05
Mar
14

Lent begins…Ash Wednesday

Though no longer a practicing Catholic, and currently a practicing Unitarian Universalist, one never fully loses one’s past, and I’m not sure that I would want to lose something that has long been a part of me.  And last year, as part of the Kansas City Public Library’s Winter Reading program, I read daily from St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul during Lent.  And this time, I thought I’d do something similar — starting tomorrow, I’ll be commenting on what I’m reading in Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life by James Martin, S.J.  Fr. Martin, culture editor for America magazine (a publication of the Jesuits in the US), and unofficial chaplain of The Colbert Report, has written several books on Catholicism, on saints (a topic near and dear to my heart), and on humor and his own spiritual practice.  As Humor is this year’s Kansas City Public Library’s Winter Reading theme, it seems appropriate that I include the Library again with links to my blog (at least until March 21 — official ending of the Winter Reading Program).  It also seems fitting that I approach Lent from a lighter side this time around (to offset last Winter’s very dark Dark Night).  

That said, I thought I’d take a moment today to reflect on the words that always come ringing home to me on Ash Wednesday.  As I have not taken part in an Ash Wednesday celebration in decades, I do not know if the same words are used as were used when I was growing up Catholic in St. Peter’s Parish, Dorchester, MA.  The words then, uttered by the priest, as he smudged an ashy fingerprint on the center of one’s forehead (ashes, I was told, from the burnt palm fronds from the preceding year’s Palm Sunday), were as follows: “Remember, man, thou art dust, and to dust thou shall return.”  This memento mori seemed a little spooky to me when I was little.  After all, little kids are not supposed to reflect on death (though I started such pondering sometime in the year I was 7, I didn’t dwell on it much — except for the moment of my first realization of death, which came in Steve Becker’s backyard, where I was waiting, on a sunny day, for Steve Becker to come out and play — in what seems like hours of reflection that day, I had a double epiphany: 1) I could never truly know someone else’s experience [I was stuck in my own body] and 2) having been born, something I had no say in, I was now doomed to die — needless to say, I wasn’t the best play companion that day).  I had a certain fondness for what seemed the “darker” elements of Catholicism — I preferred confession to communion, and thought that Extreme Unction (what became known later under the term “Annointing of the Sick”) was cool (just like Extreme Sports are now the rage).  

For much of my youth, even into adulthood, the prospect of mortality seemed quite daunting to me.  And, in that fear, with a concern about what happens after death, I took some comfort in the idea of Life Everlasting and an Eternal Reward somewhere.  That too changed over time.  Even as a kid, it seemed somehow wrong to me to think of Eternal Reward or Punishment as an incentive to do good or avoid doing bad, that doing good had, in some way, to be its own reward.  That has stuck with me over the years, but sometime in my late 20s, I began to think about the whole matter of an afterlife.  Eternity seemed too vast to me, and the idea of anything lasting forever made me anxious.  I began to take comfort in the idea that life comes to an end.  And I take comfort in that idea today.  If we die and there is nothing (all consciousness ends), there is a comfort in that.  There is a comfort in knowing that I got a chance to ride on the Big Ride, but rides come to an end, and my daughter and others coming after me will also have their turn on the Ride.  On a more realistic note, I don’t think much about the Afterlife (I don’t believe there is one), but rather focus on my life here, which is pretty good — full of enough joy to make the sad times bearable, and with enough wonder even in much of the sadness that I can stand in awe of it.  So, adult me, in response to the priest’s intonation, “Remember, man, thou art dust, and to dust thou shall return,” I counter with the idea that I am (we all are) a quintessence of dust, and our dusty selves can remain pretty grounded, and that’s a good thing. 

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