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.