were the enemy, only fanatics who use their religion as an excuse to commit murder. No one was talking in those days about banning Muslim cultural centers or mosques. But recently such things have become burning issues. It’s no longer just the Islamic fanatics who are the problem. For many people it’s Islam itself. For them, every Muslim is under suspicion. You even hear people say Islam is not a religion, it’s an ideology. Some say the Koran has a lot in common with than Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf. While only a few upright citizens want to get rid of freedom of religion as a basic right, there are many people who make clear that it’s not a right they want practiced locally. There are devout Christians who now object to identifying Muslims as descendants of Abraham and “people of the Book,” that is a monotheistic people who have in common with Jews and Christians worship of one God, for in failing to recognize Jesus as more than a prophet, it’s argued, Muslims fail to recognize or worship the true God. One even finds Christians who have decided Islam is the Antichrist. The pope, who used to be cast for that role by generations of anti-Catholics, has now been demoted to a slightly less satanic part because we can only have one Antichrist at a time.

If you want an example of a very different way of relating to Muslims, consider Saint Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai Desert. This is one of the oldest monasteries in the world, a place of uninterrupted prayer and worship since its founding in the sixth century. If you look attentively at photos of the monastery, close to the monastery church you will notice a bright, white tower. This is the minaret of the only mosque  in the world that exists within a monastic enclosure. The Fatimid Mosque, still used by the monks’ Bedouin grounds-keepers and neighbors, was originally a hospice for pilgrims, but in the year 1106, more than nine hundred years ago, was converted to its present use. It must be one of the oldest mosques in the world. No doubt the monk’s hospitality to Muslims helps explain how it survived all these centuries in what became Muslim territory and became the safe harbor for a number of the oldest icons and biblical manuscripts to survive from Christianity’s first millennium. It’s a striking witness to a genuinely Christian response to conflict in a non-fear-driven manner.

Fear drives so many of our choices. In his essay “The Root of War is Fear,” written nearly half a century ago, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton noted that it is not so much the fear people have of each other “as the fear they have of everything. It is not merely that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves…. Only love — which means humility — can exorcize the fear that is at the root of war.” This was an essay which I mailed to my father, a Marxist, who soon after responded with appreciation but said he could not agree. “I greatly respect Thomas Merton and am amazed to see so famous a Catholic priest opposing war, but I have to disagree with his view that the root of war is fear,” he said. “In my opinion, the root of war is bad economics.” Years passed without either of us mentioning Merton’s essay. I only discovered he had continued thinking about it when, a decade later, I received a letter in which he told me, “I still think about what Father Merton said and want you to know that I have come to realize that the root of bad economics is fear.”

Not only war and social injustice but any failure in moral life, private or collective, often has its deepest roots in fear. Fear of rejection by our peers, with all its potentially dire consequences, is an extraordinarily powerful force in life, far more potent for most of us than any commandments of Christ or the witness of the saints.

The Orthodox Paschal proclamation is “Christ tramples down death by death.” Similarly the cure of fear is fear — not fear of others but fear of God. I don’t mean to suggest the two fears are the same. Fear of God is not similar to the terror someone might feel if he had to stand before Hitler or Stalin’s desk. Fear of God is something vastly different — a condition of absolute awe, astonishment and adoration which must overwhelm any person aware he stands in God’s presence. “Fear of God” is an empowering fear. It gives the strength to swim against the tides of hatred, enmity, propaganda, and socially-organized murder in which we are made complicit even if others do the actual killing.

The fear of a tyrant cannot open the gateway of love — only the fear of God does this. To love another — that is to be willing to lay down one’s life for another — is never one’s own achievement but only God’s gift, specifically a gift of the Holy Spirit who purifies the heart. Even love of one’s wife or husband, one’s children or parents, is God’s gift. It is impossible to love without God’s grace, yet only that love is perfect which sees and responds to God’s image in those whom we have no familial or social obligation to love. “The soul that has not known the Holy Spirit,” taught Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain, “does not understand how one can love one’s enemies, and does not accept it.” As a young man, this Russian monk once nearly killed a neighbor. Later in life, having become a monk, he insists, “He who does not love his enemies does not have God’s grace.”

My third and last point has to do with the problem of living in a hurry. In our society, at least for those of us living outside a monastic community, this is a major obstacle to the purification of the heart. We’re way too busy. We often feel like prisoners of rush-hour traffic. While busy-ness was sometimes a problem to our ancestors, few of them could imagine a culture living at such high speed as our own, any more than they could imagine the noise levels we take for granted.

I recall an experience I had during the late sixties when I was accompanying Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was visiting the United States. He was about to give a lecture on the war in Vietnam at the University of Michigan. Waiting for the elevator doors to open, I noticed my brown-robed companion gazing at the electric clock above the elevator doors. Pointing to the clock, he said to me, “You know, Jim, a few hundred years ago it would not have been a clock, it would have been a crucifix.” He was right. The omnipresent clock has become a religious object in our secular world, one so powerful that it could depose another.

I recall a story related in the journal of Daniel Wheeler, a Quaker engineer who had come to Russia from Britain at the time of Tsar Alexander I to take charge of draining swampland in the Ochta region south of St. Petersburg. Several peasants had been sent to his house with an urgent message. They knocked on the door, got no response, and went inside hoping to find the engineer. First things first, however. As Orthodox Christians, they immediately looked for the icon corner in order to say a prayer. In an austere Quaker house, this proved difficult. There was no vigil lamp and nothing looked like an icon. The peasants knew things were different in other countries. What would a British icon look like? The settled on the mantelpiece clock. Standing before it, they crossed themselves, bowed, and were reciting a prayer — perhaps it was “O heavenly king” — when Daniel Wheeler walked in the door.

Were the peasants mistaken? The ticking icon on the mantle or the quartz watch on the wrist may not often be kissed but surely it is devoutly venerated by “advanced” people in our post-Christian world.

I think too of an experiment in the nineteen-sixties at Princeton. A number of theological students were asked to prepare sermons on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. These were to be taped for grading by a professor of homiletics. It seemed an ordinary assignment, but those responsible for the project were not especially interested what the aspiring pastors would say about the parable. Without their knowledge, the students had been divided into three groups. Some were to be called on a certain morning and told that they could come to the taping room any time in the day; others were to be told that they had to be there within the next few hours; and the rest were to be told that an error had been made — they should have been called with their appointment time the day before and they had to come without delay.

The testers had arranged that, as each student arrived at the building where the sermons were being recorded, they would find someone lying on the ground by a bench near the entrance, seemingly unconscious and in need.

What were the results? Barely a third took the time to stop and do anything for the person lying on the ground. Those who did stop, it was discovered, were mainly the ones who had been told they could come any time that day. They felt they had time, and that sense of having time gave them time to be notice and respond — time for a merciful action. They weren’t ruled by deadlines and over-crowded schedules — the constant problem of many people, not least clergy and lawyers, which perhaps is why Jesus cast a priest and Levite in those unfortunate parts in his parable.

In reality everyone has time, indeed nothing has been given us so equally, but people walking side by side on the same street can have a very different sense of time, so that one of them is so preoccupied by a demanding schedule, or worry or fear or plans for the future, that he hardly notices what is immediately at hand, while the next person, even though living a life full of obligations, is very attentive. Each person has freedom — to pause, to listen, to pray, to be late for an appointment, to change direction. The purification of the heart makes us freer, more capable of hearing and seeing those around us and responding to their needs.

How many people have been unable to follow the example of the Good Samaritan because they glanced at their watch and realized they just didn’t have time?

It can be hard work learning how to get off the speedway inside our heads. The late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who for many years headed the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain, suggested as a basic exercise of spiritual life sitting down and saying to yourself, “I am seated, I am doing nothing, I will be doing nothing for five minutes,” and then relax. One or two minutes is the most you will be able to endure to begin with. Continually throughout this time realize, “I am here in the presence of God, in my own presence and in the presence of all the furniture that is around me, just still, moving nowhere.” There is of course one more thing you must do: you must decide that within these two minutes, five minutes, which you have assigned to learning that the present exists, you will not be pulled out of it by the telephone, by a knock on the door, or by a sudden upsurge of energy that prompts you to do at once what you have left undone for the past ten years. So you settle down and say, “Here I am,” and you are. If you learn to do this at lost moments in your life when you have learned not to fidget inwardly, but to be completely calm and happy, stable and serene, then extend the few minutes to a longer time and then to a little longer still. [The Essence of Prayer; London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1989; pp 181-182. This section of the book was also published separately as School for Prayer.]

It’s a simple but not easy exercise, a kind of prayer that is both physical and spiritual, in which we ask God to assist up in the purification of our hearts.

The more engaged we are in the world, the more troubled by the destruction of the environment or the murderous violence or war, of injustice and cruelty, of abortion and other forms of killing, of the decay of civil life occurring in so many places, the more we need to take to heart this kind of subversive advice. Whatever we do that has some value stands on the foundation of prayer and stillness before God. Neglect these foundations and the most well-intentioned efforts are likely to go badly off course. Our work will be as impure as our hearts.

Then what is a pure heart? A heart free of possessiveness, a heart capable of mourning, a heart which thirsts for what is right, a merciful heart, a loving heart, a heart not ruled by passions, an undivided heart, a heart aware of the image of God in others, a heart aware of God’s presence in creation. In the words of Saint Isaac of Syria: “A person is truly pure of heart when he considers all human beings as good and no created thing appears impure or defiled to him.”

Purification of the heart is the lifelong struggle of seeking a more God-centered life, a heart illuminated with the presence of the Holy Trinity. Purification of the heart is the moment-to-moment prayerful discipline of seeking to be so aware of God’s presence that no space is left in the heart for fear, hatred, greed, lust or vengeance. Purification of the heart is the striving to place the mind under the rule of the heart, the mind representing the analytic and organizational aspect of consciousness. A pure heart is a heart through which the mercy of God flows toward others. A pure heart is a heart without contempt, a source of hope and patience and compassion. Those with a pure heart are a source of encouragement to others.

The more pure the heart, taught Saint Isaac, the more aware one becomes of the Creator in creation. Isaac laid great stress on ascetic struggle — prayer, fasting, voluntary poverty, generosity to the poor — as the way to purify the heart. A warrior against passions of the world, this seventh-century bishop was passionate in his love of creation, not only the human being made in God’s image but everything which God has graced with life. “What is purity?” Saint Isaac asked. “It is a heart full of compassion for the whole of created nature … And what is a compassionate heart? …. It is a heart which burns for all creation, for the birds, for the beasts, for the devils, for every creature. When he thinks about them, when he looks at them, his eyes fill with tears. So strong, so violent is his compassion … that his heart breaks when he sees the pain and suffering of the humblest creature. That is why he prays with tears at every moment … for all the enemies of truth and for all who cause him harm, that they may be protected and forgiven. He prays even for serpents in the boundless compassion that wells up in his heart after God’s likeness.”

Let’s finish where we started, by standing and saying the prayer together:

O heavenly king, consoler, spirit of truth, everywhere present and filling all things: treasury of blessings and giver of life, come dwell within us, and cleanse us of every stain, and save our souls, O good one.

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