Saturday, March 19, 2011



The gospel for Friday of the first week of lent is from the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:20-26). It reads in part:

"I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, 'Raqa,' will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, 'You fool,' will be liable to fiery Gehenna.”

The principal problem seems to be that the “righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” is external. There is nothing wrong with that, of course: since we are embodied creatures we need rites and rituals, symbols and sacraments; our external actions are crucially important. But Jesus challenges us to go beyond our external observances and look into our hearts.

In his Rule for Monks Saint Benedict places an emphasis on interior attitudes: when you obey, for example, your external obedience doesn’t count if your heart is grumbling. When you sing, he warns, be sure that you are not just singing words with your voice, but also with your heart.

We are all used to the idea that lent is about “doing” things, giving things up, adding extra practices. Back when the Lenten fast was six days a week some people would carefully measure how many ounces they ate at their two smaller meals, so as to be sure that the two didn’t add up to more than the third, largest meal. Lent was measured in ounces and in the number of prayers said and the chocolate bars we didn’t eat. This reminds me a little of what Father Mark, our physics teacher, would sometimes say to his students to remind them that for Christians there is a lot more to reality than the visible world of the physical sciences: “Frankly,” he would confess, “if you can measure it in the lab, it’s not ultimately that important.”

In order to balance the emphasis on external, measurable practices during lent, we might look at Jesus’ invitation to go beyond what is measurable. I think of what the fox told the little prince in Saint-ExupĂ©ry’s book by that title: “On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”You only see well with your heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.”

Steps toward an Interior Lent

So then, what might an “interior lent” look like? Here are some thoughts about "changing my heart":

- I can keep an eye on my thoughts by looking into my heart in search of any little walls that might be starting to grow up between me and a brother or sister; walls start out as footings, beneath the surface and barely visible; they are subtle attitudes that can, however, quickly grow into walls that eventually cut me off from others.

- I can sit quietly each day with a scripture reading and ask myself what its message is, what it says to me about my life.

- I can cultivate an awareness of the world around me during lent, and cultivate the habit of constantly thanking God for the goodness and beauty that surround me but that often go unnoticed and unappreciated.

- You may find some more suggestions in a post I made last lent and think of many better ones on your own.

The "lent of the heart" will, of course, show itself in external actions, but this approach will help us avoid the criticism that Jesus made of the Pharisees, who did things externally without changing their hearts. It also has this advantage: these practices are ones that really could or even should be continued even once lent is over. They are simply good things for us Christians to do if we wish to grow closer to God.
..................“You only see well with your heart.
..................What is essential is invisible to the eyes.”


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