There Your Heart Will Be Also

Ash Wed HeartIn The Episcopal Church, every year the same readings are appointed to be read at the services on Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent.  For years, I have visited these same readings over and over:  Joel, 2 Corinthians, and Matthew.  They are, in many respects, dense texts, offering a variety of possibilities to the would-be preacher.  Each year, as I stand on the precipice of Ash Wednesday, I wonder how those texts will speak to me yet again — and, a little part of me is perhaps a bit scared that this might be the year that they don’t speak to me at all.  Thankfully, that year was not this year.

The text that speaks to me today comes at the very end of the readings, the last few words for Ash Wednesday from Matthew’s Gospel:  “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”   There your heart will be also.   What does Jesus mean when he speaks of the heart?

In the biblical context, and, indeed, in religion and spirituality generally, the heart is usually understood to refer to the center of our being, our most authentic self, the point of our being where we find ourselves in God and God in ourselves.  While I honor that ancient notion, I have also found myself understanding the term “heart” somewhat differently.

For me, the heart has become not the center of who we are, but rather the center of our attention or consciousness.  And as our center of attention or consciousness, the heart can dwell either in the spacious grace of God’s loving energy or in the restricted and constricted space defined by our fears, grievances, worries, and preoccupations.  In other words, our heart can either be centered in the light or in the shadows.  The choice is really ours to make, and what Jesus suggests to us in this passage from Matthew is that we will make that choice based on what we treasure.

The season of Lent is, in many respects, designed to bring us face to face with the truth about the choices we generally make as we go through our lives day by day.  How often do we choose to treasure our fears and worries, grievances and preoccupations, and allow those energies to dominate our heart, to dominate our attention and consciousness?

It is not that God is disconnected from our fears and worries, but rather that when our heart dwells among them, we loose track of God’s connection to our lives.  The noise of all that preoccupies us drowns out the still, small voice of God that whispers within our depths.  And what does that voice whisper within us?  It whispers the one truth about us that is more important than anything else:  that we are Beloved.  That we have always been the Beloved of God, and that we always will be.

This truth of our beloved-ness is what defines that space of divine grace and love within each of us, and when our hearts our centered in this Beloved space, then we experience God’s love as a movement of forgiveness, generosity, and compassion — we experience the freedom of knowing that in God’s eyes, we are good enough.  We experience the freedom of knowing that we do not have to strive to earn God’s love — rather, we simply need to allow ourselves to experience that love, to relax into God’s spacious grace.

If you attend an Ash Wednesday liturgy, you would be forgive for perhaps being left with the impression that God’s love is perhaps not as freely given as I have suggested.  I have to admit that I struggle a bit with that liturgy on an annual basis, since it focuses very much on sin and “wretchedness”, on our failure to choose the light over the shadows, on the many ways that we treasure the small world of our fears over the spacious world of God’s love.  But I have come to see the Ash Wednesday liturgy’s preoccupation with the shadow part of ourselves as a kind of therapeutic tool that is meant to push us to get in touch with what, exactly, we treasure, and where our hearts are hanging out.  This liturgy serves as a kind of wake-up call that brings us face to face with our own mortality, challenging us to see how much energy we put into the things that moth and rust will consume, rather than in our relationship with the God who names us as Beloved.

With that therapeutic value, comes the risk that this liturgy will send us away feeling guilty and defeated.  But I am quite sure that is not the invitation that God makes to us in Lent.  God, I think, wants us to leave this liturgy awakened to the reality of how often we allow ourselves to miss the truth of our Belovedness, and prepared to meet the challenge of really embracing that truth and all that it means for us.

For me, this year, that invitation takes the form of a question:  What do I treasure?  And what does that say about where my heart is?

What do you treasure?  Where is your heart?

The readings appointed for Ash Wednesday are Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.

Seeing God in the Rearview Mirror

rearviewmirrorIn a recent edition of The Mendicant, the regular newsletter of Richard Rohr and his organization, Center for Action and Contemplation, Fr. Richard reflects on his recent experiences being diagnosed with and treated for prostate cancer.  He writes,


About ten days after the surgery, during my attempt at some spiritual reading, I opened the Bible to that obscure passage in the Book of Exodus, where Moses asks Yahweh to “Show me your glory” (33:18), and Yahweh shows it in a most unusual way.  “I shall place you in the cleft of the rock and shield you with my hand until I have passed by.  Then I shall take my hand away, and you will see my backside, but my face will not be seen” (33:22-23).  In several sermons, I have used that verse to teach that our knowledge of God is indirect at best, and none of our knowledge of God is fully face-to-face.  God is always and forever a Mystery.

This time, it was not the indirectness that hit me in this passage, but the afterward-ness!  My best spiritual knowing almost always occurs after the fact, in the remembering — not seen “until [God has] passed by.”

While I have not yet had to face the sort of health crisis that Richard Rohr was reflecting upon, I nevertheless find that my own experience of noticing the presence of God is very much like his:  that mostly I don’t really see that God is in the midst of something until after the fact.  Only by looking behind me, as I reflect on the bits of my life that have passed by, am I able to see how God is a part of my life.  It seems much harder to notice that presence in the unfolding now.

It strikes me that perhaps this is why sacred scripture is always written after the fact.  The writing of a scriptural text — whether the author is conscious of writing this sort of text, or whether the text is later declared sacred by the community after it was written — is necessarily an act of remembering, at looking back over moments of communal and individual life that have already passed by.  And as those moments are remembered and “locked into place”, so to speak, by the written word, the presence of God is seen and interpreted in the very act of remembering.

One of the fascinating qualities of sacred text is that stories are often and even usually told as if they are enfolding before the author’s very eyes.  But, of course, that is not the case.  Rather, the author is crystallizing the memory of the event about which he is writing as that memory has been passed down to him, and the stories are written as though God’s presence and role were quite clear and obvious to everyone who experienced that event.

I suspect, however, that ancient people’s experience of the sacred was not terribly different from ours (with the very notable exception of their generally having had a greater openness to the sacred).  I suspect that they, too, found it hard to notice the presence of God in the unfolding now, just as we do.  But as they remembered these events and looked back on them, they could — like us — see where God was present in them.

Even this practice of seeing God in the rearview mirror, however, remains a limited sort of seeing.  As Rohr says, following St. Paul, our knowledge of God is never face-to-face, and God remains always and forever a Mystery.  Part of what makes our knowledge of God partial is that we only ever see God through our particular lens or frame of reference, and that necessarily limits what we are able to see in the first place.

Yet this does not diminish the power of our sacred remembering, and the discovery of God’s presence in the moments of life that have gone by.  In Hebrew thought, to remember something is not just to recall an event, but it is to bring that event into the present, as if we ourselves were actively a part of what we are remembering.  It is in this sense that Christians celebrate the Eucharist — as an act of sacred remembering that makes the presence of Christ with his disciples at the Last Supper available to us in the unfolding now of our lives.

If you find it challenging to discover the movement of God in your own life, spend some time looking in your life’s rearview mirror, and see if you cannot find that movement in the act of sacred remembering.