True religion is a matter of the heart. Jesus criticizes the religious leaders of his time because they honor God with their lips and their worship, but their hearts are far from God. The controversy about whether a good Jew must wash his or her hands before eating was a case in point. What was at issue here was not personal hygiene or public health, as we might understand it. The Pharisees were concerned with encouraging people to see all of life as holy. Washing hands before eating, much as the priest in the Temple purified himself before offering sacrifices, was a way of democratizing participation in holiness, if you will. It was a practice that invited people to see ordinary life shot through with the divine, a way of sanctifying time.
Now, that in itself is hardly a bad thing. It isn’t so different from the practice of saying grace before meals or making the sign of the Cross as your plane takes off. Problems develop when we confuse these practices with holiness itself. It is not that such practices render things holy, but rather that they serve as reminders of the holiness of things as they already are. Saying grace before a meal doesn’t make food sacred. Food comes to us as a gift of creation and is intrinsically holy. Our prayer serves to awaken in us an appreciation for that which is. It is our response to what God has done for us, not the means by which we make sacred something that would otherwise be profane.
Religion becomes problematic when it turns this around and teaches us that we must do certain things – or abstain from certain things - in order to become holy. Holiness then becomes our possession, a means of boosting our egos and defining us over against those people who do or don’t do what is required or forbidden. We become preoccupied with the externals of religion rather than the inner transformation that these externals are meant to serve. Thus, religion becomes about saying certain prayers or eating certain foods or avoiding things like alcohol, tobacco, card games and dancing. These external markers become the focus of religion and are used to define the boundaries of God’s grace. Meanwhile, our hearts may well be far from God, filled with judgment, condemnation, resentment, scorn and even hatred of those who don’t participate in the modern equivalents of washing hands before meals.
Jesus invites us to look beyond the externals of religion to the experience of inner transformation, the disposition of the heart in which true holiness, as well as evil, takes root. True religion begins with an awareness of our heart being centered in God, desiring as God desires. If our heart does not rest in God, if it is fragmented or fixated on self-centered concerns, then our fidelity to religious traditions are for naught.
David Steindl-Rast, a Roman Catholic Benedictine monk, beautifully describes this problem. He says that
Wherever we find religious tradition, we find these three elements: doctrine, morality, and ritual. An image I like to use is that of a volcano. Religious experience is like an eruption of living fire. The lava flows down the side of the mountain until it cools, developing a hard rock-like crust. This is also what happens when experience is replaced with a commentary on the experience. As the crust becomes thicker, you have not only commentaries on the experience, but commentaries on the commentaries, and finally, commentaries on the commentaries on the commentaries. Everything becomes hardened. Doctrine becomes dogmatism; morality becomes legalism; and ritual becomes conditioned action with is empty of meaning. Our great challenge and responsibility is to continually break through this hard crust of religion. Again and again, we need to let the lava, the living fire, flow out.
Doctrine, morality, and ritual have their place, but they serve as pointers to and expressions of what St. John of the Cross described as the living flame of love ignited in hearts on fire with God. It is by tending this inner flame and allowing it to enliven daily life that true religion comes to expression. This is why Jesus is so radical in his single-minded concern for the intentions of the heart, from which all good - and evil - springs.
On this understanding, sin is not about moral failings or impiety and holiness is not about observance of the moral law or ritual practices; at least, not primarily. These are secondary consequences. Sin and holiness are fundamentally states of interior consciousness and being rather than particular actions. Sin is a state of self-centeredness and fragmentation in which we are identified with isolated ego consciousness, cut off from reality grounded in God. Holiness is wholeness, the realization of our identity in God, loving God and loving all things in God, being in touch with reality.
The Fathers [and Mothers of the Church] say that when we are fragmented and alienated, we are in a state of delusion and distortion, and reality is not experienced as it actually is . . . In this regard, Gregory of Nyssa says that the mind is like a river that flows with great force and vitality at its source. And then, as the water continues along, it begins to divide into smaller streams here and there, until finally at the end of its course, the river has become dissipated. It has been so fragmented that it has lost its wholeness and there is no vitality left. In the same way, the energy of our inner being becomes completely lost when we are existing in a state of fragmentation, delusion, and sin. To reverse this process, the mind has to be recollected and brought back into its state of wholeness. The mind then regains its original vitality and force, and becomes wholly integrated and mindful.
Salvation – in its ancient sense of healing – is the process whereby we are made whole again through Jesus Christ. St. Paul speaks of “putting on the mind of Christ” and admonishes us to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” The essence of Jesus’ message is repentance, which means to change our mind, moving beyond our little mind or ego consciousness into the big mind or cosmic consciousness of Jesus Christ.
When Maximus the Confessor talks about Christ and his relationship to us, he says that Christ is the Divine Logos, the essential character of God, the mind and world of God, the intelligence and wisdom of God which become incarnate and embodied in [Jesus], and that that same reality has to be born and incarnated and lived and fulfilled in every human being. Christ comes not only as a teacher and example, but as one who has embodied the likeness of God and who enables us also to do likewise, so that we may be what he is.
So, what do we have to do to change our mind? We must allow our ego to die so that Christ can be born in us. As Jesus said, “He who would save his life must lose it.” We must trade in our fragmented, self-centered consciousness for an integrated, God-centered consciousness. This requires a process of slowly dying and being reborn through the practice of attention, what the Fathers and Mothers called “guarding the heart.”
“Guarding the heart” is a practice of mindfulness or awareness of reality. St. Hesychius of Jerusalem said that
sin begins as thought knocking at the door of the mind. If that thought is accepted by the mind, then one moves into a visible act of sin. However, if the mind is quiet and still, attentive and aware, that is, if the mind has been changed, then thought no longer governs the mind and sin cannot enter. If sin cannot enter the mind as thought, then there is no way that it can come to fruition.
Keen students of the inner life that they were, the Mothers and Fathers clearly described the process of sin at the level of conscious awareness.
- The mind experiences a stimulus or provocation of some kind. If the mind is attentive and watchful, there will be enough space to simply observe the temptation and allow it to dissipate. Say, for example, you notice that someone cuts you off in traffic.
- If the mind is not attentive, it becomes disturbed by the provocation and becomes preoccupied with it. You begin to brood on the fact that you’ve been disrespected by your fellow driver.
- The response of the mind becomes united with the stimulus such that it begins to dwell in the preoccupation. You begin to think about how you deserve to be treated better and what a careless, stupid, and cruel fellow that was who cut you off.
- The mind becomes captive to the thought and we begin to be moved into some kind of reaction. Your breathing becomes constricted, your face turns red, and you begin to sweat as you grip the steering wheel.
- Finally, in captivity to the thought we arrive at a state of passion whereby the thought carries a weight of energy that leads to impulsive or mechanical reaction of some kind. You begin to curse the fellow out loud and flip him off.
Guarding the heart is the practice of awareness such that we are able to cut off sin at its root, by observing the stimulus that gives rise to the thought and observing its passing away without needing to react. It is possible to simply observe that we’ve been cut off in traffic and allow the stimulus to pass through our mind without becoming attached to it. In fact, we even can cultivate a sense of compassion for the hurried and harried fellow who cut us off.
Jesus tells us that all evil comes from within. This is a teaching that challenges us to take responsibility for our own behavior. We are exhorted to take responsibility for our lives in this way, not for the sake moralistic perfection, but rather for the sake of spiritual freedom. True religion is a matter of the heart, and we must guard the heart so that it remains free to love.
Otherwise, we become like the guy who was walking down the street with blisters in both of his ears. A friend asked him what happened to cause the blisters. “My wife left her hot iron on, and when the phone rang I picked up the iron by mistake.” “Yes, but what about the other ear?” "The damned fool called back!”
Sin will keep knocking on the door of the mind – again and again and again. We can choose whether or not to open the door.