One of the most hidden desires of the human heart is a desire for an inner stillness, a deep peace in which mind and body rest. This “rest” is at the heart of the searching of many of the major world religions. Buddhism speaks of enlightenment, Sufism within Islam speaks of a mystical union with God, and the Greek philosophers talked about contemplation. Underlying these religions and philosophies is the natural desire for a mode of existence in which the human person experiences a deeper harmony, a deeper level of self-actualization (to borrow a phrase from psychology).
Christianity does not contradict this fundamental human desire which is expressed beautifully in other Religious traditions. Despite their complexity and diversity, many of the other religions fall short in an almost identical way. In Jesus Christ, God reveals that this desire for an inner stillness is not so much a matter of human effort seeking a something, but rather the response of the human person to someone. This distinction is critical. God is not a concept nor an idea. He is not a state of consciousness in which a person transcends the ordinary. Rather, God is someone who has chosen to reveal himself to humanity. He reveals himself to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ who reveals that God is a Trinity.
In Western Christianity (commonly referred to as the Latin Church) the desire for inner stillness is integrated into this dimension of personal relationship in the concept of contemplation. In contemplation, the believer enters into a deeper relationship with God, one based on silence and a loving gaze that penetrates the depths of the human heart. Contemplation is not so much a result of a technique or a method of prayer, but rather is a pure gift of grace (as the Catechism succinctly explains).
In Eastern Christianity (in which I would include the Orthodox Churches), this concept of contemplation is given a different name. Building on the language of the Greek Philosophers, the Church Fathers talked about this inner stillness as apatheia. True to the Eastern tendency to be more holistic, this concept involved much more than simply prayer. This inner stillness involved the whole persons and thus includes the emotions and appetites as well. In contrast to the Stoic Philsophers from whom they borrowed the word, this inner stillness is not merely the absent of strong emotions in a kind of rigid calm. Rather, the Monks of the east talked about the fire of apatheia, or the fire of dispassion as the phrase is translated, which burns in the heart of the believer. This fire is nothing short of divine love which transforms the believer into the likeness of the Divine.
This brings us to a moment that might seem anticlimactic, and also so simple that it does not seem fit for a complex academic discourse. In the end, the difficult language and the complex ideas point to a reality which can be taught to the youngest of children. We are called to be in a loving relationship with a personal God who loves us first. As simple as this seems, loving God is more deep and even more amazing than the love of another human being (often expressed so beautifully in marriage). Growth in human love is not so much a matter of acquiring or of gaining “something.” In marriage, husbands and wives don’t acquire anything tangible or even measurable as they pass years together and as their relationship deepens. However, even though we cannot measure the fruit of love, its effects are real nonetheless. In fact, the fruits of marriage are probably more important in the long run then the fruits of labor, such as wealth and power. If that can be said of human love, how much greater of Divine love.
Growth in Divine love is an entering ever deeper into the mystery. This journey is not one of places and things, of concepts, ideas, and information. Rather it is a journey into the heart which occurs only by nurturing the fire of apatheia (to use the phrase from Eastern Christianity). We must constantly stoke this flame and let it burn ever brighter in our hearts. We must seek an inner stillness in which we learn to listen to the God speaking to the heart through the hidden language of divine love.