John Cassian and Purity of Heart

LTC-brjohn-cassianB

When the king came in to look at the guests,
he saw there a man not wearing a wedding garment.And he said to him:
“Friend, how did you come in here, not having a wedding garment?
But he was silent.
Then the king said to the waiters: “Tie him up hand and foot, and cast him into the darkness outside.
There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth there. For many are called, but few are chosen.

Matthew 22 11-14

For I will take you away from among the nations,
gather you from all the foreign lands, and bring you back to your own land.
I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities,
and from all your idols I will cleanse you.
I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you,
taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts.

Ez. 36: 23-26

There is no straightforward interpretation of the meaning of the wedding garment in the gospel parable. In fact, in terms of the literal narrative there is the inconsistency of a person being punished for not wearing a wedding garment, when that person was only invited at the last minute to come in from the highways and byways. Yet, what is clear enough is that being invited is not enough. Once invited, one must live out the responsibilities of life in the kingdom of heaven. We “belong” by virtue of conforming our lives in accordance, as St. Paul puts it, with the “mind of Christ”.

What is the core disposition for life in the kingdom? How do we come, by little and by little, to live more and more for God alone? The powerful metaphor of Ezechiel 36 offers us an insight. We are called out of the dispersion that is our ordinary state of consciousness to return to “our own land”. In its nature human life is life in diaspora. Our consciousness is constantly being pulled by the centrifugal force of life’s varying demands. Yet, as Jesus says to Martha, only one thing is necessary. The promise of Ezechiel is that God’s people will be brought back to their own land from the diaspora to which they have been exiled, and that beyond the physical return they will also be given a new heart and spirit. In dispersed consciousness our hearts readily grow into hearts of stone, cold and hard. When we are managing or surviving life as a series of external demands, our instinct for survival hardens our psychological and spiritual defenses, so that although we are doing many things we cannot really be fully present to any of them.

For the desert fathers and mothers as well as for the early monastic tradition, the singular goal of spiritual practice was “purity of heart.” The new heart we long to be given requires of us that we practice without ceasing the kind of recollection and single-minded attention that disposes us to increased purity of heart. This requires a consistent recollecting of our dispersed attention: a continual returning to our “own land”, which requires a deliberate gathering of our thoughts and feelings from those foreign lands where they have been scattered. For our actions to be original and unique they must come from a heart and mind that is present to the Divine life within. All actions that do not spring from this source, no matter how well accepted and successful, are to some degree counterfeit. The presence and the gift we are called to give to others, to our work, and to our world can only come from a “pure heart.” This is true “responsibility” to the call of God as it comes to us uniquely at each moment.

The following is from John Cassian.

. . . For a mind which lacks an abiding sense of direction veers hither and yon by the hour, and by the minute is a prey to outside influences and is endlessly the prisoner of whatever strikes it first.

This is why we see many who, having given up the greatest wealth not only in gold and silver but also in splendid estates, nevertheless become very upset over a knife, a scraper, a needle, or a pan. It they had looked unwaveringly to the purity of their hearts they would never have become involved with such trifles and they would have rejected these just as they did great and valuable possessions. There are some who guard a book so jealously that they can barely endure to have someone else read it or touch it. Such a situation, instead of gaining them the reward of gentleness and love, turns for them into occasions of impatience and even death. They have given away all their wealth out of love for Christ and yet they still hold on to their old heart-longings for things that do not matter, things for whose sake they grow angry. They are like those lacking the love of which the apostle spoke and in every way their lives turn fruitless and sterile. All this was foreseen in spirit by the blessed apostle. “If I give all that I have to buy food for the poor,” he said, “and if I hand over my body to be burnt, and yet have no love in me, then this is for nothing” (1 Cor 13:3). Perfection, then, is clearly not achieved simply by being naked, by the lack of wealth or by the rejection of honors, unless there is also that love whose ingredients the apostle described and which is to be found solely in purity of heart. Not to be jealous, not to be puffed up, not to act heedlessly, not to seek what does not belong to one, not to rejoice over some injustice, not to plan evil–what is this and its like if not the continuous offering to God of a heart that is perfect and truly pure, a heart kept free of all disturbance?

John Cassian, Conference One 

Tags:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*