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.