When the Heart Beats, the Lungs Breathe, and the Nous Prays: Christian Life without Fear
Anxiety and fear seem to be everywhere we look, everywhere except on the faces of the Saints. Sacred Icons of the Martyrs even during their martyrdom have not a trace of fear or anxiety. Why is fear and anxiety so present in our world and so absent in a world of genuine and proven holiness? Father John Romanides provides an answer from the position of Orthodox anthropology: “While the brain is the center of human adaptation to the environment, the noetic faculty in the heart is the primary organ for communion with God. The fall of man or the state of inherited sin is: a) the failure of the noetic faculty to function properly, or to function at all; b) its confusion with the functions of the brain and the body in general; and c) its resulting enslavement to the environment.” We are anxious and fearful to the extent that we are enslaved to our often, uncontrollable environment. And we are enslaved to our surroundings to the extent that we are not in communion with God Who is both absolutely beyond and ineffably present in our environment. Just as physical life is impossible if the lungs cannot breathe in oxygen and if the heart cannot circulate that oxygen throughout the body, so spiritual life is not possible without the nous breathing and circulating the oxygen of prayer in an analogous way. And just as medical science has uncovered the symptoms of lung disease and heart disease that reveal an underlying dangerous condition, so the fathers have discovered the symptoms of the spiritual disease of the noetic faculty. Again, Father John Romanides writes, “The patristic tradition is aware of the existence in human beings of a now normally non-functioning or sub-functioning memory in the heart, which when put into action via noetic prayer, includes unceasing memory of God and, therefore, the normalization of all other relations. When the noetic faculty is not functioning properly, man is enslaved to fear and anxiety and his relations to others are essentially utilitarian. Thus, the root cause of all abnormal relations between God and man and among men is that fallen man, i.e., man with a malfunctioning noetic faculty, uses God, his fellow man, and nature for his own understanding of security and happiness.” According to the fathers, fear and anxiety demonstrate that a human being is not in continuous contact with God. When the nous functions properly, the spiritual heart cries, “Abba, Father” with the same regularity with which the physical heart beats and the lungs breathe, for the soul needs the Lord Jesus to touch her just as often as the heart and lungs need oxygen. It is not possible to fear and be anxious as long as one is in the perfectly safe and secure presence of the most merciful, humble, and compassionate Christ. But it is also not possible to remain in that presence, unless the noetic faculty functions properly through unceasing prayer. Outside of that blessed presence, people seek security elsewhere with the desperation of those suffocating in a smoky room, looking for just a window to bring in some fresh air. In need of security, people then use others, including God Himself, in a selfish, egocentric way. And being egocentric, viewing everything exclusively from the perspective of me means that my imagination begins to swell and to work to find security and happiness in all the wrong places. And so, “ Man outside of glorification imagines the existence of god or gods which are psychological projections of his need for security and happiness.” Fearful anxiety comes from musing on dangers in the past and projecting them into the future. It takes us out of the present moment. But it is the present moment in which the heart must beat, the lungs must breathe, and the nous must function through the constant and abiding remembrance of God. In a 1937 sermon offered to his flock in Shanghai, Saint John Maximovitch reminds his children that, “nothing is fearful to him who relies on God.” And this reliance comes only through prayer without ceasing.
Patristic anthropology describes the human condition quite eloquently. It also provides real hope. Fr. John later writes, “That all men have this noetic faculty in the heart also means that all are in direct relation to God at various levels, depending on how much the individual personality resists enslavement to his physical and social surroundings and allows himself to be directed by God. Every individual is sustained by the uncreated glory of God and is the dwelling place of this uncreated creative and sustaining light, which is called the rule, power, grace, etc. of God. Human reaction to this direct relation or communion with God can range from the hardening of the heart, i.e., the snuffing out of the spark of grace, to the experience of glorification attained to by the prophets, apostles, and saints. This means that all men are equal in possession of the noetic faculty, but not in quality or degree of function. It is important to note the clear distinction between spirituality, which is rooted primarily in the heart’s noetic faculty, and intellectuality, which is rooted in the brain.”
We all have a spiritual heart that we can strive to discover through simple repentance and by calling upon the name of our Lord. It will take time for our fears, anxieties, and imaginings to weaken. Remembering God, remaining in the present, vigilantly guarding the heart against the “terrors of the night” by trust in God will help. Love, we are reminded in Scripture, casts out all fear. Love that is not selfish, but given wholly over to God, does not have the mental space to give itself over to fear. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, “So too, in our own lives, Jesus is not to be found in death (fear). “He is not here.” He has overcome death and cast out all fear, trampling down death by death. Whatever we fear, whomever we fear has been conquered by the glory of the Cross and Resurrection. If we have fear ever dwelling in our hearts, we are harming our physical, mental, and spiritual health. Neuroscience, psychiatry, and the Gospel agree on this point. Such fear is certainly not of God. Such fear keeps us chained to illusory and deceptive thoughts that alienate us from God and one another. Yet, that chain has been broken, Satan has been conquered, fear has been overcome. We need only recognize this and be glad in Him who has made us a new creation. Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me. Glory to Thee, O God, glory to Thee! Amen.