We enter the season of Lent by putting ashes on our foreheads. What’s symbolized here? Perhaps the heart understands better than the head because more people go to church on Ash Wednesday than on any other day of the year, including Christmas. The queues to receive the ashes in many churches are endless. Why? Why are the ashes so popular?
Their popularity, I suspect, comes from the fact that, as a symbol, ashes are blunt, primal, archetypal, and speak the language of the soul.
Something inside of us knows exactly why we take the ashes. No doctor of any kind needs to explain this. Ashes are dust, soil, humus; humanity and humility come from these. Ashes have always been a major symbol inside all religions. To put on ashes, to sit in ashes, is to say publicly and to yourself that you are in a penitential mode, that this is not “ordinary time” for you. Smudging oneself with ashes says that this is not a season of celebration for you, that some important work is going on inside you, and that you are, metaphorically and really, in the cinders of a dead fire, waiting for something fuller in your life.
All of this has deep roots. There’s something innate in the human soul that understands, understands that every so often, one must descend, be smudged, lose one’s luster, and wait for ashes to do their silent work. All ancient traditions, be they religious or mythical, abound with stories of having to sit in the ashes. For example, we all know the story of Cinderella. This is a centuries-old, wisdom-tale that speaks about the value of ashes in life. The name Cinderella itself speaks to this. Literally, the name Cinderella means, “the young girl who sits in the cinders, the ashes.” Moreover, as the tale makes plain, before the glass slipper is placed on her foot, before wearing the beautiful gown, before going to the ball, before dancing with the prince, and before marrying him, there must first be a period of sitting in the cinders, of being humbled, of being waiting patiently, while you are being readied for a sublime joy and consummation. In the story of Cinderella, we can see a spirituality of Lent.
Native American traditions too have always had an important place for ashes. In some Indigenous communities, there was the concept that occasionally someone would have to spend time in the ashes. Nobody knew why a specific person was called at a particular moment to sit in the ashes, but everyone knew that this was a natural thing, that ashes do an important work in the soul, and that eventually that person would return to his or her regular life and be better for having spent time in the ashes.
To offer one example: Certain native communities used to live in what they called longhouses. A longhouse was the communal building, in effect, the house for the whole community. A longhouse was long, rectangular, with large sloping sides, with the center of the roof open so that this could function as a natural chimney. Fires were kept burning, both for cooking and for warmth, along the entire center of the longhouse. People gathered there, near the fires, to cook, eat, and socialize, but they slept away from the fires, under the roofs that sloped down either side of the open center. Every so often, a man or a woman for reasons they didn’t have to explain, would cease adhering to the normal routine. Instead, he or she would, become silent, sit just off the fire in the ashes, eat very sparingly, not social, not go outside, not wash, and not go to bed with the others, but simply sit in the cinders.
Today we would probably diagnose this as clinical depression and rush that person off for professional help. For their part, they didn’t panic. They saw this as perfectly normal, something most everyone was called upon to do at one time or another. They simply let the person sit there in the ashes until one day he or she got up, washed the ashes off, and began again to live a regular life. The belief was that the ashes, that period of silent sitting, had done some important, unseen work inside of the person. You sit in the ashes for healing.
The church taps into these deep wells of wisdom when it puts ashes on our foreheads at the beginning of Lent. Lent is a season for each of us to sit in the ashes, to spend our time, like Cinderella, working and sitting among the ashes, grieving some of the things we’ve done wrong, refraining from the dance, refraining from the banquet, refusing to do business as usual, but rather waiting in patience as some silent growth takes place within us. Lent is a time to be still so that the ashes can do their work.
And we need not understand exactly what the ashes are doing. They have a long history of being very patient with us.