From the Ashes

Ash Heart

Over the years, I’ve slowly moved away from many of the traditions of my childhood, particularly those related to religion, but as a young girl, I loved little baby Jesus more than words. Every Christmas Eve, dressed in my Sunday best and nestled up snug-as-a-bug between the two most important women in my life, Nana and Mom, I’d twitch impatiently in the church pew at midnight mass as the Nativity scene unfolded, eyes glued to the Blessed Virgin Mary, hungry for a glimpse of the swaddled-up Savior. Jesus, the man—Son of God the Father—always slightly intimidated me, to be honest. But that sweet baby Jesus, he was my brother, and I absolutely adored him. I just wanted to hold him, rock him to sleep, and keep him safe from his terrible fate forever. (Yes, I’ve always been a Mommy at heart.)

To say I was an enthusiastic little Catholic girl is to put it mildly. One summer at the cottage, rather than stage a common pretend wedding or music video, customary in the early eighties, a young friend and I decided to play Church instead. Dressed as nuns in white and blue dishtowel veils, we used butter knives to meticulously carve small crucifixes in the Eucharist we had created from small circles of Wonder bread flattened by our sweaty, sandy palms. We picked flowers, sang hymns, recited prayers, and took multiple turns giving and receiving communion. I may or may not have baptized her at the kitchen table.

A couple of years later, the same friend and I began to attend mass together. In hindsight, I can see that I felt compelled to go for several reasons, but it’s also true that we went because it felt quite fantastic to sit in St. Mary’s all by ourselves, Sunday morning light streaming through the stained-glass, as we listened to Father preach the word of God in God’s House without our mothers present. Free to do as we pleased for a few hours, we recited prayers, received Holy Communion, sang with the choir, and lit candles alone. How exciting! Plus, they served juice and Timbits in the basement afterward…

For a long time, before I learned to ask questions and try new beliefs on for size, the only part of Catholicism that ever bothered me much, besides Confession, was Ash Wednesday. I mean, we’re talking HUGE anxiety. Sure, it sounds shallow, but I was a kid, and the idea of walking around with ashes on my forehead, regardless of symbology, made me feel extremely vulnerable. Panicky. I’d never have wiped them off, of course I knew better, but it was a truly painful experience to suffer through for a self-conscious natural introvert like myself. Additionally, as a survivor, I already felt marked in a very tangible way. Palm frond ashes—despite their sacred meaning—still left a mark, and it always left me feeling dangerously dirty and exposed. Forget about Confession.

Stuff happened between me and church, me and God. Once I began to understand certain things about my childhood, I had questions, so many questions, and I had to take a step back, to the side, away. Not necessarily from my faith in something bigger than me, but more into a faith that I am a part of something bigger. During that time, I came to understand there is nowhere I can go that God is not, and nothing I can do that God would not do, because God is me. Not inside of me, as some believe, a part of, but separate. No. God is me, and you, our loved ones, our enemies (if we have those), everyone. Every single person, creature, thing. And so there’s never a place where God is not. Whether I’m there, or I’m here, God is present. Omnipresent. (Perhaps this is a good place to add that I don’t mind one bit if you totally disagree. We’re all right.)

Still, as I mature, I find myself drawn to some of the traditions of my youth.

Ritual runs deep.

Yesterday, Ash Wednesday, marked the first day of Lent, a time for “prayer, penance, repentance, almsgiving, atonement, and self-denial,” according to the wonderful world of Wikipedia, in preparation for Easter, the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. I do not recall the last time I went to church or Sunday mass. Quite possibly, it’s been a decade or more. I am not proud—nor ashamed—of that fact, it is simply what it is. Truth be told, I feel baptized every night in the bath when I hold myself tenderly, with love. I receive Holy Communion every moment I’m in the presence of my children or nature. Writing is confession, and truth my saviour. My life is a prayer. Amen.

During a brief conversation recently, I realized I’ve gotten fuzzy on many of the details surrounding the birth, life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Basically, all of it. I probably ought to feel guilty or something, but instead, I’ve reached a place where I can be okay with what I know and do not know. Lucky, I guess, considering just how much I still do not (and may never) know. It’s difficult to explain, but the truth is, somewhere along the way, in order to survive, I had to dismember my old self, beliefs, ideas, illusions, and start again from scratch. Who was I? What did I really think? Did I believe in anything, and if so, what? What was truth, or a lie, what resonated, or didn’t, what seemed important enough to carry, and what must be discarded, in order to move forward? I still have plenty to re-member.

Poppa liked his Manhattans on ice. Every night. Still, each year, he gave up alcohol for Lent and never once cheated. I bet he was tempted. After Nana died, he kept palm fronds on the top of his dresser beside a cross that now sits on my bookshelf, a gift from his own passing last year. Whenever I happen upon it, as I often do, I think of him, my mother’s father, and recall how strong his faith was. I gave up sweets and suffered through the self-denial of Lent as a child, but only because I had to. I have not “had to” in decades. This year, however, I find myself giving it all some consideration again.

All details aside, for me, the season of Lent has always signified a time of self-denial and self-reflection, a period of purposefully abstaining from something enjoyable and coming to terms with our own demons, in order to more deeply understand Jesus’ plight as he wandered the desert for forty days and forty nights prior to the crucifixion and resurrection at Easter, tempted thrice by Satan.

Perhaps it is because both Nana and Poppa are gone, along with so many traditions, the rituals of my childhood. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I have finally come to understand how much can actually be gained through self-denial and some form of abstinence. In letting go, we receive plenty. Either way, no matter the reason, I know better than to question the wisdom of my heart, at long last.

I gave up cola for Lent yesterday.

This morning, desperate and edgy without my daily dose of sugar and caffeine, I pleaded my case. “Heart,” I said, “What’s the big deal? I mean, really, do we have to do this? Cola is my coffee.”

But my heart just smiled her wise-ass little smile.




(photo from at Google images)



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