Ash Wednesday, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Paddy

 

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?”

“Sweets, Father.”

“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)

There are 6 comments.

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  1. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    That was so beautifully written – I loved every word. You give a vision of the connections of Christians worldwide – no matter where we are in the world, it’s the same day, the same message.  When you mentioned Paddy, I thought you meant our @paddysiochain

    He would appreciate this post, if only the encouragement that it gives that all is not lost – that the power of the Christian message is still alive and a force for good in the world – holding a powerful hand up against the forces of evil that are bearing down upon this world, but we know who is truly in charge.

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  2. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    Very evocative.  Thank you for posting.

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  3. Shauna Hunt Inactive
    Shauna Hunt
    @ShaunaHunt

    You made me smile! Thank you! 

    • #3
  4. Scott Wilmot Member
    Scott Wilmot
    @ScottWilmot

    KirkianWanderer: On a day of penitence, prayer, and fasting, I found joy. 

    A wonderful story. I too, share your preference for traditional liturgy. But the beauty of our Church is that through the sacraments and sacramentals we can find home most anywhere.

    KirkianWanderer: 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 anything American flag or accent-less voice. Home may have seemed 3,00o 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.

    As I commented elsewhere, I will also share here:

    Funny, I don’t see it so much as a somber day but as a joyful one. To me, the physical touch of the priest and the grit of the ashes, although a reminder of death, is also a reminder that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Paul says it well in Romans 8:

    What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us?He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies;who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?As it is written,

    “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long;
    we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

    No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    We are reminded that in all of these trials, the victory is ours. It starts with the reminder of the ashes.

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  5. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    KirkianWanderer: Contemplating that (and snow days, and an Easter that will be spent in St. Petersburg)

    Sorry I missed this the first time around.  As one who has only of late delved into a deliberately liturgical faith and way of living myself (Eastern Orthodoxy in my own case), I can well appreciate your own deliberate living out of your faith in this time, especially at your age.  We live in a strange time where we pay lip service to the notion of freedom of religion, but increasingly only allow its “freedom” if it is out of site.

    On a different note: I know this is too little and too late now, but due to the calendar difference between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, you would have been in St. Petersburg on the Orthodox Palm Sunday.  Don’t know if you were still there a week later for their Easter (“Pascha”), but should you be similarly situated in future, I highly recommend (especially if you know any locals who could host you for such) attending some of their Holy Week services, or the Pascha vigil itself (starts on Saturday night – late – and goes for several hours, and then ends in a party).  The Orthodox Holy Week is an amazing and marvelous journey.

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  6. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer: Contemplating that (and snow days, and an Easter that will be spent in St. Petersburg)

    Sorry I missed this the first time around. As one who has only of late delved into a deliberately liturgical faith and way of living myself (Eastern Orthodoxy in my own case), I can well appreciate your own deliberate living out of your faith in this time, especially at your age. We live in a strange time where we pay lip service to the notion of freedom of religion, but increasingly only allow its “freedom” if it is out of site.

    On a different note: I know this is too little and too late now, but due to the calendar difference between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, you would have been in St. Petersburg on the Orthodox Palm Sunday. Don’t know if you were still there a week later for their Easter (“Pascha”), but should you be similarly situated in future, I highly recommend (especially if you know any locals who could host you for such) attending some of their Holy Week services, or the Pascha vigil itself (starts on Saturday night – late – and goes for several hours, and then ends in a party). The Orthodox Holy Week is an amazing and marvelous journey.

    Thank you; I was there on Sunday, but my plane back to the UK was leaving at 2:00 pm, so I sadly never had the opportunity (and, not unexpectedly, it took a little doing to find a Catholic mass the Sunday we arrived). I would love to see that, and so much more, provided I can convince the Russian government to grant me another entrance visa. 

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