St. Theophan the Recluse

Cover of The Spiritual Life This is an excerpt from The Spiritual Life (published by St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood), a series of letters from St. Theophan the Recluse (1894) to a young Russian woman.


The aspect of sense --- the heart. The profound significance of the heart in a man's life. The influence of the passions on the heart.


The Sensual Aspect: the Heart. Who is not aware of the great significance the heart has in our lives? Everything which enters the soul from the outside, and which is shaped by the intellectual and active aspects, falls into the heart; everything which the soul observes on the outside also passes through the heart. That is why it is called the center of life.

The heart's occupation is to sense everything concerning our person. It constantly and persistently senses the condition of the soul and body, and along with the various impressions from the individual actions of the soul and body, from surrounding objects which it encounters, from the outward situation, and, in general, from the course of life, thereby compelling and forcing man to furnish everything which is pleasant to it, and to avoid the unpleasant. The health and disease of the body, its vivacity and languor, fatigue and strength, liveliness and lethargy, along with what has been seen heard, felt, smelled, tasted and what has been recalled and imagined, what has been done, what one does and intends to do, what has been obtained and is being obtained, what may and may not be obtained, what is favorable to us or unfavorable, whether having to do with a person or concurrence of circumstances --- all of this is reflected in the heart and affects it either pleasantly or unpleasantly. Judging by this, it is impossible for it to be at rest for even a moment; instead, it is in a constant state of disturbance and flux, just like a barometer before a storm. But there is much that it senses that passes through without leaving a trace. This you may verify from instances, when we happen to be somewhere for the first time: everything in that place occupies our attention, but after the second or third time in that place, this is no longer so.

Every influence on the heart produces a unique feeling within it, but there are no words in our language for distinguishing these feelings. We express our feelings in general terms; pleasant-unpleasant; like-dislike; happy-bored; joy-grief; sorrow-pleasure; calm-anxiety; disappointment-satisfaction; fear-hope; apathy-sympathy. Observe yourself, and you will find first one feeling in the heart, then the other.

However, the significance of the heart in the economy of our life is not just to be passively subject to impressions, and to attest as to the satisfaction or dissatisfaction of our condition. The heart also maintains the energy of all powers of soul and body. Look how quickly something is accomplished when we have our heart in it! But when our heart is not in it, our hands drop and our legs do not move. That is why only those who know how to control themselves, when they encounter something which must be done, even if their heart is not in it, rush to find a pleasant side to it, and, having reconciled their heart to it, maintain within themselves the energy necessary to accomplish the task. Zeal, the motive ferce of the will, comes from the heart. This is also the case in mental work; a subject that has come to heart is discussed urgently and from every angle. In this case, thoughts occur by themselves, and work, no matter how long it takes, does not seem like work.

Not everyone likes everything, and not everyone has his heart equally in the same things; rather, some like one thing more, while others like something else. This comes about in this way; each person has his own taste. This depends in part on his natural predisposition, and in part --- is this not the greatest part --- on first impressions, impressions from his upbringing and happenstances of life. But no matter how tastes have formed, they compel a person to order his life in such a way as to surround himself with such objects and interrelationships as show his taste, and with which he is peaceful, being satisfied by them. The satisfaction of his heart's desires gives him calm, sweet calm, which also constitutes its own measure for every happiness. Nothing disturbs him; this is happiness.

If a person were to always maintain sobriety in his mental part, and prudence in his actions, then he would meet in life only the smallest number of occurrences unpleasant to his heart, and accordingly, would have a greater portion of happiness. But as has been explained, the mental part rarely maintains itself worthily, giving itself over to idle dreams and distractions, while the active part deviates from its normal bent, being enticed by inconstant desires, which are aroused not by needs of nature, but by alien passions. That is why the heart has no rest, and, as long as these aspects are in such a state, it will not have any. The passions more than anything tyrannize the heart. If there were no passions, it would still meet with unpleasant things, of course, but they would not torment the heart in the same way the passions do. How anger consumes the heart! How hatred tears it! How evil envy grinds! How may disturbances and torments cause discontent or disgraceful conceit! How heavy lies grief when pride suffers! Indeed, if we were to examine a little more stringently, we would find that every one of our disturbances and pains of the heart are from the passions. These evil passions, when they are satisfied, give joy, but it is short-lived; and when they are not satisfied, but on the contrary meet with opposition, then they give rise to long and unbearable grief.

In this way, it is apparent that our heart really is the root and center of life. By informing as to the good are bad state of a person, the heart rouses to action other forces, and then receives back into itself the actions of these forces, thereby intensifying or weakening that feeling, by which the person's state is determined. It would seem that the heart should be given complete power over even the running of one's life, as is indeed the case for many people; for many it has complete control, while for everyone else it has at least some. So it would seem -- and maybe that was its original, natural function --- but the passions arose and stirred up everything. In the presence of the passions, even our state is not reliably indicated by the heart, and impressions are not such as they should be, and tastes are distorted, and disturbances of other forces are headed in the wrong direction. That is why we presently have the rule of restraining our hearts and subjecting its feelings, desires and inclinations to strict criticism. If someone should be cleansed of the passions, let him give the heart its will; but as long as the passions are in force, to give the heart its will would mean to patently doom oneself to every sort of uncertainty. Worst of all is the behavior of those whose goal in life is to supply sweet pleasures to the heart and who aspire, as they say, to the good life. Since sweet desires and carnal and sensual pleasures make themselves strongly felt, such people are always falling into coarse sensuality, and they are beneath the feature which distinguishes man from other living creatures.

There is the soul and noetic life for you, from every one of its aspects! I purposely pointed out what is natural and proper for each aspect, and what is not. I see without reminding you a readiness within you to follow the former and shun the latter! Lord give the blessing!