Jesus drew criticism from his opponents because he and his disciples failed to wash their hands and purify themselves and their eating utensils when they came in from the street to eat a meal. The rebuke was directed at their failure to observe ritual prescriptions, but those prescriptions, like many of the dietary laws inherited from the biblical law codes and their later interpretations by teachers of the law, certainly offered practical protection against disease. The contemporary lists posted everywhere online about ways to protect ourselves from the corona virus echo that ancient wisdom. Jesus did not actually tell his listeners not to observe the code for physical protection, but he put them in perspective: quit worrying about making sure that everything that you take in has been properly purified and pay attention instead to what you put out from the depths of your hearts. He warned against hearts that produce “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.” His list would make quite an examination of conscience for Lent!
The monastic tradition drew on Jesus’ wisdom in reading human hearts to produce a succinct description of what became the central goal of monastic spirituality: make your first aim purity of heart. Unfortunately, more modern spiritualities have sometimes narrowed that down to avoiding impure, that is, sexual thoughts, but as Jesus’ list shows—and he gave several of them, as did St. Paul—the biblical and monastic traditions take a much wider view. Danish philosopher whittled the various lists down into a simple definition of purity of heart: to will one thing. St. Benedict, centuries before, identifies that one thing very clearly for his followers: prefer nothing to the love of Christ. Keep Christ – who is God’s love made flesh—and the love that binds Christ to us and us to Christ right in the forefront, and the rest of the list will take care of itself. It’s a question of focus and attentiveness, which the monastic tradition calls “mindfulness.” Easier said than done in our busy world, with attention grabbers bombarding us form every kind of screen and every kind of loudspeaker. Multitasking, not singleness of focus, will get you to the top, they tell us! (Behavioral sciences have begun to discredit that bit of wisdom!)
As we enter into the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, we may already have drawn up a worthy list of Lenten resolutions to keep us on the right track, the track of conversion of heart, so that we have a deeper sense of what we mean when we renew our baptismal vows at Easter. (This is the custom of the Catholic Church among others, but if your church doesn’t offer the opportunity to renew your vows publicly in a church ritual, you can certainly recommit yourself to living the life of Christ in your own prayer.) But it might not hurt to take a moment on Ash Wednesday to review the list to see how it serves our central priority as Benedictines as well as Christians: keep this one focus before you always—preferring nothing to the love of Christ.
Mark 7:1-23 and parallels in the other Gospels
The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 49. The entire chapter is devoted to Lent with a focus toward Easter.
Also, Leo Tolstoy left us a story that illustrates the single focus of the pure heart. It’s called “The Three Hermits.” You will find it here: Three Hermits--Tolstoy