Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Ash Wednesday

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

I tend to refer to myself as a 'Catholick Loki' - generally the rebel, but with odd snaps into complete orthodoxy that often make my clerical friends' heads snap right back.

Ash Wednesday is one of those days. I will always insist, as today’s psalm and reading from Joel do, that one’s internal world must be in order before the external can hope for any kind of meaning. On Ash Wednesday, however, I will insist on ritual, with its rich symbolism, to frame and outwardly express what is happening in my internal life and to mark the entry of Catholics, as a community, into the Lenten twilight.

Weeks before, the hunger for life in the Lenten desert begins. I feel the itch I imagine a snake must feel when the time comes to shed – this place feels a bit dry, now where’s a good tree to rub my back up against? Oh damn, now it’s THAT spot. In me, it shows up a restlessness that my nearest friends recognise – perhaps I’m not listening as well; or I’m less present; my faults are in clearer relief – especially my more pugilistic tendencies, as I try to keep all but those closest to me at bay, so I can withdraw to my desert and wrestle with my demons – so I can strip right back to the basics, dropping everything that comes between me and creation; between me and the Creator.

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 blessèd face

On Ash Wednesday morning, the alarm is set for somewhere between 5.45 and 6am, so that I can get to the 07.30 mass. My day will begin and end with mass – the first as initiation (I see no point in being ashed lightly or at the end of the day – it is a mark, a reminder of the undertaking); the second, more formal Latin mass to end the day and begin the season. Yes, for some reason, I see Ash Wednesday as a day out of time, belonging to neither Ordinary Time nor Lent, but a day like Yom Kippur or Laila-tul-Qadr – a day that transcends time, space and liturgical season.

Without fail, my eyes open at the end of the REM cycle concluding after 5am, somewhere around 05.25. I lie awake as black lightens to grey (the shade depending on February or March), probing the symbolism of the last dream, slowly moving towards the meaning of Ash Wednesday and the entry into desert time, ruminating on what this season’s struggle might be.

After the stillness, movement as the alarm resounds through the room. Shower, a touch of reading, dressing and out the door for the bus stop, with either T.S. Eliot’s ‘Ash Wednesday’ or ‘Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return’ echoing in my head.

And after the noise, stillness again, as I enter the dark, pre-7.30 mass hush of the Oratory, so still that the rustling as the brethren’s thin breviary pages turn can be heard through the church. The confessional door opens and shuts, doing a brisk trade for this time of the morning, and the church slowly fills as people ready for work in this world make time for the other.

No need to look at the clock, just listen for or look at the brethren, as their distinctive treads converge on the sacristy from their favoured pew positions in church.

The bell, then mass begins with Fr Robert, the provost, presiding as he has almost every 07.30 Ash Wednesday mass since I’ve been here. Collects, readings, gospel, ashing (hopefully heavy and dark, though not so this year) with the stark words, ‘Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return’, communion and then thrust into the outside world where Ash Wednesday is just another day, a world which insists on one poking one’s head out of the desert recently entered. If one could, one would spend the whole day in church or in retreat to solidify that presence in the desert, so that one could reach out more easily during the 40 days, maintaining the balance, rather than getting jarred out almost immediately on entry.

Will the veiled sister pray for/Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee/Those who are torn on the horn between season and season,time and time, between/Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait/In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray/For children at the gate/Who will not go away and cannot pray: Pray for those who chose and oppose…

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Though Ash Wednesday is a time for ritual, there is room to bend: though I may prefer my main meal to be after sunset, since we have a community meal at work, I will make lunch my main meal; if I go to a house where meat is offered, I will not refuse, though I will take less. After all, it is only as an aid to and mark of inner change that rules make any sense at all.

And despite the need for ritual, there must also be time for critical thought and introspection: I disagree with the sentence, “We are striving for God’s love,” knowing that it has always been given freely to me, though I put barriers between it and myself, afraid of what it offers if it touches me. I disagree with ‘sin’ as the problem, believing that the real root is fear, for I know that it is fear, and the experience that gave rise to it, which prevents me from knowing and feeling the love of my friends and sometimes means I assume that they will choose to hurt me. If I feel so with my friends - those I can see, touch and exchange conversation with - how much more so God, with whom I can do none of these things? My sense is that this is not about overcoming sin, but of aiming for that perfect love to cast out fear – and that our best chance is to strip down in the desert, like layers of varnish removed to reveal the beauty of the wood beneath.

Perhaps this need to keep one’s feet in the desert, yet reach out of it, is the reason for the second longer, more formal mass – it allows for full re-entry into the stark beauty, feet on hot sand once again; a chance to unwind and re-collect ourselves after a day spent in a non-Ash Wednesday world. A chance to ground properly and put deep roots into the desert – roots that remain long after Lent is over and Easter has begun, because we must re-enter the desert in the rhythm of our own cycles, not just the liturgical ones offered us.

And so, I set foot in the desert this Lent – set foot to find I know not what, but to follow the only theology I know, best espoused in this passage by Guy Gavriel Kay in his book
The Summer Tree:

And he understood then, finally: understood that it had to be naked, truly so, that one went to the God. It was the Tree, stripping him down, layer by layer, down to what he was hiding from...

He was the Arrow now. The Arrow on the Tree, of Mornir, and he was to be given naked or not at all.

And so, on the third night, Paul Schafer came to the last test, the one that was always failed, the opening. Where the Kings of Brennin or those coming in their name, found that the courage to be there, the strength to endure, even love of their land were none of them enough. On the Tree, one could no longer hide from the living or the dead, from one's own soul. Naked or not at all, one went to Mornir. And oh, that was too much for them, too hard to be forced to go into the darkest places then, so weak, so impossibly vulnerable.

And they would let go, brave Kings of the sword, wise ones, gallant Princes, all would turn away from so much nakedness and die too soon.

But not that night. Because of pride, of pure stubbornness, and because, most surely, of the dog, Paul Schafer found the courage not to turn. Down he went. Arrow of the God. So open the wind could pass, light shine through him. Last door.

And so, though I may not turn again, may I have the courage to face the last door, and come before God fully stripped, vulnerable, so open that the wind may pass and light shine through me.


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