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.