I used to hate Ash Wednesday as a child.
The cross the priest drew on my forehead with ashes invariably looked more like a smudge, and Mom forbade me from deliberately washing it off. That would be rejecting our religion.
But worse than the ashes, which would be gone in a day, it was the beginning of Lent. Ugh! That meant every Friday night was Stations of the Cross followed soup suppers in the Catholic school’s basement which always reeked of dirty mops and musty clothes destined for church the rummage sale. The soup was gross and served in styrofoam bowls with plastic spoons. The only windows were at the tip top of the walls. It was night anyway, so only blackness poured in. Kids would run around after the meager dinner, shouting and chasing. Often I was one of them, but somehow my memory gets stuck on the time I spent staring at the floor while Mom helped clean up, repeating a choir warm-up, “aluminum, linoleum, aluminum, linoleum” over and over again.
It’s funny how often my memories show me feeling “other,” when I must have appeared to be a part of it all at the time. Does everyone do that? A part or apart? It can be hard to tell if the space belongs.
Time to give something up. For God. And if it was hard, just think of how Jesus suffered. And yet, I was always discouraged from doing so. I was a child, and it was the age of positivity. Do something extra good instead of giving something up, I was told.
But I wanted to sacrifice.
That was reserved for the grownups. I wanted to feel a piercing pain, an absence, a proof of faith, a binding connection to God. I had to wait, I was told.
A part or apart?
And now, thirty years or more have passed since those memories. In an hour I will meet my children at their school’s church to receive my ashes. It comes on the heels of Super Bowl Sunday, Chinese New Year and Mardi Gras, our own veritable Carnival!
And I am grateful.
The celebrations have been fun, but also work. I’ve felt more like a humandoing than a humanbeing for the last few days. I long to fall on my knees in silence and solemnity. The gift of Lent seems to be the chance to shed my personality and outward identities. I can put down the baton I twirl as cruise director of my little family. Just like in meditation, I can let all that doing slip off my shoulders, so I can just sit and be. Again the sense of sacrifice eludes me; this feels like peace.
I don’t regret our little whirling festivities. It’s the bright energy that comes from a life shared with children. Exhausting, yet exhilarating. It strikes a beautiful contrast against the coming quiet. I keep running my favorite line from Louis Glück in my mind as I await my ashes.
Human beings must be taught to love
silence and darkness.