Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God (Joel 2:13).
Jesus’ call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, “sackcloth and ashes,” fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures, and works of penance (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1430).
WHAT DID YOU GIVE UP FOR LENT?
This perennial question seems to occupy a prized place during Lent, and the answers we often hear are chocolate, alcohol, meat, smoking, and the like. But what if we heard responses like this:
♦ I gave up obsessing over what people think about me and performing endlessly to get approval.
♦ I gave up my covetousness and my insatiable desire to buy more things.
♦ I gave up my lust for power that drives me to immoral behavior regularly.
When we get stuck on the “exteriors” of Lent, we can easily miss the point — that the whole purpose of Lenten penance is not self-punishment or even self-denial, but interior repentance, which the Catechism describes as “a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with a repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed” (1431).
Strong language, right? But truly, for such an interior shift to take place, we must first have an honest look at what’s in our hearts. How is this possible? It happens through the Church’s time-honored practice of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, which are meant to help us evaluate and rectify our relationship with God, self, and neighbor — in other words, all of the relationships wounded by sin.
The key to such an inner glance lies in the same paragraph of the Catechism: We don’t depend on ourselves to see our inner reality, but instead we “hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace” (1431). Such grace occasionally comes as a holy shock to our system, jolting us to radical reorientation and conversion, as it did with my late husband, Bernie.
A HEART RENT IN TWO
2008 was the year Bernie’s heart was literally and figuratively torn asunder. It started two days before Christmas when he suffered a massive heart attack, “the widow maker,” which generally kills its victim in less than three minutes. While the cardiologist could only mutter, “I have no explanation for why he is alive.”
Bernie somehow miraculously survived not only the enormous trauma to his heart, but also the subsequent surgery to reopen a completely closed stent in his main artery. Sadly, cardiogenic shock and congestive heart failure soon set in, along with the failure of Bernie’s lungs, liver, and kidneys.
Things looked exceedingly bleak as we approached the new year. “No hope,” was the diagnosis doctors gave my comatose husband at 10 p.m. on Dec. 28, given that Bernie was in total organ failure with uncertainty as to whether he had any brain function left. After calling a priest to administer last rites, our family gathered around his bed to usher him to God with our love, prayers, and presence, being assured by doctors that he wouldn’t make it through the night.
Surprising all of us, especially the medical staff, Bernie survived the night, even though the doctors had to shock his heart three different times in the wee hours of the morning to keep it beating. I had a strong sense that Bernie had died that night, and I was certain it was only our prayers that had kept him alive. Bernie lay in a coma, barely clinging to life, for the next excruciating month.
A RADICAL AWAKENING
One miraculous day, against all odds and predictions, my husband opened his eyes, earning him the name “Miracle Man” among the medical staff. Within days he was speaking, and I was finally able to ask the one question that had been burning in my mind for weeks as he lay comatose in the cardiac intensive care unit: “Did you meet Jesus?” Yes, he nodded soberly. “Well … what did he say?” I pushed, unable to hold back. “He didn’t speak in a language we use on earth. I’m not sure I can even articulate what he said,” was all he offered.
Days later, and quite unexpectedly, Bernie calmly asked, “Do you want to hear about my near-death experience?” “Yes!” I replied excitedly as I pulled a chair beside his hospital bed to listen attentively. “Judy, I died, and I clearly remember it,” he began as I held my breath. “I was looking down on my dead body, and I could see my wounded heart. I could see that my heart was torn in two — half of my heart was beautiful gold, and I knew it represented all of the things I had done in my life that were pleasing to God. The other half was dark blue, and it looked like ugly debris. I knew it represented all of the things I’d done in life that were not pleasing to God.” Bernie shared that he’d had to choose one side of his heart, and that after much struggle he finally chose the gold side. When he did, he followed a gold light all the way to heaven.
Shockingly, when he got to heaven, he wasn’t permitted to enter. Instead he was sent back by God to make amends, as he said, “to God, my life, and the people in my life.” Coming back, he passed through the dark side of his heart, encountering frighteningly horrific “creatures” that proceeded to assault him in terrifying ways. “How did you resolve it?” I asked, completely spellbound. “I surrendered to God,” he said, emphasizing each word. “And when I did, I was given food, air, and water, and I had so much peace,” he continued slowly and deliberately. “Judy, this is my purification. And I need it.”
Bernie’s theophany brought about a remarkable interior transformation in him that left one mantra on his lips: You have no idea how much God loves you. A stunning confession from a man for whose conversion I had prayed for 25 long years — a man who, because of his own wounding in life, had never truly known or experienced God’s tender love and mercy.
In spite of the darkness Bernie encountered on the other side, the overarching reality of God’s immense love was that much greater. Which is precisely the point the prophet Joel made, even as he admonished the Israelites to return to the Lord “with [their] whole heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning” (Joel 2:12):
Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God, For he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love (Joel 2:13).
THE ‘REND’ IN SURRENDER
While I tell the entire miraculous story at length in my book, Miracle Man (Dickinson Press/DPZ Technology, 2013), suffice it for now to say that Bernie’s hospital experience was a true Lent, culminating in a beautiful, holy death on March 15, 2009. Through an extraordinary show of God’s grace, Bernie saw with great clarity the condition of his heart, as we all are invited to do during Lent. He was given the graced opportunity to “make amends” in his relationships with God, himself, and his neighbor — the same relational areas our Lenten penances of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are meant to help us honestly confront and heal.
Bernie also learned through his heavenly encounter that what the Catechism states is true: “[The] same Spirit who brings sin to light is also the Consoler who gives the human heart grace for repentance and conversion” (CCC, 1433). For the Lord does not shed light on our sinful hearts to shame or destroy us, but to beckon us to turn away from sin, to turn toward him, and to surrender ourselves completely to his love. It is telling that the root word in surrender, which means “to give oneself over,” is rend, which means “to break.”
The rending of our hearts is meant to break our hearts open in order to break our attachment to sin, which in turn frees us to give hearts over to God more fully. What generally stands in the way of such total surrender to God is our allegiance to lesser gods: the people, places, and things through which we seek the happiness and fulfillment that only God can give. Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) said it this way (and his questions give us a powerful meditation to prayerfully ponder this Lent):
In what then, do we place our trust? In what do we believe? Have not money, power, prestige, public opinion, and sex become powers before which men bow down and which they serve like gods? Would not the world look different if these gods were to be deposed from their thrones? (The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God, Ignatius Press, 2008)
Indeed, the world would be quite different if these idols were ousted from their thrones, starting with our own hearts. With that in mind, what are you giving up for Lent?