The heart is but a small vessel; and yet dragons and lions are there. There likewise is God, there are the angels, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace; all things are there. ~ St. Macarius the Great
The human heart: deceptively replete with dragons and lions, but also the raw material of heaven—angels and the treasures of grace. I wish I’d had a little plaque with St. Macarius’s words at the head of my babies’ cribs when they were tiny. Perhaps then I wouldn’t have been so caught off guard later on, when angels seemed in short supply and dragons appeared to rule.
I wrote about my daughter’s dramatic expression of her deep unhappiness as a teen (“Law of Universal Gravitation”) a couple of years after the fact. For months I could hardly think about that day without the superstitious foreboding that by recalling or playing over the events in my mind, the awful thing might be set in motion all over again. Once I finally applied good, solid words to my nebulous grief and fear, the thought occurred to me that what had happened could not kill me, nor would it. Neat rows of words that made fair sense helped dissipate my own self-condemnation and my terror of the dragons my daughter was fighting.
The change in perspective I got from the writing reminded me of the time as a kid after I’d seen a particularly traumatizing vampire movie and kept the covers up to my chin every night for months. Then a very hot summer was upon us, and I could no longer bear this ritual. I threw back the sheet and told the vampires to come and get me, because I no longer cared. It was only after this relinquishment the imaginary blood wraiths finally dissipated.
The man who wrote of the human heart as a habitation of the evil as well as the godly ought to know of what he speaks. A disciple of St. Anthony (father of Christian monasticism), Macarius spent years in the arid Wadi of Egypt doing battle with both internal and external demons, as was the wont of the Desert Fathers in general. Here was a Christian clearly not in denial about himself.
Tradition has it that when Macarius first arrived in the desert, he heard the words, "God has given this desert to you and your [spiritual] sons for an inheritance." Most people don’t think about parenting in terms of a desert. The contents of a T.V. commercial for the latest family SUV is more to our liking, with plenty of seaside getaways, putt-putt golf in coordinated outfits, and endless camaraderie and laughter to fill our days. But I’m beginning to relax with the idea that when it comes to learning the ways of our children, a desert of mystery is more to the point of reality. And though the scary animals are present, there likewise is God.
(Painting by Paolo Uccello)
- Read Jean's essay, "Law of Universal Gravitation," in Relief 7.2. Purchase here.