I was in Modesto, California, on Ash Wednesday. My wife’s mother died on Monday afternoon, and we spent the week taking care of all the things that must be attended to when a loved one dies. And so on Wednesday I found a Catholic Church nearby that had an early morning Imposition of Ashes service and slipped in quietly to receive the mark that signals the beginning of Lent.
I’ve noticed a curious trend in recent years — the Ash Wednesday selfie. Smiling faces and smudged foreheads; ministers mugging and parishioners posing for the camera. Jesus specifically warned us about this sort of thing, about doing something overtly religious “to be seen of men” (Matthew 6:1-18). To wear ashes as a spiritual badge of honor misses the whole point. The inward and invisible of Ash Wednesday, of which the ashes are an outward and visible sign, is the death of self. “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).
When a minister makes the sign of the cross on a forehead on Ash Wednesday, the traditional liturgy specifies that what gets said is – “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The full force of this hit me the first time I marked my wife and kids with ashes and told them that they were going to die. The people I love most in this world do not get a pass. Even they are going to die, and Ash Wednesday comes around each year as a reminder of their, and my own mortality. The point of this is not to kill the buzz of life, but rather to remember that there is in fact a reason for life. We are here for the shaping of our souls. And because we are not going to be here forever, it is important for us to get on with the task.
It’s just so easy for us to get distracted, to fill our lives with little luxuries and pleasures that keep us from seeing the true shape of things. In his Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation written in 1534 from his cell in the Tower of London, St. Thomas More observed –
I have seen some in their last illness sit up – propped up by pillows – on their deathbed, gather their playfellows around them, and comfort themselves with card games. And this, they said, did very much help them to put troubling images out of their heads. And what troubling images, do you suppose? …Images of heaven and hell, images that irked them to think about. So they cast them out with card-playing as long as they possibly could, until the pure pangs of death pulled their heart from their play and put them in such a state that they could not think about their game. Then their playfellows left them, slyly slinking away, and it was not long before they gave up the ghost.. And what game they then came into, that I don’t know; only God knows, I hope to God it was a good one, but I very much doubt it. (70)
A couple of summers ago I spent a week with Fr. Thomas Keating at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, at the Snowmass Interreligious Conference. Each spiritual tradition represented at the Conference (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Native American) was asked to model a spiritual practice for the others to experience. The Zen Buddhists led us in a time of silent sitting meditation, and then concluded the session by chanting their Night Prayer. It says –
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken!
Take heed – do not squander your life.
It was a stunning moment. And that’s what Ash Wednesday is supposed to be for us in the Christian tradition. It’s our annual spiritual wake-up call, our reminder that life is fleeting, that the stakes are high, and that we should not squander our opportunities.
Brigid E. Herman wrote an underappreciated devotional book – Creative Prayer – that told the story of “The Nun of Lyons,” a story that perfectly captures, at least in my mind, the true spirit of Ash Wednesday and Lent –
She was dancing at a fashionable ball. None was gayer or lovelier: her marriage to the most eligible man of her set was due within the week. Suddenly, in the midst of a minuet, she saw a vision of the world dying – for lack of prayer. She could almost hear the world’s gasping, as a drowning man gasps for air. The dance now seemed macabre, a dance of death. In the corner a priest, smiling and satisfied, discussed the eligibles with a matchmaking mother: even the Church did not know that the world was dying – for want of prayer. As instant as a leaping altar flame, she vowed her life to ceaseless intercession, and none could dissuade her. She founded a contemplative order of prayer – lest the world should die. Was she quite wrong? Was she wrong at all? Or is our world saved by those who keep the windows open on another world? [“The Nun of Lyons” – Creative Prayer -E. Hermann (1921)]
The smudge of ashes on the forehead each year while a minister looks you straight in the eye and tells you that you are going to die is meant to be an honest piece of truth-telling that drives us to the only Savior who has conquered death. Lent is the season of spiritual preparation for Holy Week, for our annual recital of the Gospel facts of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. It’s our annual call to die with Him so that we might be raised with Him to walk in newness of life and in the assurance of life everlasting (Romans 6:1-11).
Alan Jones, the Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, California, describes it as a “stopping the world” experience in his book Soul Making (Harper 1985). He defines the experience as “receiving the salutary shock of a revelation,” a “way of breaking open a person’s consciousness” that results in them “seeing the world in a new way” (69). Biblically, this is what happened to Moses and the People of Israel when they were trapped at the shore of the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army bearing down on them, and the waters parting made a way for them where just moments before there had been no way (Exodus 14). It’s what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus when he got knocked off his donkey and wound up at the feet, and in the embrace of the Risen Christ (Acts 9). These experiences are terribly disorienting at first, but with time, they become profoundly renewing. They open us up to new possibilities with greater freedom and responsibility. As Alan Jones puts it: “’Stopping the world’ is an exhilarating experience. Just for a moment we have no choice but to see all of our dogmatic and philosophical baggage thrown overboard as we stand shipwrecked on an unknown island. There we are, naked, stripped of the fig leaves of our prejudices and presuppositions. …(All of) the really creative and free souls that I have encountered have been shipwrecked at one time or another. They have had their world taken from them and lived to tell the tale” (71).
Observing Ash Wednesday the week that a loved one dies, and in the middle of planning a funeral, managing complicated relationships and difficult emotions while boxing up the remnants and the fragments of a life, has been for me one of these “stopping the world” experiences. As I begin my journey to Good Friday and Easter this year, it is with a clarity and an intensity that has not always been present in my previous Lents. Dealing with a death on Ash Wednesday brings into focus what it is that I need the most, and who it is that has it. DBS +