Friday, March 3, 2017

The human heart is deceitful beyond all things; beware the danger of 'externals.' (Reflections on the Gospel of Friday after Ash Wednesday, Matthew 9:14-15)

“The human heart is deceitful beyond all things”, the prophet Jeremiah warns us (Jer. 17:9) 

Our readings today invite us to consider whether our external practices are consistent with the inner disposition of our soul, with the psalmist proclaiming that it isn't so much the externals that God delights in, but in a heart "humble and contrite".

“Never mistake the peripheral for the essential; never lose sight of the substantial because you’ve gotten lost and consumed by the marginal”. 

These are words of advice I received as a seminarian from my spiritual director. They might as well be words Jesus spoke to the religious leaders of his time who often forgot the true reasons behind the countless rules they followed. 

The externals, of course, aren't unimportant, but they’re of secondary importance. And we must learn to see beyond them; for they can distract us and draw us away from the true substance of our life, our faith, and our vocation that ought to be our true concern. 

Worse—because as the prophet Jeremiah says—“the human heart is deceitful beyond measure”, we can, without even being aware of it, use them to hide the areas of our lives that need the purifying fire of God’s grace instead of getting buried beneath a pile of trappings and trinkets.

I had a friend at the seminary who was ordained a few years before me. He spoke several languages fluently, was very intelligent, extremely meticulous to the point of scrupulosity—especially about the liturgy, and was always decked in the trappings of clerical life. We used to tease him about loving ropes, lace, gold embroidery, and what we called ‘clerical jewelry’. He began wearing fiddle-backs and birettas long before they became fashionable again. 

In 2001, he invited me to visit him. After having lost contact with him for several years after he got his doctorate, I was happy to be seeing him again. Three of us went to see him. Happiness, however, turned to bewilderment and even anguish when we met him. He had left the priesthood, had left the Church, and had taken a partner.

I haven’t spoken to him since. But it has always served, for me at least, as a reminder that unless we are honest and sincere, unless the externals of our lives are consistent with our internal reality, we will always be in danger of becoming like many in Jesus' time: lost in the peripherals having forgotten the essential—or worse, using the peripherals as a cover to hide things that are inconsistent with our commitments. 

And so I leave you with the same words of advice my spiritual director gave me when I told him about my distress concerning my friend: 

“Never mistake the peripheral for the essential; never lose sight of the substantial because you’ve gotten lost and consumed by externals”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)