“Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.”
Ash Wednesday, by T.S. Eliot
In 1927, the poet T. S. Eliot converted to Anglicanism. This is the final stanza of this powerful poem. There are many things about life that I do not understand. One of those things is why I am so drawn to T.S. Eliot. I can still remember phrases from his “Love Song to J. Alfred Prufrock” (“I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled. . .”)
I have been living with Ash Wednesday on so many levels lately. As I have prepared for the various liturgies of Lent, Ash Wednesday is only one–yet an important one, for it is with this solemn liturgy that we usher in the forty days of Lent. Ash Wednesday is visceral. In my parish, I make sure that there is extra space for silence during Lent, and we start today with that. So the intentional silence, I hope, gives room for reflection. There is the solemn recitation of Psalm 51. People either stand or kneel in front of me, and I feel the gritty texture of ashes. Etching them on the foreheads of men, women and children, I often look at the faces of these children and remember another day when I took holy oil, blessed by our bishop, and etched the sign of the cross after I baptized them. One year, I finished doing this part of the liturgy and remembered that no one had done that for me. So I went over and knelt in front of one of the acolytes, told him the words to use, and asked him to make the ash cross on my forehead. It was a powerful experience, to feel a childish hand take gritty ash and remind me that I, too, am dust. To dust I will return.
Our souls are eternal. We are, in a real sense, made of stardust–pure energy. Yet the shell that is our earthly body will, someday, become part of Mother Earth again.
This helps to remind me that I should do a little more in taking care of that earth. Fewer plastic bottles used. More recycling. Less water run as I brush my teeth (also remembering the people of Flint, Michigan, who do not have this luxury, as well as the millions of people around the world who are always thirsty because they do not have the same access to good, clean water that I do). I am not going to spend time feeling guilty about this. I just need to do something concrete about it in my own life.
I have subscribed to a daily Lenten reflection from Ignatian Solidarity Network, which is “a Lenten journey towards racial justice,” and as I read the first reflection this morning, I was struck by the image of our (collective) standing on the ashes of those who have gone before us–especially our African American brothers and sisters who have been treated shamefully. As a white woman, I have often wondered what I can do to make reparations. I think that maybe, I can just do my own part–to lift up voices unheard, to preach about the importance of doing justice so that there is peace.
Last year, when the riots erupted in Baltimore, MD, I was keenly aware of my own parish’s engagement with justice issues. We are a diverse parish, and we are a Main Street parish. The violence and unease, the conversations I had with local African American merchants who live in the west side of Baltimore–all of those made me more aware of what my own parishioners live with–fear for, concern for, their black teenage sons. Together, a group of us read Ta Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, and the African Americans in the room helped this priest and pastor learn, on a more personal level, the challenges they all face that I will never face.
I am who I am. I was born to a certain set of parents, out of a particular family line–one that may have a trace of Native American, but is mostly from Scottish, Irish and English roots. I will never, on some deep level, really understand the pain of the people upon whose ashes I stand this day.
But I can ask God to open my heart and mind to the pain that others have borne, and will continue to bear. I can ask God for forgiveness of the sin of my own racism. I can ask God to change my heart. Today, I will do that, and I will feel the grittiness of dark ash on my forehead, and be grateful for the God who has created me out of the dust of the earth, and who will–at the end of my life–welcome me to a table where all of us are welcome, regardless of our color, race or creed. Even on Ash Wednesday, that reality is something to celebrate.