At The Heart of Things

By: Brian Robertson

sacred heart



There are so many words in Christianity that have been handled over and over again for two thousand years until, for many, they have been worn smooth and have lost their life and power. Jesus’ words, for instance, have been sanded down until they are like framed cross stitch for all the vibrancy they now hold. One of the dulled-down words, a word that is of great importance to Christian mystics, is “heart.”

That it is an important word, there can be no doubt and plays host to some of Jesus’ most intense and challenging sayings. In Luke 10:27, for instance, Jesus tells listeners, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.”

It wasn’t even until a scant 300 years or so ago that the heart was revealed in the current medical terms as part of the circulatory system. Before that, certainly in Jesus’ time, the word had an altogether different meaning to those gathered to hear him speak and we must do what we can to recapture those living words. We are challenged if we try — heart has become a Hallmark buzzword and, in the process, has taken on a restricted and narrow meaning as some kind of often sappy metaphor for the emotions, namely love.

But, as I say, two thousand years ago the word had a rather different meaning and meant a variety of things.

First, heart signified the area of intelligence or thought as in “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Heb 4:12. Consider Jesus’ words: “There was a rich person who had a great deal of money. He said, ‘I shall invest my money so that I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my storehouses with produce, that I may lack nothing.’ These were the things he was thinking in his heart, but that very night he died.”sun eclipse

Secondly, the word “heart” is recognized far more broadly than as an early version of the brain. In some way, in the older meaning of the word our thoughts act on the heart, but, become wedded to our actions and life as in, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In this sense, the “heart” expands a bit to function something like what we would call the conscience.

At root and, I think, most importantly the heart Jesus (and others) spoke of is a spiritual proving ground, a way to show one’s openness to God and others or, in many cases, the emotional and spiritual death when one’s life is crippled by a “hardened heart.” In one of my favorite books of the Bible, 1 Jn 3:17, we can further read, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”

Yet with heart we are apt to focus too narrow a beam, to lose track of the great mystery behind the word heart by becoming trapped within our own rather human limitations. We expand our limitations when we dream, and, therefore, the concept of the heart has also been expanded in the original sense to apply to the powers of imagination. “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, that God has prepared for those who love him” 1Co 2:9

But the true nature of the heart is that it is the very center of our being, our atman, and cannot be confused with the simple physical location or organ of the body. In the same way, when one spots a truth and says, “I feel it in my guts,” we don’t summon an abdominal specialist to MRI the afflicted area for damage. Likewise, the heart is spiritual, not physical, unlimited, not limited, Godly, not human. The heart, according to 1Pe 3:4, is a psychic zone where you heed the wisdom of “let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”

We know, of course, that this area referred to as the heart is, in reality, none other than spirit, and becomes the point of interface, the meeting place between spirit and Spirit, between what it is to be human and what it is to be Divine. Most importantly, at that interface is Christ — meaning the mingling of the Divine and the human which is the Christ we are called to become. It happens as in the plea of the author of Phielemon 1:20 who says, simply, “Refresh my heart in Christ.”

If the spiritual area known as the heart is not refreshed, not recalibrated for a new journey of walking with Jesus as our guide, then we are unable to be drawn to the reminder of, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Further, Jesus, never one to avoid practicing what he preached, issued the further assurance in Mat 11:29, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

“The heart” (Eng., “cardiac,” etc.), the chief organ of physical life (“for the life of the flesh is in the blood,” Lev. 17:11), occupies the most important place in the human system. By an easy transition the word came to stand for man’s entire mental and moral activity, both the rational and the emotional elements. In other words, the heart is used figuratively for the hidden springs of the personal life.

“Scripture regards the heart as the sphere of Divine influence. The heart, as lying deep within, contains ‘the hidden man,’ 1 Pet. 3:4, the real man. It represents the true character but conceals it” (J. Laidlaw, in Hastings’ Bible Dic.).

The importance of the quote from 1 Peter is the excitement not of trying to radically change one’s self from the outside, a checklist of behaviors to import to build some kind of new identity. The message is that each of us carries within him or herself ‘ the hidden man’ who is ready to step forward, moving past ego, to reveal the Christ. “In one who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” John 7:38.

Now we come to the heart in action, a life in a symbiotic relationship with God, a dance of love in which each partner thinks the other is leading. It is a moment when one can “let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” 1Pe 3:4 It is the goal of the mystic to experience this truth, not by committing to memory the idea but by living it in each moment.

God knows, literally, that I’m not an expert on the Orthodox Church’s sense of physiology, but the Prayer of the Heart – “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner” — is often taught in the older texts as being practiced by basically forcing it to radiate from within your physical heart. I’d have to think that a more profound sense of the word “heart” is dictated here, one that is not physically limited but indicates a center of our being.

So, if we take all the above ideas as a whole and put them together, it comes out something like this:

Jesus said that at the absolute center of our being is God’s Love, much like an unimaginable sun at the center of a universe. All that is around this holy core orbits that illumined center, to the point that we are united, body and soul, by the higher third point of the triangle — namely spirit. In this, our spiritual heart, lies the meeting ground of what is human and what is Divine. It is here that we repent — which means not the cheap evangelistic tent show barking but, rather, to rethink and to turn away from the wrong direction, the false path away from our heart’s goal. We find the refreshment of our hearts is equal to the challenge of knowing the purity of the heart called forth by Jesus’ beatitude that becomes, in some mysterious way, our own heart and, thus, our outer vision of the world and inner kingdom of God.

That which has been hidden in our heart now becomes known, as Jesus promised would happen to all things hidden. It is the light on the hill, not under a bushel. The Judgment that follows is not some future cosmic event, but is, as it’s most real, a personal insight into God that, by it’s nature, only then becomes cosmic, not in the future if we so choose, but right now.


Brian Robertson


[Thanks Brian for such a beautiful reflection on what it is to live from the heart. The way heart is portrayed in most popular writings is, as you say, misunderstood.

The Prayer from the Heart is a wonderful centering prayer. It brings me into the realm of The Inexpressible. All of us should regularly practice it.]