Friday, March 03, 2006

Ashes and Ambivalence

I was probably more aware of Ash Wednesday this year than I have been in decades. Not because I am such a deeply religious person, or even particularly attuned to the church calendar -- I've been close to oblivious since Epiphany. Nope -- this year it was all because of Mardi Gras. With a daughter in college in New Orleans, what I was attuned to was the potential for disaster. I didn't see my girl online for a few days, so I hoped she was having fun, kept an eye on the French Quarter by watching the news more often than usual, and waited for the soothing email that finally came ~ "Hey, Mom, I haven't been jailed or hospitalized."
(Thanks for the update, darling.)
So there I was, completely aware of what day it was. What to do? T.S. Eliot and a prodding sense of obligation in my head. I could, I supposed, go to Mass and get some ashes placed on my forehead. Not as straightforward an idea as you might think, since I teach in a Jewish school. Would it be an "in your face" thing to go to work with ashes on my forehead? An obnoxious thing? Should I go to church and then wipe them off? I was sure that none of the rabbis would say anything, but the kids would be full of questions and no doubt at least a few of the adults would be grossly offended. I would also have to go to a really, really early Mass, and I'm not Catholic, so I would have to fumble my way through the sitting and kneeling. Plus, I was going to go to my own church in the evening. I decided that that was enough.
The really, really early need for Mass would have been because I had an 8:00 a.m. appointment with my spiritual director. A Catholic priest. I only said that I'm not Catholic. That doesn't preclude my seeking major guidance from a priest. We talked about Fugitive Pieces and the woman at the well. I'm not sure how anyone gets through the Spiritual Exercises with attention to all the readings that might be included, espcially when there are novels and poetry to absorb, too. I tend to get one reading in my head and wrestle with it for days. I had been stuck at one point in the story of the woman at the well for most of the week and then suddenly, the night before, a little epiphany carried me right through the rest. So we talked about language and loss and Kathleen Norris, whom I had heard speak the week before, and vocation and that woman and what she said to her friends.
And then I went and taught about the colony of North Carolina and affirmative action and the development of Italy as a nation-state and worked on the yearbook and tried to organize standardized testing and gave the AP students a hard time about getting their test payments in and somewhere in the middle of the day I took the dog for a long walk in the cemetery, which is where I saw the red-tails (who were not the least bit happy to see me), because after an hour spent talking over the Exercises I usually need a huge chunk of time later in the day to recover.
And then there it was -- Ash Wednesday again. Still Ash Wednesday.
I had to go to church because I had made a committment to help serve communion. In the Presbyterian Church, that's an elder thing, and it seems that I am an elder. So I got there, and had some brownies and talked to a lot of people, because there had been a Lenten dinner first with lots of people and lots of amazing food. Then the four of us who were serving communion with our two pastors got two sets of instructions from two different people, none of which I understood because I am just not very good with choreography. The main thing was to follow the right person and not spill the wine. (OK, grape juice. Presby, not Catholic.)
And then the service began and suddenly it was awesome. In a quiet way. With soprano solos like liquid through the nave. With candles raised high and candles extinguished. With the confusing admonishment from Jesus to make your observances in private, confusing since we were about to engage in a communal observance with a very public result. With the reminder that we were entering a solemn time of year. And with what seemed like a very personal and intimate set of exchanges and connections during communion. Since it was a small service, I knew almost everyone there, which means that each time I held out the cup and said, "The blood of Christ, shed for you," it was a brief moment of intimacy.
We left the sanctuary in silence and within seconds I was back in the other world. I had agreed to pick up a friend after church and go out for margaritas with her so that I could provide the requisite cheerleading for her job interview the next day. It was about the last thing I wanted to do right then, right at that moment when I wanted to be alone to pray and savor the experience of the previous hour. I decided there was nothing for it but to view that particular demand of friendship as a Lenten discipline. And suddenly I was back to the same questions with which I had begun the day: those ashes. Leave them or wipe them off? I was so taken by the contrast between the solemnity of the service and the prospect of entering the bar of a noisy Mexican restaurant that I decided to wipe them off. I simply could not make the two experiences coalesce in my mind.
That was, I think, a mistake. The whole point is to work 0n the coalescing, however hard it seems.
I was reminded of that tonight, just before I started writing. I went over to the Presbyterian Bloggers site to see what some of my more thoroughly ordained colleagues in blogging might have had to say about Ash Wednesday. Almost nothing, as it turns out. But Reverend Mother has a lovely Ash Wednesday sermon that takes us from Katrina to the Beatitudes, which seems to be the exact same path that I have been on since August.
The coalescing. Everything is connected. Blessed are the revelers and the peacemakers. All of us.


Paula said...

I loved this from the first paragraph, but started belly-laughing as it went on.

Brownies--during lent--and BEFORE church?
Dinner before church??
A lenten dinner with "amazing food"??
Opting to go for the margaritas as lenten SACRIFICE?!

Holy cow, you're NOT Catholic, are you???? How funny was this?? I get the serious tone about the other stuff, truly, but ohmygosh.

And ALL of my grammar school years came flooding back: you NEVER wash the ashes off, not ever, for any reason. (I was afraid to wash my face before bed or take a shower the next morning!) And you never complain about your sacrifices, either: no whining about being hungry, or craving chocolate, or your neck hurting because you slept without a pillow. You're not supposed to brag about your suffering.

Ohmygosh, I'm laughing again...because the ashes you never wash off are the most public statement of all, aren't they?

Oh, truly G. Girl...I can't wait to see what the single man says...

Gannet Girl said...

Well, I have to admit, I wasn't thinking humor when I wrote this. You just never know what will happen when you send your little missives out into the world, do you?

And another teacher DID come to work after going to mass and wiping her ashes off. I had no idea you weren't supposed EVER to wipe them off.

I did see in Reverend Mother's blog that at her church they don't eat -- they leave church hungry. I guess at mine we mix more things together. Which was the point of the entry -- so many things coming at me in one day. Trying to be in the world -- a nonChristian one, in my case -- and in the church.

Well, I guess I'm glad you enjoyed yourself. Sigh.

Lisa :-] said...

Wiping off ashes to go to a Mexican restaurant? Not necessary, I think...

Robin, sometimes I think you are too ecumenical for your own good...

Vicky said...

Robin, I do so love reading what you have to say. I love your honesty. I love your openness. I love your questioning nature. You are truly a special person, and it is an honor to know you through this medium. As you know, our belief systems are not totally in sync, but that does not stop me from admiring you and counting you as someone I deeply respect and care about.

Please keep giving us more of all of this - and a very happy birthday to you dear grandmother.

Love, Vicky x

bean said...

...Should I go to church and then wipe them off? I was sure that none of the rabbis would say anything, but the kids would be full of questions and no doubt at least a few of the adults would be grossly offended. ..

you should have left them on and gone to work. the grossly offended are little people. after all, they are totally upfront with their religious beliefs. they wouldn't wear a miniskirt to make you feel better, or join you for dinner on yom kippur should be able to wear your ashes for ash wednesday.

Carol said...

I was thinking the same thing that Bean said. I actually welcome that you have so many conflicts in your life regarding the secular and religious. It is what makes our country what it is. Unlike my home state that wants to make Christianity the official state religion.

alphawoman said...

I loved this from beginning to end. Catholicism is all about guilt and atonement. Lent is about sacrifice. It is funny how you ate a large Lenten feast after the service.(in Catholic terms) and went and has margaritas afterwards!!

Yet, you would make and exceptional Catholic!!

LightYears2Venus said...

We went out Friday night to a Mexican restaurant (which can be different than a Mexican food restaurant). Most of the staff still had their ashes on, including a young man who despite his busboy uniform is obviously not following in Christ's footsteps, as advertised by the other mark on his face, a gang tattoo. I think leaving the ashes on your forehead is so much less important than the mark of the ashes on your heart. You are a kind and gentle soul who tries to be Christ-like everyday and your concern about offending your colleagues, your comment about the business manager and all the other details of a (very) busy day show that. As a deeply spiritual person, if it didn't feel right at the moment to keep the symbol of a moving religious experience on in a noisy bar, removing it was not a "mistake." It seems to me you're doing a darn good job of weaving the sacred and secular together in your life.

dee said...

I am a cafeteria Catholic. I respect all religions and their rituals.
Funny that you worried about your daughter in NO because I did too. Mine went there with her friends and stayed till Fat Tuesday. I had the same thought. My hubby on the other hand said, "She better keep her shirt down and not be on 'Girls Gone Wild' video." LOL.

V said...

Very funny; this brings back many memories.