My Yearly Rant
The circle of the year brings us back to that frightfully mistranslated line in today’s first reading: “More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? (Jer 17:9). This is something that I cannot let pass by, not because I am bent on picking at the lectionary, but because I would not want even one of you to go away today thinking yourself beyond remedy. So allow me to rant.
Not Beyond Remedy
When I first encountered the distressing phrase in the 2002 edition of the American lectionary, I knew instinctively that there was something wrong with it. I opened my Latin lectionary, the official text of the Roman liturgy, and there found the human heart described not as beyond remedy, but as inscrutable. Pravum est cor omnium et inscrutabile: “The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable” (Jer 17:9).
Can you think, even for a minute, that God would ever declare the human heart beyond remedy? What then of the redemption? And what of grace? Can you imagine God, our God, saying to anyone at all, “You are beyond remedy, irreparably damaged; I can do nothing for you”? It’s enough to push one off the edge into the deep dark pit of despair! Such is not my religion, and such is not the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ. No one is beyond remedy.
Devious and Perverse
Look at other translations of Jeremiah 17:9. I already said that the Vulgate has, “The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable.” The King James has, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” The Jerusalem Bible has, “The heart is more devious than any other thing, perverse too.” My Jewish Tanakh, translated from the Hebrew, has, “Most devious is the heart; it is perverse.” The New English Bible has, “The heart is the most deceitful of all things, desperately sick.”
The Italian lectionary has this: Più fallace di ogni altra cosa è il cuore e difficilmente guaribile. Difficilmente guaribile — now that I can accept!
Shame On The Translators
I am absolutely willing to admit that the human heart, and mine first of all, is capable of being perverse, deceitful, wicked, devious, and desperately sick, but I will not admit that any human heart is “beyond remedy.” As a priest, I cannot imagine hearing a confession so horrible, so dark, so wicked, as to merit the terrible words: “beyond remedy.” On this one half-verse, the lectionary translators really struck out. Shame on them!
Restorer and Lover of Innocence
The circle of the year also brings us back to today’s Collect, surely one of the most beautiful of the Lenten series:
O God, the restorer and lover of innocence,
direct the hearts of your servants unto yourself:
that being enkindled with the fire of your Spirit,
they may be found both steadfast in faith and fruitful in deed.
“O God, the restorer and lover of innocence. . . .” God loves innocence, and loving it wants to restore it wherever it has been compromised, corrupted, stained, or stolen. It is a beautiful thing to call God “the lover of innocence,” but it is even more beautiful to call him “the restorer of innocence.” The heart, even the most desperately sick of hearts, can begin to beat with hope again in hearing God addressed in this way. For our God, “the restorer and lover of innocence,” no heart is beyond remedy.
The Collect goes on to make its petition: “direct the hearts of your servants unto yourself.” Dirige ad te tuorum corda servorum, says the Latin text; it means, “direct the hearts of your servants towards yourself,” or “put the hearts of your servants in the way that goes straight toward you.” Saint Augustine’s unforgettable words from the beginning of The Confessions come to mind: “Thou has made us toward thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in thee.” The human heart is easily misdirected; we ask God to put our hearts on the track of happiness, to direct them toward himself. We ask him, in a word, to convert our hearts.
The Fire of the Holy Spirit
The Collect then adds, “that being enkindled with the fire of your Spirit. . . .” It is striking, this allusion to the fervour or fire of the Holy Spirit in the second week of Lent. The fire of the Holy Spirit is an image more usually associated with the liturgy of Pentecost. What today’s Collect suggests is that as soon as a heart is directed to God, “the restorer and lover of innocence,” it is warmed by the Holy Spirit. The heart directed away from God is like a house with no southern exposure. The heart with no Godward exposure becomes a cold heart. Lenten conversion places us, like so many little chicks, under the Spirit’s brooding wing, there to be warmed by divine love. You know the plea of the Pentecost sequence: Fove quod est frigidum — “Warm the chill.” Once warmed by the Holy Spirit, the heart begins to change. The heart touched by the fire of the Holy Spirit will be firm and steadfast in faith. Firm in faith, it will become effective in deed. We can take “effective” here to mean fruitful. “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples” (Jn 15:8).
No One Beyond Remedy
“Beyond remedy”? Perish the thought. Take to heart instead the word of Holy Father Benedict that faithfully echoes all of Scripture: “Never to despair of God’s mercy” (RB 4:74). The God who loves innocence will find a way to restore it. No one, absolutely no one, is beyond remedy.