In preparing the music for the celebration of Mass on Ash Wednesday, I studied the readings for the day. One short phrase in the Old Testament reading struck me. “Rend your hearts, not your garments” (Joel 2:13), the prophet, Joel, tells the Israelites. Specifically, he was speaking to those who followed the law of Moses as a prescription rather than as an authentic way to grow closer to God – following the letter rather than the spirit of the law. Of course, Joel is now speaking to us. I know that I have heard this message before, but the question for me is, “How can I think about it differently or more deeply?”
The word, “rend” from Old English, means “1: to remove from place by violence: 2: to split or tear apart or in pieces by violence 3: to tear (the hair or clothing) as a sign of anger, grief, or despair 4a: to lacerate mentally or emotionally b: to pierce with sound c: to divide (something, such as a nation) into contesting factions.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
So, we have a profound, yet succinct, message in two parts at the start of Lent: first, to make a “dramatic” change of heart.
As I consider the challenge, to tear our hearts apart into pieces figuratively means that we are to make permanent change. There is no way of going back, because we have “torn up” the old maps and directions of how to do things and have reassembled our lives with a “new heart.” That sounds like a huge undertaking that takes significant concentration and energy! I do believe that real change does require much effort, and often takes time.
I think about the conversion stories of Saint Paul and Saint Norbert - both men falling from their horses, renouncing their old ways of living and turning to God as the central focus of their lives. It is true that life-changing events happen in our lives; however, I don’t expect permanent change in me to happen so suddenly and dramatically. I believe that permanent change for many of us happens more slowly and subtly over time as daily old habits are left behind and new ones are formed through deliberate meditation and prayer. For me, Lent is a time to reflect and begin to make the changes I want to make in my life, but the process of change, if authentic and permanent, will extend well beyond the 40 days of this Lenten season and the process of change will become a part of my life’s journey.
The second part of the message is that we should make changes in our lives without fanfare or bringing attention to ourselves. Rending garments is certainly an outward expression of strong emotion, and it would be better to focus that energy inward.
I continue to be amazed at the discipline of some individuals. Whether it is a physical exercise regimen, a work ethic, a vocational outreach or cause, the focus and attention on specific goals helps sustain and build up the daily energy required to realize these goals. Like building up callouses on a classical guitarists fingers, pacing and hydration in a marathon runner’s race, or a master chef’s perseverance to recreate or invent a recipe, these individuals lean into a routine that initially causes scrapes, bruises, mistakes, and failures, but eventually develops into measurable change.
So, as I consider “rending my heart” as the season of Lent begins on March 6, I reflect on those things in my life that I want to improve and consider why I want to make change. How will I be a better person? How does the change help others with whom I live and work? Joel has laid out a tall task in just a few words, but the task is worth taking up. I pray that all of us who do so find what we need along the journey.