Among the many themes that St John Cassian discusses with the desert fathers in his conference, is the theme of the attaining the purity of heart. In his first conference titled “on the purpose and goal of the monk” he asks the ultimate question, “What is the purpose and end of the monastic life?” The same question can be easily applied to the Christian life in general. This is the great and very important question that we must turn to again and again throughout our life.
Abbot Moses, a hermit of scete answered “we have come to the desert, to seek the kingdom of God, and the way to enter the kingdom is by achieving purity of the heart.” Abba Moses further emphasised the very important idea of an immediate goal that a Christian must work at in order to successfully arrive to his final destination (i.e. the kingdom of heaven) explains that while the ultimate goal for a monk (and the same goes for all Christians) is to reign with Christ in heaven for eternity, abba Moses suggests that “Christians need a closer target or goal to work at. This nearer goal is the purity of heart.”He illustrates the difference between the two goals with a practical example of a farmer who works the field day in and day out, not deterred with the changing weather, for the close goal of keeping the field free of weeds so as to attain the end goal of good harvest.
“All the arts and disciplines,” he said, “have a certain ‘scopus’ or goal, and a ‘telos’, which is the end that is proper to them, on which the lover of any art sets his gaze and for which he calmly and gladly endures every labor and danger and expense. For the farmer, avoiding neither the torrid rays of the sun one time nor the frost and ice another, tirelessly tills the soil and subdues the unyielding clumps of earth with his frequent plowing, and all the while he keeps his scopos in mind: that, once it has been cleared of all the briers and every weed has been uprooted, by his hard work he may break the soil into something as fine as sand. In no other way does he believe that he will achieve his end, which is to have a rich harvest and an abundant crop.”
This idea of the immediate goal and the ultimate goal is deeply rooted in the Bible, especially in the sermon on the mountain where Jesus said “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt 5:8). By linking purity of heart to the vision of God, the beatitudes connects ‘immediate goal’ to ‘end goal.’
In the first conference Abba Moses equates the purity of heart to holiness. He even paraphrases the verse replacing “Holiness” with “Purity of Heart” and later on in the same conference he equates “Purity of Heart” to “Love”, quoting St Paul: “if I should give my goods to feed the poor and have not love it profits me nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:3)
The common factor here between purity, holiness, and love is having an undivided heart. For Plato purity of heart meant clarity of purpose or freedom from disturbance. The word Holiness means set apart, or something that is only used for its intended purpose and Love as we know from the Old Testament cannot be divided “love the Lord your God with all your heart” and in the New Testament Christ gives the parable of the two masters “No one can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Mathew 6:24)
Having this undivided heart is what is meant by purity of heart there is so much in today’s society that reaches out and grabs our attention from attaining our spiritual goal, study, career relationships, gadgets at discounted prices that claim to make our life easier meanwhile they sell us a way of life that makes us dependant on them. As Christians we must be watchful for any such distractions that drive out the love of Lord from our heart. Distractions are not necessarily doing evil, as we may imagine, but they can be ascetical works or church services when they become the aim rather than means as we will discuss later on.
Now that we learned what purity of heart is, it is time to explore what it is not. From the above definition of purity of heart one might get the impression that it is an unattainable goal as some may confuse purity of heart with sinlessness, which is unattainable by human beings and even blasphemous to say so according to St John, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar” (1Jn 1:10). Our Lord also teaches us to pray in the Lord ’s Prayer to “forgive us our trespasses” this prayer He first taught to the holy and blessed apostles.
The purity of heart as St John Cassian sees it, is not a heart in a pristine state, unaffected and unscarred by sin but on the contrary it is a heart that is fully alive despite and because of the scarce inevitably caused by sin.