An icon of the Desert Fathers
This Word we have received today from Jeremiah, could well claim to be summary of all of the Hebrew Scriptures. Here you find, covenant that God established with Israel – “I will be your God and you will be my people”; the Law, which was the sign of the covenant. Israel’s unfaithfulness or inability to keep that law, the consequences of that in God’s response and his promise to make things new.
This passage was loved and treasured by Israel, together with another Word from Ezekiel. That spoke of a similar promise, and you know its importance because we will read that during the Easter Vigil. Jeremiah’s word came to them at their lowest point in history, in exile. Their land had been plundered by a pagan nation and their Temple, their pride and joy was burned to the ground; their lives had been uprooted as they were taken away into a foreign land. And Israel knew why all this had happened, because the book of Deuteronomy already prophesied it. Deuteronomy was the core of the Law, the Torah. It warned people that their hearts were hard, and they were rebellious within, unwilling to submit to the Law of God. If they failed to keep the Law, they would eventually find themselves in exile. And now the promises or threats had come true.
This hard-heartedness was not simply Israel’s problem. It was the problem of all mankind, who had inherited the Fall of Adam of which Israel was the representative. It is our problem. While Deuteronomy speaks of their rebellion, this was not rebellion, for rebellion’s sake like many of us today. Israel loved the law. It was their heritage, their constitution and the sign that God loved them in choosing them as his own. On it, they were commanded to meditate day and night. They were not let it depart from their mouths (Ps 1:2, Joshua 1:8). But the Fall meant that man’s heart had become so fragmented, that neither Israel nor anyone else – us – are simply able to live as God calls us to, with our own best efforts. Even the prophets, the saints of the Old Testament – many of whom were supernaturally purified, like Isaiah and Jeremiah – found it torturous, to bear God’s Word. Jeremiah complained that the Word was like a fire consuming his bones (Jer 20:8). And God already knew this, and His saving plan was already unfolding. In Jerimiah, we see God explicitly promising to do what only he can do, that he would give them a heart which would have the capacity to receive his Word and to be his people. And Ezekiel spoke of God taking away their hearts of stone and replacing them with new hearts, of flesh. Of washing away their sins. And putting God’s own spirit in them. This spirit within, would be the new law. Hundreds of years later, they would come true, with Jesus.
On the Cross, Jesus, the Son of God, the Law in person, changed places with Israel and with us. He took the place of a sinner and we that of the Son of God. We receive this promise in our baptism. Our sins were washed away and God put his Spirit in us. He renews that healing in the Eucharist. That is what only God can do – but that is just the beginning. We have a part to play.
We have been forgiven, but we retain the effects of Adam’s Fall, the disintegration we call original sin. The Fathers speak of how the personal sins we commit, our vices, intensify these wounds within us. We don’t need convincing of this. We just need to look around and at our own lives to know this. Is there a remedy? Absolutely.
The Desert Fathers diagnosed this acutely. The Spirit received in Baptism and the Eucharist needed to be given space to work in their hearts to heal it. It was what started their movement into the desert. And there, they used the same medicine given to Israel. They meditated on the Law day and night. How? By praying the Psalms. The Psalms are not simply prayers that someone composed, these are Scripture. That means they were written by the Spirit of God. And when these are prayed, the Spirit accompanies these words. In the desert, they prayed all the 150 psalms each day, as they worked. The Law was in their mouths, it would not leave their lips. This is what it means to meditate, in Christian terms. It is not first and foremost imagining anything, or reciting ‘mantras’ or ‘emptying oneself’. These things might have value in themselves, like focusing the mind and so on. But to meditate in Scripture, is to keep the Word in your heart and on your lips. And as they did so, the Word went into the heart, reforming it; it allowed the Spirit to work, mediated by the Word. As they recited it constantly, the Word worked to free the heart from all its fears, healing its wounds and reforming the deformation caused by sin. Cleansing the heart. The Fathers believed that this prayer worked, even as one slept – ‘I slept but my heart was awake’ (Song of Songs, 5:2). It came to be known as the ‘Prayer of the Heart’ (see an excellent introduction, here).
Over time, this practice of praying the Psalms as medicine, went into the monasteries with the regular recitation of the Psalms throughout the week. Priests continue this in the Divine Office. In the West, for lay people who did not have access to the Psalter, it developed into the Rosary: the 150 beads were a representation of the 150 Psalms. The Rosary is beautiful and powerful, but it is difficult to pray it constantly, as St Paul commanded. Today, happily, we all have access to the Scriptures.
This promise of a reformed heart, has come to you and me. Does your heart need healing? Cleansing? Maybe this week, open the Psalms. Within the psalms, you find prayers for every situation you can encounter. Take up a verse which speaks to you. Keep it in your heart and frequently recite it during the day. O Lord, come to my help! (Ps 141:1); I lift my eyes to you! (Ps 121:1); Give me a clean heart. And many more. You will find over time, it changes you. It puts you in touch with God’s presence. And forms in you a clean heart.