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You were made from dust…
Had I walked about, and run, this morning topless and with neon purple hair, I think I would have attracted fewer stares than I did today. Growing up in very Catholic Massachusetts, I’m not sure it had ever occurred to me on more than a purely intellectual level what it means to be a religious minority, especially one that (even for a day) was marked out in its physical difference. Which is not to say that I feel the victim; I am perfectly free, as so many martyrs and fathers in ‘priest holes’ were not, to practice my faith, and to giggle at the man who stopped walking his dog and turned around to watch me go by like a latter-day circus attraction. In fact, I left Mass this morning more uplifted than I had been in weeks, embracing something of the Chestertonian paradox that finds the deepest hope in the most profound sadness. On a day of penitence, prayer, and fasting, I found joy.
I fully admit to be something of a Luddite Catholic. I am most at home with Gregorian chant, musty incense, and Benedictine monks, but those are things that, barring an hour’s train ride and an imperfectly perfect replacement, are thousands of miles away. Contemplating that (and snow days, and an Easter that will be spent in St. Petersburg), I admit that I had fallen into something of a malaise in the last week. My life in England is a wonderful, unexpected adventure, but some days I long for what simply cannot be found on this island. And, knowing that I wouldn’t have the time to take the train to something closer to what I missed, I was especially dreading Ash Wednesday Mass this morning.
The situation certainly didn’t look much better when I finally wandered my way to the unfamiliar church. I may have been past a few times, but the only selling point today was the early Mass time. An utter hoard of rowdy primary school children, and a gaggle of men wandering over from a pub (one, almost comically, called Paddy), did nothing to increase my confidence in the choice. Seeing a child fully armed with a fidget spinner and slime almost had me back down the steps, but walking another two miles in the opposite direction hardly seemed practical, even if it sounded suspiciously as though someone had started playing the fiddle inside.
Minus the yearly family Christmas Mass at our local parish, it has been years since I’ve been to a service with more than five people in it, and certainly not one hundred and fifty children. Instead of mourning my solitude, though, I found myself quietly enjoying their antics. I could remember the elderly groundskeeper walking across the way from our parish to the elementary school every Monday afternoon to collect us, shepherding our rowdy little hoard first to an older Irish priest who loved nothing more than good story and, later, to a very kind, slightly awkward former banker, and the way we used to elbow each other as he gave his sermons. Or cackling (very evilly) when he decided that an impromptu solo during the Signs of the Cross was in order. And no memory was more powerful than bowing, shaking like a little leaf, before the man in purple robes and ascending the seemingly endless stairs to read from the Gospel. Where had the time gone, and how lucky were these children to get to experience the same?
“Can you think of anything we should give up for Lent?”
“Yes Alfie, that’s quite a good idea. Anyone else?”
“I know, Father. Fruit!”
“Well, maybe we could have a bit less of the fruit we enjoy.”
If I closed my eyes, I could feel my Baptist dad, roped into chauffeuring my sister and I so my mother could remain at work, next to me, muttering something about the absurdity of listening to this strange man (“who is not your father!”) telling us to give something up. The minute we were home, I was going to have to run if I didn’t want my ashes wiped away, or to be crossed when I wasn’t looking with dust from a pellet stove. Even when I was old enough to pilot my shaking Jeep to church half an hour away, I knew I was going to have to sprint when I got home. They couldn’t really be an ocean away.
The familiar ritual, the gentle brush as I was marked with ashes and reminded “You were made from dust, and to dust you shall return” to a swell of excited, heedless young voices, felt more like a reminder of home than any American flag or accent-less voice. Home may have seemed 3,000 miles away, but the minute I pulled down the inevitably red padded kneeler I was there. And I was reminded, in the most powerful way, that this existence, like the life I lead in England, is but a way point in a longer, greater journey home beyond anything man could ever comprehend.
And to dust I shall return.
(Come and get me now, Dad)