An interesting little phrase in the psalm for this coming Ash Wednesday – something to ponder as we begin Lent, the traditional season for spiritual self examination. ‘My secret heart’ is how King David puts it, after he has fallen from grace and been brought up short for his adultery, by the prophet Nathan.
‘You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart’ (Psalm 51:6).
The secret heart was the place where he had previously convinced himself that his actions were justified, and isn’t it always like this? Our capacity for self deception would appear to be limitless. We kid ourselves, we prevaricate, we imagine others are in the wrong and we are fine. God hasn’t seen, so keep on smiling.
But then the conscience, the nagging voice. In David’s case the voice of a wise and critical friend. Be honest, was it really like that? Were you really in the right and the other person in the wrong? How have you kidded yourself this time?
The theme of secret is echoed in the Sermon on the Mount, also set for Ash Wednesday. It concerns prayer, and not the kind of half chatting away whilst going round the shops that I seem to do a lot of. This is prayer in the secret room. ‘When you pray, go into your room shut the door and pray to your father who is in secret’ (Matt.6:5).
It’s in the secret place, the heart, where real spiritual work is done. Where we review the day and search our reactions. Where we address the negative thoughts and sad feelings and face them down, even if it means embarrassment. Forget set prayers and reliance on past growth. Where is God now?
Whatever we do during Lent, be it giving up alcohol, social media or chocolate, it’s in the secret heart where we need wisdom and where spiritual change actually happens. Wisdom for self awareness, wisdom for decision making, wisdom for humility, without which nothing is clear.
When we receive the ashen cross, we mark our foreheads with the truth that we are dust, but redeemable. We can only pray to live this truth outwardly, but also, crucially, inwardly, in the secret heart.