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Lost Christian Language for Repairing the Person

11/14/2010 07:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul."
--Psalm 22:3

Among a good many advantages our predecessors in the early Church could claim was a more nearly adequate vocabulary. For instance, they were in possession of a number of words that indicated a number of amazing truths. Nous, kardiá, népsis and théosis were among those words that helped to keep the young Body focused on the task at hand, the task of healing our shared array of rifts -- rifts within ourselves, between ourselves and others, and, most keenly, between a Holy God and a race of creatures that had broken off communion.

Three of those words -- nous, népsis and théosis -- have been all but lost to our contemporary conversation, and the deep significance of another, kardiá, which is to say "heart," has been sorely diminished. With these onetime commonplace words enhancing their spiritual conversations, our predecessors were better able to give their attentions to the profound complexity and the vertiginous promise of the human person, another treasure neglected over the centuries.

The import of nous has been obscured thanks to a history of not-so-good choices translating that very good Greek word into other languages that didn't have direct equivalents. What we have received are, at best, half measures, and none of them sufficiently delivers to us the mystery of ourselves.

In most cases, translations have replaced the mysterious noun with something that addresses maybe half of a complicated story, and leaves us, on occasion, misdirected in what we make of things.

For instance, when Saint Peter employs his accustomed, muscular language to encourage us -- "Gird up the loins of your minds" -- nous is the word that is shortchanged, having been replaced with mind. When we read in Saint Paul's epistle to the Romans, "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God," the word mind is again what we are given in lieu of the more suggestive nous.

In the above passage from Saint Paul, a good deal of significance appears to be placed upon right thinking -- specifically, the renewing of our minds -- as if by thinking better thoughts, by fine-tuning our theologies or by undergoing a bit of brain-scrubbing we might find ourselves duly equipped to "prove what is [the] good and acceptable and perfect will of God."

Virtually every time we come across the word mind (or, in some cases, intellect or reason) in an English translation of the New Testament, nous is the word being rendered. One might say that it is the word being surrendered.

The greatest danger is that what should be an actively performed faith, a lived faith, becomes little more than an idea. When it is most healthy, ours is not a simply propositional faith, but a faith embodied and performed. Having lost this understanding, much of Western Christendom and much of an unduly influenced Eastern Church, has squandered the single most essential aspect of the Christian life: that we are ill, that what we need most is to be healed -- our nous purified, illumined and restored to actual communion with the God who is.

Until we shed the scholastic view that all we need are better ideas, until we apprehend that our deep illness must be cured and our smudged nous recovered, we remain susceptible to smug, deluded, recurrent failure and, perhaps, actual separation from the Body of Christ.

Another New Testament word that could benefit from a rigorous appraisal is kardiá, offered to us simply as heart. Early Christians, taking their lead from Jewish and other Semitic traditions, understood this word as indicating more than the pump in our chests, or as a figure of speech for our emotions, feelings and affections. They understood kardiá as the very center of the complex human person, and as the scene of our potential repair.

As our long tradition has figured the matter, the human person is herself/himself something of a trinity. Various writers in that tradition are likely to name our tri-parts variously, but most agree that thanks to the dire severing of our persons from the Triune Persons of our Life-giving God, we have become splintered, or something of a crippled tripod, a triangle that doesn't ring true.

We may be body, soul and spirit true enough, but, for most of us, our wholeness and unity remain either troubled or downright fractured.

We are compelled toward balance, but we are bent.

We hope to be even, but we are at odds with ourselves, at odds with our constituent bits, and as a result we have become somewhat less than the sum of our parts.

"Gather yourself together in your heart," writes Saint Theophan the Recluse, "and there practice secret meditation. ... The very seed of spiritual growth," the saint insists, "lies in this inner turning to God. ... Or, still more briefly, collect yourself and make secret prayer in your heart." On another occasion, Saint Theophan writes, "The Savior commanded us to enter into our closet and there to pray to God the Father in secret. This closet, as interpreted by St. Dimitri of Rostov, means the heart. Consequently, to obey our Lord's commandment, we must pray secretly to God with the mind in the heart."

The Mind in the Heart

The more we read in the fathers and mothers across the early centuries of the Church, the more profoundly we come to recognize this formula, this admonition that we might find our prayer lives made fruitful by our descending with our "minds" into our "hearts." This figure, then -- of the lucid nous descended into the ready kardiá, of the mind pressed into the heart -- articulates both the mode and locus of our potential re-collection, our much desired healing. At the very least, it identifies the scene where this reconstitution of our wholeness might begin: the center of the human body, which is nonetheless the temple of the Holy Spirit.

Split as we are, we think with our minds and we feel with our bodies.

Imagine, however, a habit of prayer that serves to marry both faculties together.

Imagine a covert organ at the core of our beings that, duly apprehended, duly cleansed and duly inspirited, is able to re-connect those severed capacities within ourselves, so that our internal struggle between the appetites of the body and the varied solipsisms of the mind resolves, finds peace in likely collaboration.

A finer sense of things is occasioned by Bishop Kallistos Ware's depiction of the nous as "the intellective aptitude of the heart." In this fortunate collision of mind-talk and body-talk, we glimpse something of what the figure of the nous descended into the kardiá performs; the nous inhabited kardiá becomes the place where mind and body meet, a place where their longstanding severance might be healed, their half-measures made meet and fit, a place where the human split is potentially repaired.

The faculty occasioned by the mind's descent into the heart is also the organ by which we apprehend God's presence as more than an idea, and as more than a passing sensation. The severed mind can help us to the idea of God, and the severed body can provide us with a sensation of His touch; but the noetic center of a healed, triune person offers something more lasting and more satisfying than either: felt knowledge of His love and ceaseless communication with His constant presence. Recovering a sense of nous and a more profound sense of kardiá will better equip us for the journey ahead.

As for népsis and théosis, the recovery of these similarly illuminating terms may provide some very helpful insights into what it is we are to accomplish in this the often puzzling meantime of our lives. Népsis can be considered as watchfulness, sobriety, interior attention and it is this discipline of népsis that is understood by the fathers and mothers to be essential to our théosis -- to our becoming like Him, our becoming holy.

As I recognize in my own, none-too-exemplary experience, sin happens when I pretty much agree to it, when I acquiesce to it. Sin, which clouds the nous and hardens the heart, is committed by our -- that is, by my -- failing to be watchful, sober or sufficiently attentive to the effects of what I think or say or do. The fathers almost uniformly distinguish between an unavoidable, momentary, if not-so-expedient thought (logismós) and sin itself (amartía).

The provocation to sin develops into sin only when we fail in our watchfulness.

An inexpedient thought becomes sin when we turn toward it and certainly becomes sin when we settle in to savor it.

"My son, give heed to my word," the writer of the Hebrew Proverbs exhorts, "and incline your ear to my words,"

...That your fountains may not fail you;
Guard them in your heart;
For they are life to those who find them
And healing for all their flesh.
Keep your heart with all watchfulness,
For from these words are the issues of life.

That your fountains may not fail you, guard them in your heart.

Developing this discipline of népsis, of watchfulness, teaches us increasingly to guard our hearts from every careless slip into temptation, keeps us from missing the mark and spares us from squandering whatever spiritual development we may have accomplished. With népsis we avoid our chronic sins that would have us repeatedly starting again from zero.

The mind descended into the heart, then, describes where and how we meet Him. Watchfulness indicates how we keep that meeting place uncorrupted. And théosis is the goal of our journey to Christ-like-ness, a condition that will gain for us the kingdom of heaven, here on earth. Over time, resulting from what Brother Lawrence (a 17th-Century lay brother) has characterized as "the practice of the presence of God," these meetings become a way of life, and they become the source of our freedom from happenstance, our freedom to face any occasion, any insult or any affliction with the consoling apprehension of God's being with us.

Moreover, the mind-in-the-heart -- the establishment of the noetic heart -- also creates the organ by which we finally are able to meet our brothers and sisters, the organ by which strangers are recognized as holy messengers, and the means by which we hope finally to realize that whatsoever we do (or fail to do) to the least of these, we necessarily do (or fail to do) to Christ Himself.

As Christ prayed for us, in what our common tradition recognizes as "the high priestly prayer," the prayer He prayed in the garden of Gesthemane "on the night when He was betrayed, or rather when He gave Himself up for the life of the world":

"...that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me."

Which means, of course, that we are loved utterly, but just as the cup was not taken from Him, neither are we likely to skirt suffering. As Saint Paul avers, God "did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all."

Oddly enough, our own descents into suffering may turn out to be the occasions in which we -- imitating His unique and appalling descent -- come to know Him all the more intimately.