“Then it suddenly struck me how much of my religious life had been centered on reading and writing about God, while very little of it had been spent waiting silently in God’s presence, and virtually none waiting silently with other people.”
Diogenes Allen — Spiritual Theology: The Theology of Yesterday for Spiritual Help Today
The Candler School of Theology at Emory University has awarded me a Master’s Degree in Theological Studies. I have to stare at that sentence for a minute and let it sink in. I haven’t quite grasped the reality of that statement. I’ve been working on what is considered a two-year degree for nearly five years. Working full-time and going to school part-time has become rote — a way of life. Now that it’s over, I’m a little lost as to what to do with myself.
Seminary has it’s own special rhythm — it’s own special way of being in the world. Being away from that environment has been a shock to the system. Here I am with all this knowledge just bursting at the seams, waiting to be the fount of information that I know people are just craving me to be. I have yet to find someone who is waiting to hear me recount Christian history or expound upon the finer points of Karl Barth’s theology. In fact, people kind of look at you funny when you even talk about Barth, or Tillich, or Kierkegaard or, heaven forbid, Schleiermacher. See? You’re already scratching your heads — your eyes are getting a little glassy.
I thrived in seminary. I loved hearing about the minutiae of Kierkegaard’s thought, of Barth’s take on the nature of God, of Schleiermacher’s soul-spinning theology. My head was full of “amens” and “hallelujahs” at finding dead white men who actually spoke to my mind — if not my soul and heart.
The point of a theological education is said to be “faith seeking understanding.” I had that in spades. My faith was understanding a lot. It was also changing a lot. At one point I even considered atheism because I couldn’t believe anyone would actually buy into the dogma and doctrines that these dead guys had dreamed up centuries ago. My Mom warned me I would “shipwreck” my faith at Emory — and I washed up on the rocks a few times. However, I think seminary is a lot like the military. It tears you down to build you up. It makes theological adults out of doctrinally gullible children. Like the military, some people wash out during that stage when things get hard — when the landscape seems bleak and barren. But, for those who persevere and push through the long, dark night of the soul, the reward of a stronger, more robust faith is incredible.
But, there was still a huge piece missing from my seminary career. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. After all this talking and writing and thinking about God, I would get tired. I called it being “Goded out.” The last thing I wanted to talk, write or think about was God. God was everywhere, in every class, on the lips of every professor. For a God who Barth says is “Wholly Other” and completely separate from us, God sure hung around Candler a lot. You couldn’t shake God no matter how hard you tried. So, at the end of my seminary career, why am I not complete? Why am I not spiritually fulfilled? Why have I not reached the spiritual pinnacle I was expecting? Why am I not the wise sage on the mountain that everyone seeks out for spiritual wisdom? I have plenty — just look at my transcript!
Diogenes Allen and I had similar epiphanies. I, too, realized that most of my religious life has been spent reading and writing about God, but that very little of it has been spent experiencing God — waiting silently in God’s presence. What I realized is that my heart and my mind were in two different places. Both seeking the same thing, I believe — unity with God — but in very different and divergent ways. What I needed that seminary did not give me was a way to bring my heart and mind into harmony. Unfortunately for me, that’s nothing you can learn from a book. Heart knowledge comes to us differently than head knowledge. We can absolutely know something in our head but be in blissful ignorance in our heart.
My seminary career made Henri Nouwen’s words ring true for me: “Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.”
I am completely incompetent when it comes to knowledge about God. God is incomprehensible — God’s ways are unknowable. So, why did I spend all that money trying to learn about God, when nothing I read in a book, or hear from a professor, or write in a monumental paper will put me any closer to God? How can we ever bring our hearts and minds into harmony, knowing we will never “be competent in God?”
I realize, much to my mind’s chagrin, that I do not have the answer. I do, however, have clues — clues that only the heart can follow, even when the mind doesn’t fully understand.
Seeking unity with God
The first clue, not surprisingly, comes to us through scripture. In Mark 12:30, Matthew 22:37 and Luke 10:27, Jesus tells us that we are to love God with all our heart, soul and mind — Luke and Mark add that we should love God with all our strength as well. If we look closer at the words Jesus used, we quickly get to the heart (pardon the pun) of the matter.
The Greek words used for both heart and mind in these passages is kardia. When we explore further we find that the Greek word for soul is psyche which, according to The Analytical Concordance of the New Revised Standard Version of the New Testament, can also mean — mind as well as, heart!
What we discover then, is that Jesus, in giving us the greatest commandment, has told us the way to unify ourselves with God — we must love God with all our heart, mind and soul — as one because they are all the same thing! That means that our heart, mind and soul must all be focused on one thing — God. Until our heart, mind and soul are all in harmony we cannot hope to follow Jesus’ commandments. Every fiber of our being must be focused on God. Maybe that’s why Mark and Luke also added that we are to love God with all our strength as well, because it will take a lot of effort on our part to bring our heart, mind and soul to a place of unity before God.
But, we are weak. Our own strength will bring us little in the way of satisfaction if our search is unity with God. What Mark and Luke are getting at, however, is that we must make the effort to bring our heart, mind and soul into harmony if we are to ever find the unity we seek. We cannot simply rely on God to come in and do all the work — we must be willing to meet God halfway. Even the best of us, however, will fail miserably at that task if all we rely on is our own strength. Even the Apostle Paul bemoaned the fact that he could not understand his own actions.
“For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,” he wrote in Romans 7:15. “When I want to do right,” he continued in verse 21, “evil lies close at hand.”
We’ve all experienced this struggle between heart and mind in our lives. We always mean to do the right thing, but somehow we don’t, or what we finally end up doing is the wrong thing because “evil lies close at hand” when we know we should do the right thing. We know it is right to help homeless people — to have true compassion for them that is not afraid to enter into their suffering with them. Instead, what do we do? We ignore them or gruffly tell them off as we pass them by. We know the right thing to do, but we do not do it. We feel guilty afterward, but what are we to do? We cannot help the entire world! We cannot solve the world’s problems on our own. So, instead we do nothing — we ignore the problems around us, happy that we’ve got ours despite the poverty that surrounds us.
That guilt, that feeling of helplessness in the face of such problems, is how it feels to have a schism between heart and mind. Our heart goes out to the poor and needy in our world, but our mind tells us that we are too small to make a difference in the world. Yes, we can feel for those less fortunate than ourselves, but doing something about it is like a raindrop hitting the ocean. Certainly Paul must have felt the same way when he wrote that passages in Romans. He was just one man, telling the story of another man, trying to make the world a better place. I’m sure he felt overwhelmed at times, just like we do. The struggle he had bringing together his heart and mind is spread throughout his letters, but he continued with all his strength to bring these divergent entities together through Christ.
An individual before God
This is precisely where we lose our way as we seek to bring our heart and mind into harmony. We begin to despair because we are just one tiny person, unable, we think, to make that much of a difference in our world. Instead of trying, we go along with the crowd. We talk “at” problems in our world, but we never really do anything about them. We talk “at” loving our neighbor as ourselves but we never really do anything about it. In fact, we’ll cut ten “neighbors” off in traffic before we’ll ever let one in. So much for loving others as much as we love ourselves.
Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard reminds us that it is not the crowd that will stand before God one day — we are all individuals before God. We will not be asked to give an accounting for what someone else did. We’ll be asked to account for our own lives and why we failed, as individuals, to make the world a better place. The world tells us that we, as one person, cannot overcome the social ills of the world like homelessness and hunger. But, if we are truly individuals before God, what the masses say we can or cannot accomplish don’t mean much. If we truly accept our status as individuals before God we will do all we can as one person to heal the world’s ills. One homeless or hungry person that we help may seem like a drop in the bucket — but it makes a big difference to the person who was helped. Besides, if everyone stopped listening to “the world” maybe social ills would vanish because we realize our individual responsibility to help the needy around us.
According to Jesus it is what we do as individuals that either condemn or bless us. Jesus is clear that we will be judged personally for our actions as well as “every careless word” we may utter — “for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37). Just knowing that one day I might have to explain to God why I said something bad about someone makes me think twice before uttering those careless words in the first place. The crowd will encourage me to persecute others with my words — there is always strength in numbers when others are to be criticized or ridiculed — but it is not the crowd who will be judged for those words, but me. Jesus never says the crowd must answer — the masses are nowhere to be found when we come face to face with Christ.
Realizing that we are individuals before God, Kierkegaard said, teaches us “that if you judge (for in very many cases it will restrain you from judging), you must bear the responsibility for your judgment. It will teach you that you should examine what you understand and what you do not understand as if you stood trembling in the presence of a departed one … for in eternity crowds simply do not exist.”
Kierkegaard believed that if we keep in mind our individual responsibility for all of our actions and judgments that we will “be slow to pass judgment upon the unusual” and will look with suspicion at whatever cause is suddenly popular with the masses. The masses will not face God — we will, and our actions and words will either justify us or condemn us.
The heart of the matter
Where do our actions, thoughts and words originate? From our heart.
“Do you not understand that everything that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and is eliminated? But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. These are the things which defile a person; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a person.”
— Matthew 15:17-20
What we say, what we do, how we act and treat others directly reflects what is in our heart. It is not what goes into us that defiles us, it is what comes out of us — lies, deceit, horrible words based on horrible thoughts and feelings. If our heart is full of hatred, suspicion, bigotry, lies and fear, it will come out in our actions. Our minds might be horrified (and rightly so) by many of our actions. We often make excuses for ourselves: “I don’t know where THAT came from,” or “I really didn’t mean to say (or do) that!” But, there it is — the inner reaches of our heart laid bare for all to see with each wrong action, each harmful or deceitful word.
Jesus tells us that whatever we treasure most is where our heart will be. What do you treasure? Your home, our car, your job, your relationship, your bank account? Think closely about what it is that you hold most dear. Think about how it gets expressed in your daily life. What comes out of you that defiles you? Where is your heart? Is it anywhere near you head? The world tells us we should treasure things — cars, money, homes, careers, relationships. Our heart believes this — it begins to treasure these things above all others — we fashion our desires into our god. That is where our heart lies. But our head? It denies this. It tells us that we love God most of all. Our head yearns to prove it — to be more pious than others. We talk and talk and talk about our relationship to God, but our actions, our words, our every movement, betray us. We defend our homes, our cars, our money our relationships with our lives — we think nothing of God. Oh, we might take some time to pray and go to church, but it’s all motions — all sound and fury, signifying nothing.
We do not truly treasure God because if we did, there would be no disharmony between our minds and our hearts. We would truly love God with our heart, mind and soul — our kardia — our psyche. Our heart and mind would be unified in God. Money, cars, homes, relationships would mean nothing. They would be the icing on the cake not the cake itself. Jesus tells us that if we seek God’s will first, all these things will be added to our lives. We will have lives of joy, of abundance — filled with wonder and happiness. But we have to make God, and doing God’s will, our true treasure — for only then will the fruit of the spirit manifest from our heart.
Unifying heart and mind
So, how do we reach this unification of heart and mind? Just as our salvation and judgment are deeply personal, so is the answer to this question. The key to marrying one’s mind and heart lies in the constant, dedicated practice of meditation — the seeking within our own heart and mind that presence of God.
I say, “constant, dedicated practice of meditation.” Don’t think that you will be able to put your heart and mind in the same spot with a “here-and-there” approach to meditation. I speak from experience. I have yet to truly unify my heart and my mind through meditation because I have not yet made it a constant, dedicated practice. But, every single time I pray to God to bring my heart and mind into harmony I get one answer — “be still and know that I am God.”
Be still. That is an almost impossible task. How on earth can any of us be still? We’re always on the go. I write these words while looking at the clock. It’s early in the morning and I know, in a few minutes, I must stop writing and get ready for work. Be still? You must be joking! The world values busyness. The world values motion. The world scorns stillness — believing it to be tantamount to laziness. How can I accomplish anything by just sitting still?
This has been the secret of the mystics for ages. They know — and have told us many times — that we accomplish much by simply sitting still. By being still we can know God. By being still we can have a true encounter with the eternal. By being still, our busyness will have more meaning, more breadth, more life and more abundance.
Nouwen wrote that “solitude molds self-righteous people into gentle, caring, forgiving persons who are deeply convinced of their own great sinfulness and so fully aware of God’s even greater mercy that their life itself becomes ministry.”
Being still does not take us out of the world — instead it helps us bring the presence of God into the lives of the people around us. Being still does, however, set us apart in the way we move through life — with heart and mind in harmony, focused on God — ready to truly love our neighbor as ourselves.
The fulfillment of Jesus’ second commandment is key to knowing that we are on the right track in unifying our heart and mind. Allen reminds us that, “our primary relationship to other people is one of service and concern for their welfare. God is not in need, however, so our love for God is marked by having every aspect of our being — heart, soul, strength, and mind — centered on God and permeated with love for God.”
When we truly begin to love our neighbor as ourselves then, and only then, will we truly be led into God’s presence — our heart and mind are joined in doing God’s will by being in service to others. This love of neighbor is the goal of our lives, Allen writes because it “allows us an indirect knowledge of God here and now: in loving or neighbor we resemble God.”
Dedicated pursuit of solitude is what brings us to this point. Only by spending time with God will we begin to resemble God. There is an old joke about how old married couples begin to take on each other’s mannerisms and even begin to look like one another. That’s because they spend so much time together. We need to dedicate ourselves to spending that kind of time with God until our mannerisms — our entire being — begins to resemble God.
Giving a comprehensive “how-to” guide to meditation is beyond the scope of this article. There are many forms of meditation from centering prayer, Lectio Divina, chanting, mind-clearing meditation or focused meditation. What form would work best for you is a matter of wading into the myriad of options for yourself.
The point of meditation is not escape from the world, but learning how we can be more effective in the world by joining our hearts and minds together with God. We are the body of Christ in the world — and for that body to be healthy it needs rest in God found only in deep, concentrated, habitual meditation.
I encourage you to research the varied forms of meditation available and find the one that fits your style. God will speak to you and let you know which forms are right for you. I encourage you — and myself, as well — to make meditation a daily habit. Get to know God. Settle down with your Creator and let your life take on the characteristics of God.
Once we spend quality time with God we will find that the head and heart are not so far apart after all. In God, everything divided becomes unified. When we come to God in solitude we will find as St. Anthony did that, “we are all of one substance, and members of one another. For [the one] who loves his [or her] neighbor, loves God; and [the one who] loves God, loves his [or her] own soul.”
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.