Even now, says the Lord, / return to me with your whole heart, / with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; / Rend your hearts, not your garments, / and return to the Lord, your God. / For gracious and merciful is he, / slow to anger, rich in kindness, / and relenting in punishment. / Perhaps he will again relent / and leave behind him a blessing, / Offerings and libations / for the Lord, your God.

Joel: 2: 12 – 14

And when you pray do not be like those who are playacting; for they love to pray while standing in the synagogues and on the corners of streets, so that they may be visible to all; I tell you truly, they have their recompense in full.  But, when you pray, enter into your private room and, having closed your door, pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father, who watches what is secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6: 5-6

On this Ash Wednesday, we are at first summoned by the words of Joel to “return to me with your whole heart.” When I was a boy, my mother would on every Ash Wednesday repeat the words of one of her colleagues at work.  “Oh, this is the day that all the Catholics come to work with dirty faces.” Unless the word “return” strikes us to the core of our being, all today is is the one on which we walk around with dirty faces.

There is much pathos in the call to return. For, to realize our need to return to God is to become fully aware of how far we have strayed from God and God’s call as the touchstone of our lives. This reflection is both personal and communal. If lent is to be worth anything other then the passing of time to get to Easter and spring, the end of our lives, or whatever else is our goal, we must begin it with a kind of brutal honesty that involves the suffering from our own falsehoods.

It is clear in the description of repentance that Joel offers that true repentance is not merely cognitive. Repentance, rather, springs from the awareness of the blessed and precious gift that is our life call and of all the ways that we find ourselves having wasted that gift and betrayed our possibilities. It is a time to face up to the truth of how often we have in the past and continuing in the present forsaken God’s love and God’s will for us in favor of acceptance, conformity, and laziness. It is time to stop fooling ourselves in all the habitual ways we have come to do so.  

The repentance to which lent calls us is really a most profound act of faith.  In my experience, to believe and trust that God is to be found in the truth of things is the most challenging act of faith. Most of the time we live by our illusions, our illusions of ourselves, of those we live among, and of the actual situation in the world. If we faced the truth of the threat to our childrens’ future and our very survival that climate change poses, we could not go on, as we do, with business as usual. If we could truly see the appeal of the others and the world to our true calling, we could never settle for the lazy and false form of niceness and mere co-existence that constitutes so many of our daily encounters.  

A teacher of mine used to tell us to stop acting as if we were so nice, because in truth we were not. Most of us “good people” have a hard time facing the truth that we are not just nice, good, justified. We are also selfish, lazy, self-alienated, possessive, violent, and so forth. The coming time of repentance is a time to dare to let ourselves be taught by the ways we live out those not so nice aspects of ourselves. Most of all it is a time for us, with courage and faith, to experience the distance between the call we are that comes from God and the ways we have lived and are living out that call.

As a “professed religious” I have always found the words we hear Jesus speak today in Matthew’s gospel very painful. He says, “And when you pray do not be like those who are playacting; for they love to pray while standing in the synagogues and on the corners of streets, so that they may be visible to all; I tell you truly, they have their recompense in full.” It is perhaps a mark of an outdated ecclesial pride that speaks of some persons living a certain a way of life as “public witnesses” to the love of God in Jesus. Throughout my life I know relatives, friends, colleagues, and so many others who witness to the truth of the Mystery of life so much more clearly than I do. I know families, societies, and other gatherings in the church and the world that witness so much more authentically to community than my “official” group does. I know how, on the one hand, we proclaim the need to love, and trust, and care for each other to the world, while we struggle so much to do this even minimally among ourselves.  

How presumptuous it is for us to claim to live as a “public witness” to the authenticity, community, and selfless service that is the life of the resurrected Jesus among us. How frightening to be “branded” as a community of brothers, when we so often fail “to mutually help, encourage, and edify one another and work together.” How painful it is to become aware that we live day after day settling for a superficial niceness with each other rather than real involvement and care. We make a public profession of the evangelical counsels, in part we say, to serve as a call to others to repent from the ways of the world and to turn their hearts back to God’s will and call for them. Yet, as much or more than those to whom we are to be witnesses, we resist and refuse the call to repent and to change our ways personally and communally. We expend our energy justifying our past and our present, self-promoting our habits of living and choices even in the face of a reality that challenges them.   

Jesus says don’t pray in public but rather “enter into your private room and, having closed your door, pray to your Father who is in secret.” Who are we, what do we think, how do we feel when nobody’s watching? When we get beneath all of our social appearances and attempts to be respected and significant in the eyes of others, what is left? At least in part, what I know to be left is the still little child who suffers, fears, yet also stands in awe of the Mystery at the heart of life and world. It is a child who has been and is hurt over and over by the world. It is a child who experiences moment to moment a fragility and fear that so often drives him to appease and attempt to impress others, to evade his duties for fear of failure, to struggle with resentment and hatred of those by whom he feels belittled.  

At a moment in the course of psychotherapy, I had a frightening but transformative experience. I saw myself not as the adult I was at the time, but rather as an infant crying, actually wailing, uncontrollably. When we go to our room in secret, where there is no one but God to see us, I think we all, each in our own way, recognize that infant in us. So much of what we do and how we behave is the result of our suppression and repression of that child. We spend our lives creating an identity as an adult and for the world around us that, in large part, is meant to cover over that child.  

This is the problem with the call to be a public witness. It is because we attempt to witness to the Mystery, to the love of God in Jesus, as the adult “imposter” we have created. So, we wonder why our relationships with each other and the world are so erratic and often inauthentic. We wonder why we seem to drag ourselves through our lives rather than experience the energy and life force of our deepest call. What we get wrong is that it is as the child that frightens us that we we are called to witness. The Cross tells us that redemption and love are expressed in the most extreme vulnerability. Of course, it also tells us that the outcome of such a truthful and vulnerable work and presence will not end “well” as the world measures. Human beings are most afraid of their own vulnerability, of that child that they know they truly are, and so they will attempt to kill off whoever reminds them of that vulnerable child.

Adrian van Kaam has said that prayer and therapy both change our relationship to the child in us. When Jesus says to enter into our private room, where we will encounter the Father, we shall encounter that Father or Mother as the child that we are. When Joel tells us to “return to the Lord, your God,” he is telling us to return to the child who knows his or her need for the Father or Mother. When I saw before me that child, whose uncontrollable wailing terrified me, I was seeing the source of that eros and life that God would desire to use to propel my love and care for others and the world. So often, I forget to return to the secret place where I know that child as who I am and discover, quite ironically as my adult self thinks, that what I have spent my life distancing from is where I am closest to the source of my life and call. So, when Jesus says that it is the one who receives a child who receives him and the one who sent him (Mark 9: 37), he is speaking of our need to repent from being the “big person” we have created and to return to the life we have with him, a life that frightens us in its need and intensity, but which is the truth for us.

Blesséd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

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