As that well-known floppy-haired American philosopher, Emo Philips, once said, ‘I used to think that the brain was the most fascinating part of the human body. Then I thought, wait a minute, look what’s telling me that!’ In our modern imagination, we tend to see our brains as the centre of who we are, sometimes using the metaphor of a sort of computer which controls our body’s actions and makes decisions. We might go so far as to see the brain as the centre of our identity, a centre which holds all our defining memories and characteristics. We are human because we think. There are, however, some counter-movements in this set of cultural assumptions. When we want to indicate ‘me’, we point not to the head where our brain resides, but to our heart. However, in this metaphorical scheme, the heart is a less reliable organ. Whereas the brain is rational and coolly in control, the heart is all passion, colour and, above all, emotion.
In biblical terms, however, it is the heart that is at the centre of the human person, but not the heart as merely the seat of emotion. For the biblical writers, as for the theological traditions which followed them, the heart is nothing less than the place of encounter between God and the human person. It is the centre of spiritual intelligence, insight and discernment. It is a temple for the inward dwelling of God. It is a sort of shorthand for the whole human person and offers a far richer notion of the centre of who we are than a sense of the brain as a squishy computing machine. For in the bible, the human heart is fundamentally disposed towards a quest for the God who made it. It is the basic driving force in human life which refuses to be reduced to functions and data and is turned, instead, towards its primary goal of union with the God of Life.
In our Gospel today, we have many references to that heart. The first is a little hidden for it does not use the word, but it is there in the promise that God will come and make his home in the one who keeps his word. Let’s slow down and hear that verse again. First, this is a matter of home-making. God’s natural locus is within us. We come home to ourselves when God comes home to us. We return to the fullness of our true selves when our hearts are open to receive the guest who is none other than our creator. Our fulfilment does not occur through achievement of great things in the eyes of the world, but when our hearts are receptive to the gift of God’s life-giving presence. This is good news. Every single one of us has the capacity to say yes to the quiet request of our creator to come and abide in us. Not a single one is excluded. Not one. Next, this home-making of God in us requires that we ‘keep his word’. I do not think this is a question of observing commands but of keeping close to us, of cherishing, the greatest word that can ever be spoken within us, and that is the Word made flesh, Jesus, the Son of God. And his words are reinforced every time we open the Gospels. They are words that say, ‘you are forgiven’, ‘your faith has made you well’, ‘you are all clean’, ‘you are children together of the one Father’.
Keeping the word also has another dimension, and that is the dimension of keeping guard over our hearts. The early church mothers and fathers were clear that our hearts are not only a place of encounter and holiness – they are also a place of contest and trial. We all know very well our ability to be distracted from the course we set out to maintain. We are beset by calls on our attention and affection which, though they may not be bad in themselves, nonetheless distract us from the primary sense of who we are as those called to follow a path of love and forgiveness. Mostly, our distractions are unspectacular. They consist in endless lists of ‘things to do’ or, worse, ‘what we should be’. That, I think, is why the heart of today’s gospel rests in these words of Jesus: ‘Do not let our hearts be troubled’. And this brings me to the main thing I want to say this morning. Jesus offers peace for our hearts. Where do we find it? We find it in prayer. We find it in the simplest and most important form of prayer that is available to us and that is the prayer of the heart – the prayer of attention and watchfulness, the prayer of simplicity and fullness of life, the prayer of quiet. You see, we don’t need to conjure up God in our prayers – he is already there, there in the heart he created with a longing for him. All we need to do is not to let our hearts be troubled so that our heart’s created impulse for God may be set free. Our deepest prayer is not a matter of adding virtues to our life but of subtracting all that impedes these virtues, and that is mostly our frantic self-concern.
On Thursday this week, we will begin 10 days of prayer in the Cathedral as we respond to a global movement of prayer through these days before Pentecost. I invite you most sincerely to join us in whatever way you can to spend some time in simple prayer, in the prayer of the heart. We are made for great things. We are made for complete union with God, the supreme Good, and it is only in our praying that we begin to explore the depths of that union. Let’s be clear – this focus on inward prayer, on the prayer of the heart, is not a selfish or individualistic thing. It is the means we are given to transcend our self-absorption so that we may be free to love all as God loves us. When we pray this prayer of the heart, the prayer of communion with God, we pray the prayer of communion with all that God has created. There is, quite simply, no separation between these things.
So how is this done? How do we not let our hearts be troubled? We do so by learning the slow, patient practice of stillness. We sit or stand still. We breathe. We let go of our desires to control our thoughts. We let our minds descend to the heart, the place where we encounter God in the depths of our being. We repeat a word of scripture or simply trust that God is closer than the very breath we take. Come and try it out and find that God will give you peace, not as the world gives, but a peace of heart that remains still even when the troubles of the world threaten to unsettle us. This is a life’s journey of discovery and joy, a journey that leads us home, home to the heart where God resides.