33. ADVICE FROM A NEW SAINT

 

In 1983, I first visited a hermit on Mount Athos, one of those remarkable men then known in the eastern Church as a starets or 'elder', and during our conversation he gave me a message to the West: He said - "You people in England have used your intellect very well, and have many useful abilities and made life for everybody a little easier.  Now you have to tell them something else - you have to tell them the truth about the human heart." And it took me all those years really to know really what to say.  But I couldn't ignore this trust.  So now it is time to talk and write about it.

But what is this heart, and what is this truth of the heart, and how do they link with Christianity?  Part of the answer was that the hermit who said this was a Christian hermit on Mount Athos. He was one of a rare type of Christian that in the Eastern church are known as elders ... and while we in the West are wondering whether the Christian life leads to any real result, the Eastern church contains thousands of people who know that elders like this possess an ability to put the gospel teaching into practice and to lead others to do the same.

I myself have had evidence that this hermit was such a man. From such people I have learned that part of the answer to that question is that when we speak of humans being naturally good, this goodness depends on the fact that the heart can be grown, and developed, and changed.

Until it develops, we will be concerned with ourselves all the time, so development of the mind is not enough: changing your mind is quick, but it can change back quite as quickly. At the same time, changing the heart is different, it changes slowly, but it does not change back.

Part of the difference between head and heart is like the difference between organic growth and putting things together piece by piece, as children do with plastic bricks.

This can be said in a more technical way, as it involves serious philosophical concepts, but I think this explains it. So in investigating the therapeutic methods of the early church, which work by changing the heart - we have not invented but rediscovered a consistent science, a precise one, one which like any other discipline is understood by numbers of different people, many of them specialising in different parts of it, so that one person understood one thing, and another understood a different thing, like modern scientific disciplines such as physics, although it is studied in very different ways.

 And this path is the path in which that seed-in-the-heart germinates.

And with such a meeting within the true tradition, something begins to grow, and at first all this gives us wonderful experiences while as yet our character seems to be little changed.  That is the growth of the thinking mind.  Our experiences come and go and our character seems to be little changed, except that we begin, slowly, to be more and more aware that it very much needs to change.

And it is then that the experiences stop - sometimes for years.   But it is when the experiences seem to stop that our character begins to change.  Something very important and very wonderful has begun to happen: if the seed has germinated in response to these experiences, then the energy which until then was going to new experiences has begun to be used for growth.

This is what Saint John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul.