I didn't grow up in a liturgical tradition. In fact, my vague memory is that communion was an infrequent affair. I suspect, though my memory betrays me, that it was only celebrated in my Presbyterian church, in good Reformed tradition, once every three months or so. The "high holy days" I recall were Christmas Eve (ironically, now that I think of it), Maundy Thursday (of course; and appropriately), and maybe Easter Sunday (though I'm not sure about that). I think the other day was supposed to be Pentecost, but I don't recall hearing much about Pentecost, or Lent, or even the Easter season, in my youth in that church. Perhaps, as I say, my memory betrays me, because I have only the vaguest memory of Advent, either, and that usually started with "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" on the first Sunday after Thanksgiving (very American, in other words) and meant Christmas carols until Christmas Eve (never church on Sunday; I'm sure that was too Papist for our Reformed traditions). So I never really learned anything about Ash Wednesday until I came across Eliot's poem. Which is why I always connect it with the day, even now.
I first received ashes in seminary, ironically. I think it's because the seminary was historically Evangelical (not in the sense that word is bandied about today), which meant Lutheran in practice, and besides, St. Louis is such a Roman Catholic city that the Baptists stand out because they don't have a smudge on their heads today. If the Catholics in my hometown (one of the few in East Texas with a Catholic church), or the Episcopalians, got ashes, I either never noticed, or they wiped it off quickly. Again, perhaps it's simply my faulty memory.
So I am still coming slowly to the practice and observance of Lent, and still doing it more through Eliot's words than through habit and custom. I have the former; I don't have the latter. And I will try, again, to keep Lent; and will probably do a poor job of it. But tonight I will receive the ashes, and make my confession, and take another stab at penitence. It's a new year, and yet another beginning.
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?
Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And I pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do hot hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us
Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.
Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.
--T.S. Eliot, "Ash Wednesday," The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1971), pp. 60-61, 67)
MEMENTO, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.
Remember, human, that you are dust, and to dust you will return
HEAR my prayer, O Lord;
let my cry come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
in the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
answer me speedily in the day when I call.
My days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is stricken and withered like grass;
I am too wasted to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning
my bones cling to my skin.
I am like an owl of the wilderness,
like a little owl of the waste places.
I lie awake;
I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.
All day long my enemies taunt me;
those who deride me use my name for a curse.
For I eat ashes like bread,
and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger;
for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.
But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever;
your name endures to all generations.
You will rise up and have compassion on Zion,
for it is time to favor it;
the appointed time has come.
For your servants hold its stones dear,
and have pity on its dust.
I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.
THE cross, with which the ashes are traced upon us, is the sign of Christ's victory over death. The words "Remember that thou art dust and that to dust thou shall return" are not to be taken as the quasi-form of a kind of "sacrament of death" (as if such a thing were possible). It might be good stoicism to receive a mere reminder of our condemnation to die, but it is not Christianity.
--Thomas Merton, Seasons of Celebration
, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965
ASHES, ashes, all fall down. How could I have forgotten? Didn't I see the heavens wiped shut just yesterday, on the road walking? Didn't I fall from the dark of the stars to these senselit and noisome days? The great ridged granite millstone of time is illusion, for only the good is real; the great ridged granite millstone of space is illusion, for God is spirit and worlds his flimsiest dreams: but the illusions are almost perfect, are apparently perfect for generations on end, and the pain is also, and undeniably, real. The pain within the mill-stones' pitiless turning is real, for our love for each other-for the world and all the products of extension-is real, vaulting, insofar as it is love, beyond the plane of the stones' sickening churn and arcing to the realm of spirit bare. And you can get caught holding one end of a love, when your father drops, and your mother; when a land is lost, or a time, and your friend blotted out, gone, your brother's body spoiled, and cold, your infant dead, and you dying: you reel out love's long line alone, stripped like a live wire loosing its sparks to a cloud, like a live wire loosed in space to longing and grief everlasting.
--Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm
, HarperCollins, 1977.
IN some monastic communities, monks go up to receive the ashes barefoot. Going barefoot is a joyous thing. It is good to feel the floor or the earth under your feet. It is good when the whole church is silent, filled with the hush of people walking without shoes. One wonders why we wear such things as shoes anyway. Prayer is so much more meaningful without them. It would be good to take them off in church all the time. But perhaps this might appear quixotic to those who have forgotten such very elementary satisfactions. Someone might catch cold at the mere thought of it.
--Thomas Merton, Seasons of Celebration