Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ashing up on Ash Wednesday

It’s Ash Wednesday, a holy day for Christians, a day when we go to church to get ashes smeared on our foreheads with the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Ash Wednesday signals the beginning of the season of Lent, a time for reflection and awareness, giving up excesses and/or taking on life-giving works of some kind. It’s not a bleak, dismal time to be miserable. Lent leads us up to Holy Week and the last days of Jesus’ life on earth, his crucifixion on Good Friday and Easter, fifty days to recognize resurrection, new life in flowers, births, healings and simple smiles where there were frowns.

For some of us it takes more than fifty days to digest the idea that there is a God who loves and cares about you and who brings life out of death of any kind.

Back in the eighties and nineties when I worked in Connecticut in a big city hospital and then in an alcohol/drug rehabilitation facility I used to take ashes to work with me just in case. . . Just in case? People came out of the woodwork, sought me out, spotted me walking down the hall, swarmed. They had a passion for ashes. I was swamped. I could easily have advertised a drive-by ashing station and accepted little donations for the chaplaincy program.

I was astounded and exhausted, turned into ash myself by the end of the day. Imagine such a day being popular! I thought it must have been the times. Back then the Church and its rituals were more in vogue. But a chaplain friend in the Boston area told me that the same thing was going on today. Ashes, ashes. She felt practically assaulted with the demand and her ash supply nearly ran out.

What’s it all about?

Ash Wednesday is a day in which we recognize and acknowledge our mortality, one of life’s few indisputable guaranteed facts. Human beings are vulnerable. We grow old and die. We have limitations, need a day to remember that we are not divine, not Godde.

That fact is a duh. But why is it so meaningful to remind ourselves of that fact? Why do people need those ashes, ashes from the burned palms of last year’s Palm Sunday, the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem full of life and vigor to preach his vision and ended up on his way to trial, condemnation and crucifixion.

I don’t know why this day above all others, this ritual above all the Church's one-day remembrances, commands such attention, such need. I wonder if it is because the secret at the heart of so many, at least in developed Western cultures, is that we really do harbor the illusion that we’re immortal, invulnerable, godlike and can do anything we want, as if the old hymn “How Great Thou Art” were written for and about us.

No one would ever tell such a secret for fear of being thought arrogant. But I wonder if in this culture the belief that we are great has, after years of therapy, affirmations, depression meds, and positive re-frames, finally replaced a former secret, we are unworthy?

Maybe during Lent we could reflect on the possibility of our own arrogance, our own successes and prides. Give up success for Lent. Not to put down or shame, just to put things in the right balance. Such a humble undertaking could be the beginning and the end of soul-gratitude— a deep bow, not a quick nod.

* * * *

Someone just asked me what giving up success for Lent would look like. I could only tell her what it means to me which is making a concerted effort and focus in my daily prayer/meditation time not to allow anxious thoughts about one day getting my memoir published to flood my heart and head and give me a virtual stroke.

I do this by copying how Jesus prayed in Gethsemane: praise and trust (Abba, for you all things are possible,) stating his own will and desire (remove this cup from me,) letting it go in trust to God (Yet not what I want but what you want.) An honest prayer. Jesus doesn't get what he wants; he dies anyway but Godde raises him up. His life lives on. His failure becomes success.

My issue is penny ante compared to Jesus' but I pray something like: Dear Godde I love you. You know more than I do.Here I am again. I want my memoir to get published and I want to stop worrying about it so I can write the thing well. Please help me. I'm trying to trust your greater deeper power in me. Is trying enough? I love you. AMEN.

My brain allows this to last about five minutes but it also allows me to reaffirm my intention and turn back to Godde—usually with a laugh instead of a tear or a guilt pang.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Godde's Valentines

Valentines come in many ways. But I remember being nervous when the day was honored in school. Did I get one for everyone? Should I stuff several extra ones in the boxes of favorite people. True loves? How many will I get? What if I don’t get at least the same number as the number of students in my class? Someone doesn’t love me? Do I have to give one to her?

Love can make you a nervous wreck. You can get heart trouble over it. That’s because you need love to live.

Godde’s valentines aren’t competitive; they are all over the place; they are available to anyone who can notice. You find them in the oddest places. They are the ones that say Love isn’t dead, neither am I. Notice and live.

I’m retiring, leaving. I’m sad because I will miss the love I have had here in work and play, people and landscape. I’m glad because I will have more time to write, have fun in the city, lunch long, read, actually have seated conversations with my husband, see kids and grandkids, get older and maybe nap. In fact I will be doing just what I do now only with more leisure and freedom.

Good byes mean loss of love to me. How many farewell discourses are attributed to Jesus in the New Testament? Full of reassurances and last minute brush-ups on the gospel message. The final I love yous. Is this the early church bolstering itself up, grieving, worrying about who will love them now? Mmmhmmm.

For almost every weighty good bye, one that has love in it, there is a proposed plan to “keep in touch” call and write, visit. We are sure we will keep our promises and usually we don’t. Not because we don’t want to but because we get captured by another phase of life and we keep moving.

Preparation for all this leaving makes me both vulnerable to love loss and extra sensitive to and appreciative of its presence. Just calling the phone company to terminate my office service I felt loved, cared for when a person called Claire spoke to me for real. “I’ll connect you with the disconnection department," she said. Immediately I was on hold, tortured by a most unappealing repertoire of music.

Love went away.

The disconnection department! A paradox of the day. Do we need to be disconnected electronically to realize how much we need to be connected in the flesh?

A man spoke to the officer in the bank. He had forgotten his PIN number. “I know it. I tried it a couple of times and the machine didn’t work.” The officer brought up his transactions on the computer. “Well, sir, it looks like you made a number of stabs at it.” She showed him, not a trace of sarcasm in her voice or eyes. He roared with laughter. “Must be twenty or more tries there!” They laughed. “I’ll reset the PIN and the machine for you, sir.”

A friend told me recently that he'd complained to his therapist that his wife asked him to do things in a critical way. It turned him off, made him resentful. The therapist said he understood completely. “When my wife speaks it’s like God to me. But sometimes I just don’t like the tone.”

National Grid has been installing new and safer gas pipes on our street. For weeks. Bulldozers sleep here. Sometimes we have to park up the road. “I’m so sorry about all this inconvenience,” the worker, covered with grease and looking exhausted, said with a smile.

I’m noticing such little divine Valentines all over the place. Simple easy reassurance that love is everywhere if you notice. It always connects you with truth, often brings laughter or tears. It makes you grow even if you’re only observing.

Okay, I’m needy and sentimental. So?

Happy Valentines Day.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Out of the Rolling Ocean the Crowd by Walt Whitman

Out of the Rolling Ocean the Crowd
by Walt Whitman

Out of the rolling ocean the crowd came a drop gently
to me,
Whispering, I love you, before long I die,
I have travell'd a long way merely to look on you to
touch you,
For I could not die till I once look'd on you,
For I fear'd I might afterward lose you.

Now we have met, we have look'd, we are safe,
Return in peace to the ocean my love,
I too am much of that ocean, my love, we are not so
much separated,
Behold the great rondure, the cohesion of all, how
But as for me, for you, the irresistible sea is to separate
As for an hour carrying us diverse, yet cannot carry us
diverse forever;
Be not impatient — a little space — know you I salute
the air, the ocean and the land,
Every day at sundown for your dear sake, my love.

A poem ahead of its time. An quantum image of interconnectiveness science has now proclaimed. An ancient idea that describes the boundaryless oceanic love of Divinity. A truth revered and expressed in many different ways in all religions and spiritualities.

Now is the time for all good people not to get hooked on what disconnects and separates us but to pay attention to what connects us. Things like love, fear, hope, grief, doubt, humor, ego, humanity, anger, sweet flesh and suffering flesh, and a sense of something greater and deeper, more powerful and able than we are.