Purity of Heart: an essential for peacemaking

by Albert S. Rossi

Walled Garden (wood engraving by Eric Gill)

Purity of heart may contain a key to a personal position on the issue of war and peace, going beyond cultural words like hawk or dove. Purity of heart is stunningly counter-cultural.

My position on war has evolved from being a peacenik in the 1970s to a more thoughtful response to the war in Iraq and the Middle East. I am convinced that killing another human in any form is totally unacceptable. This includes abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty and war killings. At the same time, some wars, though deplorable, may be a lesser evil. On any specific war issue, or a response to a particular war procedure like surgical strikes, persons of good will can hold different positions. Positions on war and peace contain ambiguities and contradictions on both sides of the debate.

A personal position on war and peace emerges from deeper convictions, including one's own level of peacefulness or lack thereof.

Ideally, if a person takes an anti-war position, that same person has achieved a relatively stable peacefulness, devoid of belligerence, excessive anger and divisiveness. Otherwise, the person doesn't have much to say, and can only give mixed and contradictory messages.

Some of the angriest people I've ever met were leading peace protests, using the bullhorn to shout words of peace in rage-filled tones. It is also true that some of the saintliest people I've ever met were in the peace movement, but they were more eloquent and quiet. For me, there is a significant difference between the quiet prayer vigils protesting an imminent death sentence and the anti-war protests. All this has made me allergic to the recent peace protests at Berkeley and the Ivy League universities over the war in Iraq. Too much anger.

Peacemaking begins at home, in the chambers of my heart. Before I can be for or against surgical bombing of strategic military sites, I must prayerfully purify my heart of the darkness in my ego called anger, thymos in Greek.

Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God ? at the end of time and in the present moment. Perhaps a person can be pure of heart and favor war movements, or be pure of heart and resist war movements. The opposite can also be true. In a sense, it doesn't matter what one's position is regarding the war if that position is darkly self-serving through anger and defensiveness.

Thirty years after my involvement with the peace protests which included being maced in a peace protest in the nation's capitol, I am now convinced that peaceniks did as much moral damage to our country as did the hawks of those days. I'll try to explain.

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship rests as much on how the Fellowship proceeds as on which particular position it adopts.


Pure means free from impurities or adulterants, full strength, containing nothing inappropriate or unnecessary, total and complete. An example of adulteration, making impure, would be to take a plate of Italian pasta with meat sauce, and pour ketchup on it. As persons we are called to be pure as the driven snow, pure as the feeling after taking a shower with Irish Spring soap. Since we are already contaminated by sin, the task is to allow God to remove the impurities.

Purity, then, is a process of subtraction. Christ lives deep inside our heart. We become pure by allowing the Lord to remove the admixtures, beginning with our busyness, eliminating the noise in our lives.

The claim is that the pure of heart will see God, in the eschaton as well as here and now, gradually and progressively.


The spiritual heart is located in the bodily heart, yet beyond it. The heart is the earth where the grain of mustard seed is sown, the sanctuary where fire burns, the field where the treasure is hidden, and the inner spring from which comes life giving water. The heart is the inner chapel where Jesus and I co-exist, where we co-habitate. Jesus and I have the same dwelling place, my heart.

Bishop Kallistos Ware says that we contain within our person the universe, not merely the galaxies light years away but the great universe of the inner space of the heart, which is incomparably greater than the outside universe and is in the depth within the human heart.

In the Orthodox view, the heart is the center of reasoning, where our thoughts begin and end, passing through the cerebral cortex on the way. Our society prizes the latest discovery in brain research, and neural circuitry.

The Orthodox view of heart is rather fully counter-cultural.

Purity of heart

The wide definition of purity of heart includes everything. Kierkegaard said purity is focusing on one thing, one thing at a time. Society today seems to idolize persons who can be multi-tasked, doing multiple tasks at the same time. The counter-cultural position would be to focus on one thing sequentially after another.

The narrow definition of purity of heart refers to sexual cleanliness. Some prominent theologians claim that sexual issues are the defining moral and ethical conflicts of our culture in our age.

Sexual Purity

I am now convinced that much of the damage done by the peace movement of the early '70s was its embrace of lust, euphemistically called free love.

The Fathers, and depth psychology, teach us that porneia (lust or impurity) is tightly knotted to thymos (anger or violence, war and killing). Porneia and thymos are two sides of the same coin, two manifestations of the same demonic passion surging outward. Where either porneia or thymos is, the other is close at hand, ready to erupt and damage other persons as well as oneself.

We live in a sex-saturated culture. We only have to watch an evening of prime-time TV, both programs and ads, or read the newspaper headlines about the sex-abuse by priests, or notice the lingerie ads on the back of a bus. Worse would be to go to almost any movie with the mandatory sex scene, or watch MTV for an evening, which many of our children do. We all swim in these cultural waters, and can't help but swallow some water as we live, and swim. We all have personal sexual demons, which we have to face.

There is one totally lost virtue, inside and outside Orthodoxy. That virtue is modesty. Just visit any swimming pool or beach for a wake up call.

The Orthodox believe that sex is good, but so good that it is only sacred in marriage, otherwise sex becomes vile. Orthodox Christians are not Puritans who teach that sex is inherently bad, and won't talk about it. The Orthodox vision sees sex within marriage as intimate, sacred and at times a robust act of loving another human person.

We all have a long, long way to go to acquire "purity of heart."

Facing Our Hidden Sexual Demons

Hidden demons can be consciously concealed from others, or hidden, unconsciously concealed from ourselves. We are clueless of their existence, like a latent, deadly virus in our bloodstream.

Many of us have become numb to sexual exploitation. As one theologian says, "Our threshold of tolerance toward sexual explicitness and exploitation has been lowered dramatically ... The spiritual and psychological toll exacted by this situation is incalculable."

We may not be doing something sexually sinful, but that does not guarantee that our minds and hearts are sexually pure. Perhaps we need to reflect on the enjoyment we experience during some of the TV love scenes, off color jokes, and sensual banter.

We may not be engaged in sinful, sexual behavior, but that doesn't mean that we zealously fight to teach chastity as leading to sanity, or zealously fight against sexual exploitation in so many ways. When was the last time we made a phone call or sent an e-mail to make our voices heard against offensive advertisements, some of which use children to send sexual messages?

Our youth need to know that we are appalled by sexual scenes, nudity and excessive violence. Our youth need to know this by our actions.

My personal commitment is to avoid films that feature nudity, sexual activity or excessive violence. My adult children now say to me, "Dad, I saw a good movie and even you can see it."

Our culture today lacks elders, adults who live by traditional values and try to teach those values to the youth they love. Elders are sorely lacking today.

Sexual explicitness, and permissiveness affects males and females. I believe that, basically, males are much more damaged by the sexual openness of today. The fire of male testosterone is inflamed, out of control, without sufficient vision of what is right and wrong, and without sufficient safeguards to provide sanity. Of course, females then become the objects of these emotionally-blind narcissists and, consequently, females suffer much more sexual abuse in childhood. Males can become love-cripples faster and easier than females.

I am also convinced that many women are totally oblivious to the severity of this damage in males. I've heard women say, "Oh well, boys will be boys," lightly dismissing the problem. This is too easy, because it excuses females from expressing disdain for such activities. Women's opinions are very important to men, especially about what is right and wrong sexually. In the meantime, males are fighting a cancer of the soul, which will eventually cripple their ability to relate to real women. Everyone then loses.

Women, especially young women, need to have their moral voices heard by men, especially young men. Women need to say, clearly and forcibly, "I really don't like those kind of movies ... I hate it when you talk like that ... Please don't ever do that again when I'm around."

Perhaps we need to radically change our choices in entertainment, as a start, towards purity of heart. Perhaps we need to radically alter the movies, TV and music we choose. Perhaps our own hidden sexual demons have contributed to the breakdown in modesty and purity in our families and parishes. Perhaps our hidden ? or not so hidden ? sexual demons radically skew our position on peace and war, one way or the other.

How do we begin to acquire purity of heart?

St. Isaac the Syrian says that it is better to acquire purity of heart than to convert whole nations from error. Bishop Ware says that St. Isaac means that unless and until we have gained some measure of inner silence, it is improbable that we will succeed in converting anybody to anything. St. Isaac also says that the only way to pray better is to pray more. That's the beginning. We acquire purity of heart by more quiet prayer.

What can we expect when we try to pray more? We can expect massive resistance. St. John Chrysostom says that when we try to pray more we "rouse the snake within us." He goes on to say that if we persist we "lay the snake low."

Prayer requires a certain kind of effort. The effort is delicate, not like making a New Year's resolution. The effort is a softening, an acceptance of a gift graciously given. Prayer demands weakness in order to become strong. Prayer stops our driven-ness and prompts us to yield to God's voice. God's voice is infinitely delicate and always resistible.

We might say, then, that prayer is a gift we open ourselves to. Prayer has more to do with yielding than with striving. Prayer is something the Lord does through us as we freely want to pray, to be prayed through. In this sense, we pray and we are prayed through by the Lord.

Non-Stop Prayer

The Fathers tell us that the "how" of living in God's Presence is "arrow prayer." Arrow prayer means shooting pointed arrows at God all day and all night long. When we rise in the morning or awaken during the night, the first thing we do is intentionally put our mind into our heart. One way is to say the classical Prayer of the Heart, the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer is: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." Some prefer the shorter version: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me."

We also need to spend some quiet time for a few moments every day, sitting in a chair with our bodies relaxed and eyes closed. Bishop Kallistos Ware says that if we spend ten or fifteen minutes a day in silent, repetitive prayer, our entire day would be transformed.

Unending Warfare

When we try to pray and live a pure life, we become embattled. The prayer of Christ is always happening around and in us, and a fierce battle against prayer is always happening around and in us. We cannot fight valiantly alone.

What do we do? By prayer we put our sword into God's hand, that He should fight our enemies, and overcome them.

The pilgrim in the Way of the Pilgrim said that, for him, ceaselessly repeating the Jesus prayer, was "sweeter and more precious" than anything in the world.


Taking seriously purity of heart as a norm for a position on war and peace is a call to action. Our first action, perhaps the most astonishing act we can dare to engage in, is more quiet prayer. Ardent, quiet prayer can turn the world on its axis, and, we believe, alter the course of wars.

The actions we need to avoid are those which spring from darkness and anger in our hearts, especially about war and peace. We also need to avoid involvement with others who espouse free or casual lust (called love) or who encourage anger as a means to accomplish a goal.

Beyond prayer, we can become more informed and more capable of finding appropriate ways of helping reshape local and national political and cultural structures. Through faith, the pure of heart believe they will slowly begin to see God, then and now. They also believe they can, by God's power and grace, make a difference in the pursuit of world peace.

Dr. Albert Rossi teaches courses in pastoral theology at Saint Vladimir's Seminary. He is a member of the Commission on Contemporary Social and Moral Issues of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA). He has written numerous articles on psychology and religion. He is the author Can I Make a Difference: Christian Family Life Today? (Paulist Press). After teaching at Pace University for 24 years, he retired as Associate Professor of Psychology. He is a licensed clinical psychologist in the state of New York. This is a slightly abbreviated version of the lecture he presented at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship national conference at St. Tikhon's Monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania, last summer. The full text is on the OPF web site.

from the Winter 2004/Theophany issue of In Communion, the yearly journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship

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