Today I’m tempted to cover the ashes smeared on my forehead in an extra coating of purple glitter. Just because. Because it would make it prettier. And because, truly, it would be more theologically sound. Ashes in the glitter. Glitter in the ashes. This is life—life in the Spirit. Life leaning into Soul. Life getting really Real.
In college I babysat regularly for an Orthodox Jewish family. The kids’ mom asked me once—what’s the deal with the ashes for you Catholics on Ash Wednesday? At the time, I was 19 and I didn’t have an answer for her. Umm… it’s just something we do? It reminds us we are dust?
It got me thinking though, as did so many questions from others about things I had no clue about, yet I did them every Sunday, every year, the rituals and routines woven into the fabric of my life like eating and sleeping. There were so many things I did—religious things, spiritual things—without really knowing why I did them.
Today, I think about these rituals a lot. This day, Ash Wednesday, and the entire season of Lent, followed by my favorite of religious traditions—the Triduum—are all things that stir in me constantly. What do they mean? Why do we do them? Are they still relevant, today, in a culture increasingly un-religious? Why does my heart move within me when I do them still? What is it that I love so deeply? Especially at a time like this—Lent—that emphasizes darkness, death and poverty? Why do more Catholics participate in Ash Wednesday (even though it is NOT officially a ‘holy day of obligation’) than any other holy-day?
This puzzles me. On this day, we are coated in ashes, smeared in death. We are told, as the ashes are applied to our foreheads—“Remember, you have come from dust and to dust you shall return.” Not exactly uplifting. Yet we flock to this day, and we carry around death on our foreheads like a badge of honor, proudly displaying our Catholic roots.
We enter Lent, these forty days, with utter humility. We enter aware of our own mortality. We enter admitting we are poor. How is any of this good? Why do we need it?
I will speak for myself. My spirituality is deeply Franciscan in nature—curious, humbled and lit up by the natural world, which means a constant turning toward and befriending of death. This way of being was also carved out in me through the death of my beloved sister. Death is a constant companion. Death is right there, always, right on the other side of life. Caitlin has taught me to befriend death—hers, my own. St. Francis referred to death as “Sister Death.” There’s a painting in the basilica built and named for him in Assisi, where he and sister death walk arm in arm, gazing at each other, heads thrown back in joyous laughter. This image has always remained with me. What might it be like to befriend death, to treat her as friend, as sister?
Francis also had an intimate relationship with poverty. He called her “Lady Poverty” and treated her as such—something of immense value, of high standing, of royalty. To him, poverty was about simple living materially, but it was about much more than that. For Francis, being poor meant being totally available to the living God. It meant a constant surrender of the ego (you thinking you know what is best for your life) and instead, giving over to God, to Soul, an opening to the Diving Indwelling that constantly seeks our participation in the fullest life there can be.
I love this. It is exactly what I experienced in the wake of my sister’s death. I felt obliterated, destroyed by grief, by anger and sadness. I was demolished by all I could not do—by my inability to save her. I could not make sense of her death in my mind. All I could do was free fall—into darkness, into the Unknown, into total Mystery, into grief itself. It felt like free fall into death—hers, certainly, and mine too—the death of the person I thought I was, that I thought I could be. At the top of that list would have been “keep my baby sister alive.” I learned, harshly, impossibly, that I do not have that kind of power.
None of us do. We cannot do the impossible, we cannot be God. All we can be is who we are, and the more available we become to that—to our own emptiness, to our own poverty—the more we become available to what God, Soul, is doing, in and through and because of our participation in a much bigger Story. Death does something to us—the death of a loved one, or the death of our own ego-mind, all the ideas we have about how things are ‘supposed’ to be. Death carves us out, releases our hold on the smallness of things so that we might enter the Greatness of Being, the largeness of things. Knowing Caity, she would have us enter dancing and glittering.
This ashes stuff of Ash Wednesday, this darkness of Lent, is so often misunderstood. It’s not so much about knowing our sinfulness, in the common way of understanding sin, which can keep us paranoid and narrow. It’s about surrendering to the forces of life that bring us past our small, ego-mind and into the Cosmic Love of God. It’s about expansion and birth into new life. It’s saying yes—death happens. Bring it. Take a deep breath and open your heart. Poverty is real—there is so much I don’t know, don’t have, can’t do. What happens when I’m knocked off the sure path, where I think I have it all figured out? When I’m broken and on the ground, so aware that I am creature, utterly dependent on the One who creates, who makes life, even out of the ashes of my own? God waits—for whatever’s in the way to burn and crumble, for me to surrender to Love, to come authentically alive and participate fully in this Life that is coming to be, through me. Through you. God waits for the space to be what God is— radiant Soulfulness, gathered throughout the world through the lit fire of your Soul, and mine.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, glitter to glitter. Let us remember, as we are smeared with death, as we feel our own poverty, that this is never where God leaves us. This is exactly where She meets us– the place of Rising, of Creation, of Redemption, where God gets to be God in all Her fullness, asking us to Rise, inviting us to the Dance.