When human hearts become flame, they move away from one of two states: stone or fat. Fat hearts are lazy and disinterested. Stone hearts get stuck in ideology.
A heart in flames moves, changes and expands and grows.
That’s the underlying message of “When Hearts Become Flame,” a new book by Columbus Orthodox Christian Stephen Muse, a therapist and the pastoral counselor training director at the Pastoral Institute. Muse will sign copies of his book Tuesday at the Pastoral Institute, where books will also be sold.
Formerly an ordained Presbyterian minister, Muse officially became Orthodox in 1993 and helped found Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Columbus. Now on Gilbert Avenue, it was Columbus’ first Orthodox congregation.
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The book is a compilation of encounters in pastoral counseling, and in his personal life, that challenge him to interact with others on deep levels. As such, Muse wants the book itself to create connection.
“This book is really something that I hope will invite a response,” he said.
Encounters with God and others ideally shouldn’t happen solo, Muse said. If Christians believe God is a Trinity, that connotes relationship. And relationships can be rife with struggle.
“Our spiritual struggle, or warfare, is not just in the inner world but is existentially with the powers and principalities that St. Paul talked about. There’s an aspect of justice: For example, what are the invisible forms of economic life that are sources of oppression? Who occupy our jails invisibly? These are things we don’t want to look at, which are indicative of a sort of post-traumatic spiritual disorder.”
In this book, Muse quotes from the late Rev. William Sloan Coffin: “All nations make decisions based on self-interest and then defend them in the name of morality.” A test of democracy, Muse writes, “is an engagement in critical self-examination, but when self-examination threatens to call to account the larger hidden power structures and entrenched privilege that have been operating outside our own laws without accountability to the people, intense resistance arises.”
More positively, the walk of several disciples along Emmaus Road describes a different and more enriching encounter. “In the story of the walk to Emmaus -- they are having a conversation with someone who at first they see as a stranger but gradually as they talk, their hearts turn to flame, where people have a genuine human encounter.
“If we go through that ourselves, we can offer it to others,” Muse said.
In therapy, sometimes people are facing “a challenge or an encounter or an intrusion like an illness or death or loss. Sometimes it’s just a new person moving into our neighborhood and at the core, do you want a dialogue or do you want to create an illusory island of safety? This is spiritual capitalism -- ‘I got mine, you get yours.’ ”
“Most people I see come in order to let their hearts break, and they need a place to do that. They are wanting to face something. It can take one session or 10 years.”
For sure, it’s intense work.
“Dialogue is hard because love is hard,” he continued. “If I encounter a beggar on a street, part of me wants to give him my life, which is a mark of God’s presence. Another part wants to high-tail it out of dodge. This is how we are divided -- like a moth wanting to enter the flame of love and also wanting to run in the other direction to protect what we think we have and are.
‘We can find God together’
The book is suited not only for Orthodox Christians and pastoral counselors, but all believers who are interested in relationship as a means to encounter God, Muse said. Day to day, most of those encounters for him come through his clients. “They are wanting to face something. It can take one time or 10 years.
“I’m Eastern Orthodox, but part of the dialogue is that if I’m uniquely me, I can be wide open to you. This is where, in pastoral counseling, we can find God together. The paradox of theology and love is that we all suffer from the same syndrome -- sin. If I don’t get to know the log in my own eye, how can I get to know you? And the log in my own eye is me, my entire experience. So, to know Christ, I need to encounter others who are not me.”
Such a journey is costly, said Muse, who’s worked at the Pastoral Institute for 19 years.
“The way to growth is through hell with and for the sake of the other. I don’t think it’s possible to have servant leadership without going through hell for another. It takes two. Sartres said ‘the other is hell.’ I think it was Paul Ricouer who said: ‘The way to the self is through the other.’ I would say the Christian path to life is through hell for the sake of the other. As Martin Buber said: ‘Monologue is Lucifer.’ The way to hell is alone.”
Hell for this therapist was seeing his parents suffer. What has been the cost to him? “Well, it began with a father who had paranoid schizophrenia, and with my mother’s illness. She died at Duke Medical Center after years of suffering. At her funeral, her physician told me, ‘Jean was the sickest woman we ever treated at Duke Medical Center.’ It broke my heart that nothing we ever did helped her.
“In my own work, there’s a terrible pain with people you can’t fix. People who come to me whose children have been murdered or (who) killed themselves, who have been incest victims. Their questions with God become your questions. Each person affects you. Your life is a constant spiritual reflection. If you are truly open to people, you won’t be like Job’s friends and run away or talk them out of it by trying to offer them spiritual bromides. Job needed someone to go with him into the spiritual whirlwind so he could put his heart’s question to God.
“The satisfactions are so immense in this work, but there is a cost.”
Muse has found in Orthodoxy a view of God and worship that’s more mysterious than in Western Christianity generally.
“Eastern Orthodoxy is not a Western post-Enlightenment position. We don’t know God by thinking about God. We have to encounter God experientially. This a challenge to Western views that put reason ahead of existential engagement. We are heavily influenced by the rational scientific method but there’s also supernatural charisma that can enlighten the heart, that goes beyond reason. Christianity is not a philosophy or a good idea. It calls us beyond the created order.”
Muse wrote the book in pieces, “taken from experiences and talks I’ve given and work I’ve done in pastoral care and counseling. I’m hoping it will be used to spark dialogue. I hope it spreads like a weed. I hope it will open up dialogue enough to have an encounter with each other and with Christ, that goes beyond reason.”
The book has been published in Germany and England and a publishing house in Russia wants it. “It’s having worldwide reach,” he said.
“When Hearts Become Flame” is on the Top 20 on Amazon for Orthodox books and in the Top 50 in pastoral counseling. It’s been out about a month.
Where does Muse want it to go? “Time will tell because you have to see, with any book, if enough people find it valuable over time,” he said. He’d prefer it “stays out there for awhile and not become a flash in the pan. If people get excited about it, that can be a distraction.”
The book was published by the Orthodox Research Institute in Rollinsford, N.H.
Muse holds a B.A. in philosophy from Davidson College, an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from Loyola University of Maryland in Pastoral Counseling, and has done post-graduate work in marriage and family studies through the University of Georgia.