I wrote this as a reflection for a group of hospital pastoral carers on the work that we do. It draws not only on the quote from Abba Makarios, but also the chorus of Auden’s Christmas oratorio, and Ephesians 6:11-17.
Makarios the Great said: “The heart itself is only a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil; there are rough and uneven roads; there are precipices; but there, too, are God and the angels; life is there, and the Kingdom; there, too, is light, and heavenly cities, and treasures of grace. All things lie within that little space.”
As we sit and listen to others, what we hear beyond their words is the depth of their hearts; for it is out of the fulness of the heart that words are given birth. Perhaps we are surprised, that each conversation is an exploration without a map, into a realm in which we might encounter rare beasts and have unique adventures. But we should not be; and if we are it is because we have forgotten what wise men and women before us knew about the nature of the heart.
But who, then, are we, as travellers and aliens in the foreign landscape of another’s heart? What do we presume to do here?
I suggest our purpose is threefold.
First, we are cartographers. As we explore, and recognise – since we are seasoned explorers, even if we are in unknown terrain – particular features of the landscape, we recognise them, name them and mark them as landmarks by which to orient ourselves, and perhaps even the person with whom we are speaking. Our conversation can become an occasion of growing awareness, so that both of us can be more confident in approaching the cities and safe havens, and more cautious in approaching the abode of lions. Map making is a skill which takes practice, and is one of the things we can bring to the heart of another.
Second, we are revellers. As we meet angels, recognise light, and discover treasure, we can take the hand of the other and dance for joy. Celebration is deepened when it is mirrored in the heart of another, and delight and bliss are much richer for the sharing. So this is another thing we bring to the heart.
And thirdly, we are warriors. As we meet the dragons of deceit, the toxic beasts and the waste dumps of evil, we do not simply note them and move on. We confront them, standing not unarmed and unprotected but well-equipped for this. Knowing within the depths of our own hearts something of truth, of justice, of peace, of faith, of liberation, we can speak into the places in the heart of the other which are void of such goodness. All of these we can wield with skill and care in the heart of another.
All of this, of course, presupposes that we have dared to travel our own hearts thoroughly, and taken the time to gain wisdom and skill in wandering such landscapes. But if we have, Makarios’ insight into the heart can provide us with a useful set of images for our own work.