I’ve gone through many changes in my relationship to the ashes that mark our foreheads at the beginning of Lent.
When I was little, they brought me the distraction that the extraordinary always brings to children. You got to go up the aisle with adults and got a black mark on your forehead and returned to your pew caught up in the feeling that something peculiar had happened to you.
You didn’t understand it, but it felt special. Then you could stare at everyone in church and go home and examine yourself in a mirror. I was always slow to wash them off.
In my early teen years, fighting inside of myself to integrate the fact that several young people around me had died, the idea of getting ashes put on my forehead, complete with the formula— “Remember, dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return!”—both frightened and repulsed me. It reminded me too much of death.
During those years, I was most quick to wash them off after leaving church.
As a young seminarian, going through the years of first fervor within religious life, the ashes of Lent took on deep meaning. They reminded me of the young and saintly deaths of Therese of Lisieux and Gabriel the Passionist—and they reminded me that here we “mourn and weep in this valley of tears” and that it is best not to put all of our stock in this world. Again, I was slow to wash the ashes off.
Later, as a post-Vatican II seminarian and a young priest, I went through a phase where, again, I thought the whole practice of receiving ashes (and especially the formula about dust and death) was morbid. I guess the rest of the church felt at least a bit the same because the church changed the formula and made the bit about returning to dust optional.
What the church should have been emphasizing, I felt then, was not death and sin, but resurrection and love. Those years I didn’t even wait until Mass was over before pulling a handkerchief from my pocket and wiping the ashes away.
Several years ago, for many reasons, a connection formed in my mind between those ashes and call to social justice. The ashes symbolized the burnt and crumpled lives of the poor. Again, I wore ashes with pride and was slow to wash them off.
This past Ash Wednesday, I felt altogether different about ashes. They symbolized, for me, so much of my own life that has been burned and reduced to ashes—certain dreams, a naïve innocence, youth, a sense of power over my life, a sense of my own goodness and moral adequacy.
Feeling more than a little dislocated and inadequate, I took the ashes and was in no particular hurry to wash them off—nor was I thrilled by leaving them on. After all those years and all those changes, this year, for the first time, I felt like I was sitting in the ashes.
When I look at all of this, I see that through these years the ashes have been very patient with me! They’ve challenged me and have, like God himself, been most accepting of my reaction.
I see too that, irrespective of how I felt about them, I needed them and the reaction they caused in me spoke loudly of what demons I was meant to meet in each particular Lent. This year, it seems, they want me to sit myself among them. What does it mean “to sit in the ashes”?
In some Indian tribes they used to live in communal longhouses. In the centre of these longhouses the roof opened to the sky and the fires that were used for heating, cooking and light were lit under that opening.
Sometimes a certain tribe member would be going through some phase in his or her life and would, for a period of time, long or short, sleep (not in the beds) but at the edge of the fire, in the ashes. During this time, he or she wouldn’t wash or do his or her regular work.
It was understood that they needed to be “in the ashes,” that some dislocation had rendered them powerless to go on with business as usual and that some silent inner work was going on inside of them. Always, after some time, they would one day wash off the ashes and return to regular life (and a regular bed)… usually full of a new energy and power.
The ashes of Lent can be those kind of ashes for us. They invite us, among many other things, to leave our regular beds and tables to sleep and sit patiently for a while in the ashes at the edges of the fire so that some silent, inner, gestation process can teach us what it means that we are dust and that we are invited to turn from sin to the Gospel.