This year for Christmas my eight-year-old son received a boomerang. It’s a bright orange color – almost a florescent orange – with a couple black stripes. Mom was working at the hospital on Christmas day, which left me and my son to sleep in (after midnight Nativity service and staying up to open gifts) and to eat all kinds of rich, non-fasting foods.
After meeting mom at the hospital cafeteria for lunch, we decided to make an excursion to a wide-open space to try out the boomerang my son was very excited about. My practical side, informed by childhood memories, doubted that we would have any success in getting that boomerang to actually do what boomerangs are supposed to do.
My more philosophical side was thinking about opportunities for imparting wisdom to my son like, “You know, whatever you throw at life usually comes back to you, and sometimes hits you right in the head.” I was also thinking, “This could be a little risky considering there is over two feet of snow on the ground! But I put that thought aside.
We arrived at the park where we indeed had a rather large expanse of space, with only some snow sledding going on in the distance. I took the first turn with the boomerang. We had read the instructions back at home so there was nothing else to do but to let it rip. Amazingly, that orange plastic contraption began to curve to the left more than 100 feet out, making a large arch, but falling before it made a complete return. We were ecstatic! It worked!
Much more confident now, my son and I began taking turns. On about the fifth try my son side-armed it (not the proper way to throw a boomerang) and it landed maybe about sixty feet out at a thirty-degree angle to our left. I saw exactly where it landed. There was a small pile of protruding snow there which helped to mark the area. Unconcerned, I sent my son to chase after it. Within a couple minutes it was clear I would have to trudge out in my snow boots to help find it.
I went over to the spot where I thought it landed and began what I thought would be an easy search. It wasn’t there. I walked back and forth in the snow within a fifteen foot radius, circled around and walked back again…and again…and again. It was cold. The entire field was pure white and everything began to run together. Maybe I didn’t see what I thought I saw. Didn’t it land about here?
Now I walked outside that area back and forth and around. I began to get a little angry. My son wasn’t looking as hard as I thought he should be. It was his boomerang! I was doing him a favor by agreeing to come out in the snow. I went back to the initial spot and began kicking snow up. Nothing! Surely if we were anywhere near it, the orangeness that could not be any more orange would reveal itself. Part of me began to doubt that that boomerang ever existed.
Now it had been thirty minutes or so. We felt a bit despondent. I imagined having coming back in the Spring after the snow melted to look for the boomerang again, assuming no one would have already taken it. I finally conceded to my son that we had done all we could do. It was time to go home.
We got back to the car and began the drive. About halfway home I gave up on the idea of giving up. I just couldn’t live with that decision. I told my son, “Let’s go home and we’ll get the snow shovel and come back.” I didn’t really have much hope but I was looking for a Christmas miracle. I’m pretty sure I prayed, but I can’t remember for sure (that would have made the story more pious though!).
Upon our return, we took the shovel out to that initial spot. I began shoveling scoops of snow in an endless field of snow. Two scoops, three scoops, four scoops. “This is futile,” I thought, suddenly realizing I had said it out loud.
I took one more shot at it. Then there was that kind of suspended moment between what the eyes see and what the conscious mind processes, just before the surprise and disbelief sets in. There it was, a bright, glistening, almost glowing orange just barely under the surface where I had made that last attempt.
We were jubilant!
But fearing, lest we should find ourselves in a similar situation once again, we took the precious item and headed home. We didn’t have to discuss that decision. We both just knew. And as the snow has yet to melt away here in Wenatchee, WA, to this day we have not used the boomerang again.
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The heart of a human being is also a great expanse or field. It is filled with all kinds of desires, thoughts, compulsions which are often covered over by a blanket of spiritual coldness, numbness, and lack of awareness. The heart is the arena of spiritual warfare; the place that can breed the passions – “for out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries” – or likewise where one can find the “pearl of great price” (Matt. 13:45-46).
Modernity, and many forms of western Christianity, seem to conceive the heart in a very surface, superficial, and sentimental way, consigning it to the “seat of the emotions,” to the exclusion of the biblical vision of the heart as man’s capacity for sobriety, depth, and real understanding or knowledge.
However, according to the ancient Orthodox Christian spiritual teaching the heart is the very essence of the human soul, the deep place where we are simultaneously capable of knowing ourselves and God. St. Isaac the Syrian expresses this beautifully: “Take pains to enter your own innermost chamber and you will see the chamber of heaven, for they are one and the same, and in entering one you behold them both.” The Lord Himself taught the same: “The kingdom of God is within you.”
The heart could be accurately characterized as the “mercy seat of the soul,” the place of encounter with God, where He speaks to his creatures as he did “face to face” with Moses. The holy apostle Peter calls this deep mystery within the human being “the hidden person of the heart” (1 Pet. 3:4).
Yet it is not enough to know that the heart is the spiritual battlefield. As Orthodox Christians it must be our purposeful objective to find, to cultivate, to cleanse, and then to live within and according to the heart, where Christ is always knocking (see Rev. 3:20) and seeking to come in with His divine grace and love. The heart is the focus of the Christian life, originally created as target of our energy and attention.
And as the Holy Fathers teach from their own personal experience, the “energy of the soul,” the spiritual attention, is the nous. St. Paul exhorts the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your nous (Rom. 12:2). The word is usually translated as “mind” in English, but this is dangerously misleading. Why?
First, because we in the West do not even know that we have a nous! (Even the ancient Greek philosophers and other pagans knew about the nous). And thus there is no equivalent word in English. Outside the Orthodox Christian tradition this well known, ancient Christian teaching has been utterly and completely lost.
Secondly, post-Enlightenment man associates the “mind” with his ability to reason. And in the West, reason was falsely exalted as the primary means of reaching and understanding the spiritual realm. Theology, the articulation of a real encounter with God, has devolved into philosophical speculation, a product of fallen human reasoning.
But the nous is not the reasoning function or the logical mind. It is not the “intellect” as we westerners typically understand it, i.e. the brain or our thinking. Instead it is the organ of spiritual receptivity, like the spiritual “antennae” of the soul that is capable of receiving the pure revelation of God through His divine energies or grace. If the heart is the radio the nous is the electronic or digital signal. If the signal is not good there is static. If the signal is good, the voice of God is heard.
The Saints also call the nous the eye of the soul (see Matt 6:22-23). “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matt. 5:8). According to Fr. John Romanides when the New Testament speaks of man’s “spirit” (Rom. 8:16) it refers to the nous.
If the heart is our home, the nous is the homeowner, the one who resides there. An illumined nous naturally abides in a pure heart in unceasing prayer to God. But in the fallen condition the nous is darkened and distracted from the contemplation of God to the distorted pleasures and the desires of this world. St. John of the Ladder compares the distracted nous to a dog in a butcher’s shop.
In it’s fallen condition the nous’ energy is splintered and diffused, and thus misdirected. Like a boomerang, the darkened nous attempts to catapult itself to God but turns back according to its distorted form. The nous must be purified and brought back into the heart.
This is simple, but extraordinarily difficult. As I drudged, seemingly endlessly, through the deep snow to find that bright boomerang, the Saints advise that we must be ready to shed blood to find and tame the nous. It can be a long and arduous and fatiguing journey.
As we strive to pray with the nous in the heart it seems as if we are looking for a needle in a haystack. We will have to dig through the slush of our many sinful passions and seek to redirect the energies of our soul. This requires great persistence and we must not fall into despair. There will be much confession and repentance along the way. But we must have hope in God, for our search is guided by His grace and according to His will. It is because of His love for us that He allows the struggle. It is NOT futile but vital if we desire true communion with Him.
It is important for us Orthodox Christians to remember that this is the reason we fast and pray. This is the reason we give alms, seek to do the commandments of Christ and do good works. It is even the reason we embrace true apostolic doctrine. Not simply to be “good,’ moral people, not to be “right”, not to “earn” our way to heaven, but to seek, and ask, and knock (Matt. 7:7), to dig up the icy passions of our heart and redirect the energies of our soul so that healed we may be at home in the heart. We do all of this to purify the heart so that we might receive the life-giving grace of God. For as we have said, in this way we may uncover and discover the kingdom of God, that “treasure hidden in the field” (Matt. 13:44) of our soul.
Think of the pure nous as a laser beam, an intensely concentrated point of light. Such a laser is powerful enough to dance on a screen or to cut through steel. When a purified nous returns to abide in the heart it is concentrated, burning with prayer love for God. But when that same light is split up and diffused out, although it seems to be everywhere, its power is dissipated and disintegrated like the darkened nous that races outward to material things to be tantalized by the senses. Its energy is dissipated and diffused as it reaches out to the things of this world futilely seeking to fulfill every fleeting whim.
But when the nous is purified and illumined by divine grace it is becomes that bright boomerang glowing in the white light of a pure heart. Once I asked an elder on Mount Athos how we will know if we have found our nous. He simply answered, “If you find it, you’ll know.”
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This blog is dedicated to the teaching of the Church Fathers on the heart and the nous. But it won’t be one-dimensional, since the heart is at the center of everything. Therefore posts here could touch upon topics from spirituality to culture to economics to popular trends, etc. Please pray for me as I seek to be faithful to the spiritual tradition of the Holy Orthodox Church.