midpoint (2007-09)

Thoughts on a desert season

Rising from the Ashes

by Stephanie Piper

By the time you read this, Lent will be in full swing. Ash Wednesday will be history, and 39 days in the desert will remain.

For many gentle readers, this chronology is about as relevant as time on Mars. The thoughtful folks who took a moment yesterday to tell me I had a black smudge on my forehead will shrug and go back to their daily rounds, baffled again by mysterious religious practices they neither endorse nor condemn.

I spent the first 36 years of my life in and around major cities of the northeast and Midwest, where Catholic churches anchored every other street corner and no one would ever mistake a black forehead smudge on Ash Wednesday for careless grooming. In New York and Chicago, Lent and Easter were as much cultural as liturgical events. Woven inextricably into the fabric of daily life, these observances were taken on faith and without much comment.

There, it was possible to drift through Lent on autopilot, cutting out the pepperoni pizza on Fridays, upping the amount dropped into the Sunday collection basket, slipping in a few extra prayers here and there. Before you knew it, Easter Sunday had arrived.

Here, drifting is more difficult. Explaining the smudged forehead means explaining the significance of ashes. There is no shorthand here, no instant cultural context. People ask questions. For religious minorities in East Tennessee, the unexamined spiritual life is not an option.

Now entering my third decade in Knoxville, my 25-words-or-less on ashes as an ancient symbol of penance are probably adequate, but not inspired.

Still, each time I hear myself saying the words, I have to stop and define them again. I used to think that penance meant punishment. Giving something up for Lent--chocolate, cigarettes, movies--was a requirement in my 1950s Catholic childhood. Adults observed a partial fast most days.

Nowadays, the rules are more relaxed. We hear less about giving up and more about acts of faith and charity.

My own take on the penitential season has undergone a sea change in recent years. Somewhere in the course of my Ash Wednesday sermonettes, I have come to realize that daily life hands out more penance, enlightenment and opportunities for humility than any ascetic could devise.  

I reflect on this wisdom as I sit in mute fury, watching the minutes tick by on the dashboard clock. I am late because I helped someone find a lost cell phone, spent the half-hour that would have brought me to my desk right on time combing bureau drawers and couch cushions. I do not feel charitable. I feel mean. I am late for work. There is a staff meeting. I will walk in as everyone else is seated, and I will shrink into the nearest chair, humbled, singularized, imperfect. If I breathe deeply and smile and make no excuses, I may take a tiny step away from false pride and perfectionism.

It's harder than giving up a Hershey bar. But there it is, right in my path: a tidy little chance to sacrifice self-will.

I think of the old Trappist monk who first called my attention to the sacred ordinary. He rose at 3 a.m. and was in his chaplain's office by 4, watching the cars pass on the highway beyond the monastery gates. "Think of it," he said to me. "All those people on their way to work before dawn, up and doing, supporting themselves and their families. That's the real deal. That's first class asceticism."

The idea that the raw material for holiness is right in front of us takes some getting used to. Maybe that's what the ashes really mean. They remind us of the dust that things become. And they remind us that it is here, in this messy, damaged everyday world, that we are first called to rise.