Okay, so last year I'm all excited about Ash Wednesday. Mind you, many of the Protestant churches I attended had Ash Wednesday services. This wasn't a new thing for me. The Eastern Orthodox faithful, as far as I know, don't have this tradition. I know we didn't observe it at the parish I attended, so I was hungry for Ash Wednesday as I moved into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2008. I missed it.
In previous years when I'd gotten ashes the minister would solemnly intone as he crossed my forehead, "Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return." Pretty somber, huh? But when I got older the words came to mean a lot more to me. I found them oddly reassuring. I knew that my suffering, especially physical, would one day end. I totally looked forward to hearing I was dust again. It'd been years, but when I walked up to Father Gary, a wry smile on my face, ready for my affirmation, "You're dust hon, so chill. You can get through this," what I heard was, "Repent, and be faithful to the gospel."
What??? Is this some kind of Catholic thing? I've never heard repent and be faithful to the gospel when I got my ashes. I mean, it's a good idea. It's a great idea in fact, just ask John the Baptist. Those words changed how I viewed Ash Wednesday and Lent. It wasn't about just suffering, giving up stuff you love, and penance. It was about changing your life so you can be free to experience the goodness of the good news. It kinda made a sistah want to shout, Pentecostal style!
So, I get to church this year, stand in line, my baby girls in front of me. Father Gary pulls a fast one. He doesn't say, "Repent and be faithful to the gospel." He says, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Oh no! Did I adequately prepare my babies for this? Will they understand what it means? Did I even want them considering their mortality? They're 9 and 11 for heaven's sake! I have to admit I panicked. And then the reality hit, they are dust indeed, my sweet babies.
This week, a dear friend is burying his beloved son, only 22 years old. His son, in a moment of crushing despair ended his life. His mama found him hanging. As I walk this journey to the cross with Jesus, I'm carrying his pain, as well as his family's with me. Yes, we are dust. Fragile, frail, and oh, so human. My girls aren't too young to know it. And apparently I needed the reminder myself.
So, why am I telling you this. I guess it's because I started out Ash Wednesday as a Lenten star. I was ambitious, serious, and well equipped! I mapped out an entire rule of life, just for Lent. Oh, you should have seen it. I began with the liturgy of hours, the rosary, and there was all this spiritual reading, and alms giving. It was thorough! Thoughtful! It was freakin' HOLY!!! But yesterday, as I fasted, and when the hunger pangs hit and I knew I was dust, seriously. Hungry dust that wanted a Pepsi and fried chicken. Last night, the sore muscles screamed their agony because I exercised. For Lent! I fell asleep not with my prayer book in hand, but with a rationalization that since I went to Mass, could I maybe please sorta skip Compline prayers. Oh yeah, lovies, the flesh was alive and well, and by 11 PM it appeared, for all practical purposes, that I would fail lent, once again. And that was a good thing.
What is a season of penance without the realization that alone I can do nothing? The twelve steps, in fact, can be an adequate guide to Lent. You begin admitting you are powerless. You cannot save your self by doing thus and so to show God that you mean it. And it's all so subtle. My desire to do good was earnest and honest, but I set myself up for failure. My plan was too big. Too spiritually ambitious. In the end, I should have just taken it a day at a time.
Yesterday I pondered the scripture:
"Yet even now, says the LORD, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments." But I missed something big. Namely, this, a little more of the passage: "Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love..."
Despite the fact that I said I would begin in love, and my Lenten journey would be all about love, by the end of the day I was up to my old tricks, trying to earn the grace that is already mine. Does this mean that my desire for a devout life is useless? My rule of life for lent an exercise in futility? Not at all. I believe my lesson for yesterday was to remember that I am dust. I am frail, weak, and needy. I am utterly dependent on God for His goodness and mercy. I can't even repent or mourn my sins without His love and guidance. So, um, keep it simple, sistah.
Whatever you are attempting as you draw closer to Christ, be as gentle as our Lord. Ruth Haley Barton has some lovely things to say about fasting for Lent:
"The disciplines of Lent have to do with abstaining from the ways we normally distract ourselves from spiritual reality--the reality of our sin and the deeply patterned behaviors that keep us from our calling to follow Christ. It has to do with allowing some of the external trappings and internal compulsions of our lives to be stripped away so we can return to a truer sense of ourselves in God's presence. It has to do with with acknowledging the subtle temptations to which we are prone, rather than pretending we are beyond temptation."
In short, Lent is about being honest. If we aren't real about our humanity, we aren't going anywhere spiritually. Pious liars do not impress God, or anyone else. Lent is all about looking at what stands in the way of a simple, loving relationship with the Lord, and slowly, and mindfully removing those things.
Mindful. Now there's a word I need to look at.