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Advent/Christmas seasons are ideal times to approach God with undivided hearts

By Deacon Mark Plaiss

 

      My lectio these days finds me in the book of Sirach, one of my favorite books in the Bible. Sirach is packed with gems like this: “…do not approach him [God] with a divided mind.” (Sir 1:28) This translation is from the NRSV and differs somewhat from the NAB).

      I like this chunk of wisdom, because for my money, it is foundational to prayer.

      Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and you notice the person with whom you are speaking is glancing at his watch, or shifting his eyes to look at something else, or mindlessly saying “yeah, yeah” to anything you say? Irritating, no?

      That’s because the person with whom you are speaking has a divided mind; he is not giving you his full attention, but is, instead, distracted, and he is unwilling to ignore those distractions in order to focus solely on you.

      Prayer is focusing solely on God. Just as you want the full attention of the person with whom you are talking, so God wants our full attention when we pray to him.

      But that line from Sirach goes far deeper than mere distractions and lack of focus. The nugget of the aphorism from Sirach is about duplicity.

      Jesus refers to it as having a “clean heart” (Matt 5:8), and the ancient monks (Cassian, for example, in his “Conferences”) called it “purity of heart.” Today, we often refer to it as “compartmentalization.”

      Biblical or monastic, ancient or modern, what is at stake here is this: We cannot approach God and at the same time hold back from God. We cannot give God glory, praise and petition and at the same time know in the back of our minds that we are going to live a life that is the antithesis of God and his Church.

      One cannot delude oneself into thinking that I can give a large portion of myself to God, but purposely put into a “compartment” a chunk of myself that “belongs to me” and “out of sight” from God. Such a life betrays an unclean heart, an impure heart.

      But we do so anyway, right? We all have our sins in which we enjoy indulging, but we rationalize them away by telling ourselves how wonderful we really are because of all those good things we do for the Church. You know, telling ourselves: “I’m not such a bad person. I go to Church on Sundays and holy days. I pray. I give money to the parish. I volunteer at the parish a lot.”

      And then we provide ourselves with the punch line that vindicates the whole illusion: “I deserve to have this. It’s my reward for being so good otherwise.”

      “Do not approach Him with a divided mind,” says Sirach.

      But, we do so all the time. We often prefer to walk a double path: God’s path and our own path. There is only one path, God’s path. Our path is an illusion, an idol we create for ourselves. The idol is far easier with which to deal, hence our preference for it.

      I am convinced that a lifetime is required to root out this delusion. Some people dig it out sooner than others. We often call such people saints. But, extract it we must, for only the clean of heart will see God.

      Still, uprooting the duplicity does not exhaust the idea of purity of heart. Tranquility, a sense of peace, is also the product of a clean heart. Psalm 23:2 provides a good image of such tranquility: “He gives me repose” and “near restful waters he leads me.” Psalm 131, too, paints a picture of tranquility: “A weaned child on its mother’s breast, even so is my soul.” An infant at its mother’s breast has no other concerns. A tranquil soul stems from an undivided heart.

      How do we achieve this purity of heart? Scripture, prayer and humility. We are in Advent. Christmas is practically here. What if, over these two seasons, you and I delve into all that -  spend some time with the Gospel of Luke; break open the Song of Songs; delight in the Book of Sirach?

      Or we can start at Psalm 1 and read one psalm, or a portion of a long psalm, per day. Go to Adoration. Pray the rosary. Read the works of a great saint, like Thérèse of Lisieux. Drop by a monastery. Dive into the Liturgy of the Hours. Take a walk in the woods. Ponder and be still. Cling, trust and hope in the Lord.

      Don’t be divided. Be whole.

      Merry Christmas, Church of Gary.

     Deacon Mark Plaiss teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, Ill. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

       

         

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