The Second Thursday of Lent
“More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?” The “heart” here means something more than what a scientist might call “the hollow, muscular organ in vertebrates that pumps blood”. The Lord is talking about a deeper heart, the heart of our true self, not of our body. He goes on to say, “I, the Lord, test the heart”, meaning our inmost being.
In the rich man of today’s parable, God saw a heart corroded with the rust of worldliness, riddled into caverns by conspicuous consumption and greed, so that he could not spare any scraps for the poor man at his door. When the rich man dies and was buried, he was compelled to see his heart as God saw it. That was his torment in Hades: to know that the shriveled-up thing he had within him, a prey to the vilest of diseases, was indeed the center of his being, his very heart. He “relied on things of flesh”, and his “heart had turned away from the Lord”. That is “the way of the wicked”, and it leads to the place of torment.
But the parable isn’t meant only for those who dress in fine linen and feast magnificently every day. It applies equally to those who in any way set their heart on transitory things, who seek the praise of others more than the praise of God. Even a virtue like humility can be just a dramatic pose, something done to elicit the praise of others, which we can then proceed to feast on every day.
The desert father Barsanuphius didn’t have much patience with that attitude when he detected it in the heart of his correspondent John. John had written to him saying, “I know, father, that these things happen to me because of my sins and that I am a fool and that all my troubles are my fault”. Barsanuphius wrote back (I almost said shot back): “You call yourself a sinner and yet you do not believe this, judging from what you do. A man who holds that he is a sinner and the cause of his own troubles does not go around contradicting people and fighting them and getting angry with them”.
You don’t have to be rich on order to live for other people’s admiration, or even for your own admiration of yourself. These are all ways of relying on “things of flesh”, and letting your heart turn from the Lord. Self- dramatization of whatever kind – like wondering if you’re sufficiently woke – is often a result of worldly anxiety, which comes from a failure to really trust in the Lord. The whole point of today’s readings could be summed up in the phrase, “trust in the Lord, whatever happens”. So many of our troubles arise because we fail to trust in the Lord, and so our perverse heart distorts our way of seeing things and our reactions to things. Instead, let us love the Lord with all our heart, for it is in the measure of the purity of our hearts that God finds in us his dwelling place.