Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A Longish Post on Purity of Heart

Recently, I’ve noticed a shift in my spiritual practice and understanding, a growing sense that I do not possess consciousness. Consciousness possesses me. It isn’t in me; I am in it. It envelops everything. Through the medium of consciousness God desires to commune with me. This communion takes place in a field of awareness, energized by the Holy Spirit. It is a place of deep Silence.

This Silence is not the absence of sound. It excludes nothing, but it is deeper than the absence or presence of sensations, feelings, images or thoughts. All things rest in this Silence. It is always there, on the edges of our awareness. When my awareness becomes wide open and receptive to this Silence, my soul rests in God. This communion with God is pure gift. It is what the Christian tradition refers to as “infused contemplation.”

In this Silence we are given to know our true selves. We experience Christ within us, the union of divine and human in each soul. We are in Love. This realization is the fulfillment of our deepest desire, the longing that only God can satisfy.

The contemplative tradition speaks of purity of heart as the necessary condition for this realization. Summarizing the teaching of the desert fathers, John Cassian in his Conferences, describes this realization variously as eternal life or as the kingdom of God, which is both in us and we in it.

. . . the aim of our profession is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. But our point of reference, our objective is a clean heart, without which it is impossible for anyone to reach out target. (Conference I.4)

Our objective is purity of heart, which [St. Paul] so justly describes as sanctification, for without this the goal cannot be reached. In other words, it is as though he said that you have purity of heart for an objective and eternal life as the goal. (Conference I.5)

Purity of heart is described not only as sanctification but as perfection. Perfection, however, is not identified with moral striving or ascetical discipline per se. These are only means toward the end of perfection, and they must arise from and give rise to love.

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. (Conference I.6)

In the same way, fasting, vigils, scriptural meditation, nakedness, and total deprivation do not constitute perfection but are the means to perfection. They are not themselves the end point of a discipline, an end is attained through them. (Conference I.7)

In fact, such good works without love are a barrier to the realization of communion with God because they serve only to reify a false self-image and sense of self-importance. Cassian argues that anything which can trouble the purity and the peace of our heart must be avoided as something very dangerous, regardless of how useful and necessary it might actually seem to be. (Conference I.7) Purity of heart requires us to relinquish our attachment even to our good works, for such attachments engender self-centeredness rather than love and divert us from our true end. To cling always to God and to the things of God – this must be our major effort, this must be the road that the heart follows unswervingly. Any diversion, however impressive, must be regarded as secondary, low-grade, and certainly dangerous. (Conference I.8)

In a reading of the Gospel story of Mary and Martha that is typical of the contemplative tradition, Cassian argues that the Lord locates the primary good not in activity, however praiseworthy, however abundantly fruitful, but in the truly simple and unified contemplation of Himself. (Conference I.8) Martha’s service was not bad – far from it. The problem was her preoccupation with it, her attachment to what was secondary to the primary end of communion with the Lord. This is a subtle matter of motivation and intention.

Purity of heart, then, is not a matter of moral perfection. It isn’t achieved by being busy with things human or divine. Purity of heart is desire without attachment and its preeminent sign is humility. This is not easily realized or understood. We frequently are deeply attached to the attainment of what we desire, perhaps especially our desires for such good things as peace, justice, and healing. In fact, it seems immoral NOT to be attached to “good” desires.

In a passage worth quoting at length, Gerald May points out that

The message of contemplative traditions does not come easily upon this scene. It is that attachments, even though they are an integral part of us all, are not really necessary for full, effective living. Desires are necessary, they not only signal our biological needs but can also spur us toward creative action in the world. Desires to care for others, to make the world a better place, to know God or to be in accord with universal law, to create and to forgive and to heal – all of these are not only worthwhile but may constitute our only hope for continuing as a species. But attachments, say the contemplatives, do nothing but confuse, preoccupy, and muddy our minds. They create needless personal suffering. And they impede one’s capacity to make creative, healing contributions to the world.

Attachment to any desire creates two fundamental problems that interfere with one’s responsiveness to the world. First, attachment adds a quality of drivenness to basic desire. One no longer simply needs or wants something but instead starts grasping, clinging, or clawing for it. There is an atmosphere of desperation about this process, a deep frenzy that pulls the fundamental need way out of proportion. Second, attachment causes distorted perception. Being so invested in our own feelings, we may totally misperceive and misinterpret the nature of things around us. In such instances, our behavior springs not from the natural and inherent requirements of a situation but from our preconceived notions. We see not what is, but what we crave or fear.

Either of these effects alone can create significant problems, but when drivenness is combined with distorted perception, as in vicious racial prejudice or religiopolitical crusades, the results can be awesomely devastating. Attachment, then, can be seen as a major determining factor in social injustice as well as in private psychological suffering. The more we are attached to the attachment, the more vicious that turmoil can become. But still we cling.[1]

May helps us to see more clearly that purity of heart is not about moral perfection but about awareness. The saints are people who have cultivated awareness of reality, who have acknowledged and let go their attachments so that their desire for the Good is unencumbered by egoism or distorted perception. Purity of heart is marked by humility precisely because its realization necessarily involves an acceptance of suffering, of responsibility, and of finitude – not an easy combination to integrate!

Purity of heart is the condition in which we realize the simple and unified contemplation of God. It is the state of desire without attachment because all desire is fulfilled in Love and there is no desire left with which to be attached. There is just being in Love.

The cultivation of purity of heart through contemplative and ascetical disciplines helps to prepare us for the gift of communion with God. We can’t make it happen, but we can dispose ourselves to receive it. We can become willing to let go attachments so that our desire can find its true fulfillment in communion with God. We can purify our desire for God and accept God’s desire for us.

And then we can act in freedom, free from the willfulness and distortions bred by attachment. We can engage in good works without being preoccupied with them in ways that sever our sense of rootedness in Love. We can begin to allow God to work through us, rather than simply bolstering our ego and assuaging feelings of insecurity or guilt. And we will does this with great humility, for the clarity of perception we are given reveals our spiritual and moral limitations as well as those of others.

Purity of heart is not an escape from the responsibility to ameliorate suffering. As John Cassian noted in a particularly poignant and prophetic statement,

As for those works of piety and charity of which you speak, these are necessary in this present life for as long as inequality prevails. Their workings here would not be necessary were it not for the superabundant numbers of the poor, the needy, and the sick. These are there because of the iniquity of men who have held for their own private use what the common Creator has made available to all. As long as this inequity rages in the world, these good works will be necessary and valuable to anyone practicing them and they shall yield the reward of an everlasting inheritance to the man of good heart and concerned will. (Conference I.10)

Purity of heart is desire without attachment. It is rooted in Silence, in Love, and in union with the One who desires us eternally, who frees us to live with awareness and compassion. Its sign is humility and its fruit is prophetic service for the healing of the world.

[1] Gerald May, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1982), pp. 227-228.