We recently returned from a trip to Ireland. Heading north from Dublin to stay at a friend's home, we promptly--and pleasantly--got lost. We managed about ten miles before we took a wrong turn and ended up on roads too small to be on our map, in towns we'd never intended to visit. A stop for a bit of tea and breakfast, a bit of direction for the mocals and we were back on our way, arriving at our destination about an hour late.
To the average American, Irish signage, not to mention Irish roundabouts--requires a bit of adjustment. Once we got the hang of it, however, we found ourselves discovering a beautiful country more like a native than a tourist, making our journey by means of narrow roads that are never straight. Kind of like faith. And like my journey in Ireland, in my journey of faith I rely on signage to get me where I am going.
Ash Wednesday is one of those signs. This year, I was in beautiful, ornate, and very cold Irish church in Belfast in the last hours before sunrise. I listened to the readings about repentance and hypocrisy, and then went forward to receive a black cross on my forehead that I would wear all day long, one whose faintest traces would still be on my forehead the following morning despite a hot shower and a good scrub. A cross that would cause one aggressive Belfast Protestant to accost me in the street to ask what mark I bore on my brow. I heard the familiar words of imposition: Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.
Actually, the first mention in the Bible of the stuff of man is not dust. Depending on the translation, man is described as formed from either the slime or the clay of the earth, humble stuff indeed, but more permanent, less evanescent than dust that disappears on the wind. This is perhaps not an accident. When I dive into the deep symbolism of Ash Wednesday and try to tie it to my Catholic faith, I am left with a remarkable paradox. Humankind is transient indeed, and yet my faith teaches a beautiful permanence to human life.
I am in the essence of myself already immortal, with a soul that will never die. What I do with the will that accompanies my soul and this temporarily impermanent body (for my faith teaches even it will be restored in a new and glorified form) will determine how and where I spend that eternal life.
The wonderful paradox of Ash Wednesday is to remind of the impermanence of today while focusing me on eternity and my individual place in it. It is a wake-up call from Holy Mother Church, who tells me to take time to refocus my life on what is, at the end of time, real and eternal; things that the world so often deems irrelevant, because they are neither tangible or popular.
It is no accident that the ashes are made by burning blessed palms from the previous year. The dust that I receive, and that will call me closer to my Lord, comes from the destruction of the tangible symbols of joy and exuberance in the worldly order. Things, even joy and sorrow, in this life are not always the clear signs they seem. Following the things of this world blindly and without understanding quickly leads me off my intended path. Ash Wednesday reminds me that, without a guide, I am likely to knock about the world for my three score and ten without ever realizing who and Whose I am, getting lost in pleasant little towns but never actually getting where I am going.
The call to repentance is a call to bring my interior house into order and to lose those impediments of life that really keep me away from the self I am called to be. That self is more real than the tangible world around me, unique, precious, unrepeatable and distinct. Lent calls me into relationship with a personal God who created that unique, precious, unrepeatable, and fallen, person.
Relationship is never general; it always requires the particular. An individual God who created an individual person wishes an individual relationship. The Ash Wednesday call that reminds me I am dust and beckons me to deny myself through prayer, fasting and almsgiving is a call for me to discover the deepest reality of my immortal self. In losing some of the comforts of life the world sees, I find the real self that God sees and in the great paradox of true religion fully lived, I become more alive and more real than I was before.
It is the most basic of admonitions in the Catholic faith that I must lose myself to find myself. The particulars of myself are always there, but if I lose those worldly concerns that bind me to the impermanent life I live, with all my needs, wants, desires and hopes, I can see more clearly the self that shows clearly the mark of the Creator in Whose image I am made and who, by my faith and baptism, lives in me.
The goal of my Lent, and by extension, of my life, is to clear away the debris that separates me from God. When I do (please, God, someday), then I can enter into full union with Him. I look with faith towards a union of permanent realities, Creator and creature, in eternal relationship. The narrow, winding road in a beautiful country is marked anew every year with a smudged ash cross on my forehead.