Reconstitution of the Heart as a Spiritual Discipline – Ash Wednesday and Beyond

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10

Last week and on Ash Wednesday, there was another school shooting – this time in Parkland, Florida.  Among the heartbreaking images, was of an anguished parent.   A cross of ash was etched across her forehead while her right arm clutched another woman overcome with terror and grief.    As if hitting the replay button, a crescendo of news flashes and responses from DC and elsewhere followed:

“Let us hold those affected in our prayer,”
or “Our thoughts are with the students, parents, teachers and first responders,” and this,
”Now is not the time to talk about [the lie that shackles the very institutions charged with protecting its citzenry].”

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right Spirit within me,” wrote the psalmist.

Take note there is no mention of cleansing the heart. Nor is the psalmist’s petition to amend or correct it.
Instead, its author implores the Creator God to act…decisively.

We know that the Holy Writ sees the heart more than a mere organ within the human body.  As the seat and foundation of human personality, the heart is the determiner of one’s ability to differentiate and understand, impacting the choices made even when the welfare of the many is at stake. But this same heart when diseased behaves as scar tissue. It becomes wholly desensitized. Reduced to cauterized tissue: the heart becomes hardened, unable to distinguish truth from fiction, the material from the merely trivial, the indispensable from the consumable.

Going back in Biblical history, the repercussions that come with the hardening of the heart are well documented.  One extreme example is recorded in the Book of Exodus – where chapter one records what had been a pattern of lethal violence directed at children.   Years later, Moses, who had raised in the royal household, is sent back to Eygpt by God to confront Pharoah. However, even on the heels of this directive – Yahweh cautions him – lest Moses hold onto the expectation that reasonableness and good intentions will be sufficient to change the despot’s disposition.

“When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform all the wonders I have put in your power; but I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” (Exodus 4:21)

Given the devastating implications, why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? For that matter, why would God harden anyone’s heart? Or could the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and the vast multitude of pharaohs since then be the inescapable outcome of their cruelty; a callous indifference kept under a guise of respectability?  Was what ailed Pharaoh then a malignancy; that insatiable and diabolical malady that renders senseless any appropriation towards the good, the just and the peaceable?

So what of us, who are summoned to confront the pharaohs of our day? What of us, tasked with unmasking the pretense of religiosity and self-righteousness; who speak for the marginalized, the foreigner, the forgotten, and this fragile, blue planet we call home. We whose hearts are also at risk of being hardened, by the very forces we face.

Perhaps the reconstitution of the heart is a necessary spiritual discipline – not only for those whose hearts are hardened – but those of us who are at risk. What if last week’s alignment of Ash Wednesday AND Valentine’s Day was not coincidental at all?