Tag Archives: Ash Wednesday

Readings for Ash Wednesday

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. (JL 2:12)

There is an interesting nexus of psychology and spirituality in the readings for Ash Wednesday as observed by the Roman Catholic Church. The first reading from The Book of Joel talks about authentically returning to God. This is to be done with your “whole heart.” That is, without mental reservation or purpose of evasion to use the language of the Presidential Oath of Office. Nor is this to be done through compulsion but of one’s own volition. We are told to “rend [our] hearts, not [our] garments.” Again, the actions (specifically fasting, weeping and mourning) must be accomplished on the deepest level of the self as opposed to making a show of action or pretending to act. But what exactly is the action we are to take? What does it mean to return to God whole heartedly? It seems the action of fasting is an act of self sacrifice. It is intentionally taking on discomfort as an act of devotion to a greater good above the self. The weeping and mourning suggest that there is sadness and loss in a return to God. Are we mourning the loss of our earthly lives and desires? Are we mourning the loss of the self? Is this not something we should readily give up without a sense of loss? Perhaps if one is honest there will always be a sense of nostalgic loss anytime one is either separated from God or returning home from this separation.

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them;
otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
When you give alms,
do not blow a trumpet before you,
as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets
to win the praise of others.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you give alms,
do not let your left hand know what your right is doing,
so that your almsgiving may be secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. (MT 6:1-6)

In the Gospel reading Jesus speaks of not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing when giving alms. In other words Jesus instructs us not to let the ego take credit for the act of charity as a means of self aggrandizement. This is not merely giving alms in secret so that other people do not see you and give you credit for the act. This is giving alms (in a sense) in secret so that your self (i.e., ego) does not take credit for the act. Again, we are talking about authentic action but perhaps even a level deeper than what Joel described. In this way, your Father who sees in secret will repay you. In a sense this might seem to be an act of trickery – that is, the ultimate goal is to receive payment from the Father who sees in secret. But if we are to follow the theme of authentic action to receive authentic results then this payment by the Father who sees in secret cannot be a kind of payment that the ego would find pleasing. It must be an authentically Good and True form of payment. It is as if Jesus is trying to explain something selfless and non-egocentric in the language of the ego as if that is the only language his disciples could possibly understand.

 

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Lent : Your father who sees in secret will repay you

The three lines in the readings for Ash Wednesday that stand out to me are “Come back to me with your whole heart” (Joel 2:12), “Rend your heart not your garments” (Joel 2:13), and “Your father who sees in secret will repay you” (Matt 6:4). All three lines emphasize honesty over appearance. They recognize and expose a fact of life that I do not often admit to. That is, the way I present myself to the world is very rarely the same as my own internal experience of myself. The father that sees in secret can only be myself or an outside entity that knows the inner workings of my heart and mind. Either way I must be honest and whole-hearted with him. Anything less is pointless.

Lent is the time to set things right with myself. To come back to God and myself with my whole heart is freedom from ego. The symbolic way to do this during Lent is to “give something up.” To sacrifice by giving up those things that I may like in the short-term but do not serve me in the long-term is liberating, not burdensome. I firmly believe giving something up should be voluntary. If I am not acting of my own volition, I am not acting with my whole heart. To turn away from sin is to better myself. Loving God and loving myself amount to the same thing. The opposite is true as well. A shame oriented person would give something up to appease someone else. A non-shame oriented person acts with their whole heart. Giving something up is an act of devotion both to himself and to God.

Lent is a time when I feel closest to God. It is a time when I feel the most spiritual and physically healthy. I do not know God. To be strictly honest I must say that I am agnostic. But I fall more on the side of believing in God than not believing in God. I certainly want to believe in God and there are times when my faith is stronger. I was raised in the wishy-washy world of post Vatican II Catholicism in the United States of America. Religion did not take ahold of me when I was young. I do identify with its symbols, mythology and rituals; Lent chief among them. They are all I have spiritually and I do not want to let them go. I need them to approach the infinite unknowable of existence. I do not want to be an atheist. Feelings have a lot to do with it. Believing in God feels truthful to me.

Lent is a time of year I look forward to. It is a time of spiritual renewal and transformation. It is too bad I cannot feel that way all year round because when I feel that way I feel content and grounded. For me, Lent is a time of opportunity to better myself by coming back to God with my whole heart. It is a time I do not want to waste.

 

 

 

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Ash Wednesday – Motivation by Shame or Heart

There are two forms of motivation; shame and heart.  Shame motivates through the fear of humiliation.  Heart motivates through the true love and desire to do something.  It is a Catholic tradition to give up something for Lent.  Giving up something motivated by shame is a burden and difficult because it is not truly what is desired.  When a person is motivated by shame they seek to avoid humiliation.  Their actions are not directed towards their true desires.  On the other hand, giving up something motivated by heart is not the same kind of burden because it is an act of devotion and the act itself is desired.

The readings for Ash Wednesday describe this.  Joel 2:12 reads:

Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning; Rend your hearts, not you garments and return to the Lord, your God.

God does not want praise that is motivated by shame.  God wants authentic, whole-hearted praise.  Likewise, the true self is never motivation by shame because the true self can only act authentically.  It is the ego that is motivated by shame and acts inauthentically.  In truth, both God and the true self desire motivation by heart because they are the one and the same and they are the heart.

Matthew 6:6 reads:

When you pray, go into your room and close the door and pray to your father in secret; and your father who sees in secret, will reward you.

Who is this “father who sees in secret”?  I would say, of course, it is God but it is also the true self.  It is the true self that knows truth and knows your true desires and therefore acts authentically.  The true self does not act motivated by shame.

When I was young I felt compelled to give something up because I thought I would be a bad person if I did not.  My motivation was shame.  I did not understand the readings.  I don’t think the people instructing me in my religion understood the readings either because they were all motivated by shame.  People motivated by shame seek to pass their shame on to others.  They believe this is morality.  They believe shame binds and upholds civilization.  But if participation in religion is to have any meaning or saving power it cannot be by shame.  It cannot be done half heartedly and inauthentically.  It has to be whole-hearted and authentically.  Organizations can be held together through shame but shame can never be as powerful a binding agent as heart.  Furthermore, shame takes all the joy out of life.  On the other hand, acting with heart creates joy and is its own reward.

And so I enter Lent whole heartedly.  I give up my vices because I truly want to live free of them.  I want to glorify God, my true self, my father who sees in secret.  It has taken me 43 years to get to this point.  I cannot regret that fact because regret is another form of shame and any form of shame is not aligned with the true self.

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