Six years ago today I experienced an Ash Wednesday service for the first time. In Rome. At St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

I think about this date nearly every year.  It’s the third in a series of four consecutive days from that year that symbolize important parts of my life and faith journey. Days that each have short names in my head – names that get jotted on the calendar to help me remember.

Those four days mark significant moments, and they also mark the beginning of one of the most difficult seasons of my life – a season in which relationships self-destructed, in which my life ultimately fell apart.  It lasted close to three years before rebuilding began to happen – rebuilding that culminated in me writing my nursing licensing exam yesterday.  There’s an odd symmetry to that – three years of destruction, three years of rebuilding, culminating on the sixth anniversary of a day that I still don’t have words for, that I will likely carry with me as long as I live.

But I’m not here to write about yesterday’s anniversary. I want to talk about ashes today.

I have a deep appreciation for Lent that began years before I ever attended that Ash Wednesday service.  As someone who dealt with depression for years, and still battles with anxiety and brain chemistry from time to time, the penitence, the preparation, the longing of Lent feels familiar.  It’s not the happy-clappy attitudes of my childhood – the Jesus fixes everything and makes it perfect attitude that never quite fit my writer’s heart or my not quite normal brain chemistry.

And I’m thinking about that today, as I move forward into a new season of my life.

I can close my eyes and I’m back there, in that moment.  I’m pretty sure the mass was in Italian, though not positive.  I sat with two others, the companions with whom I was in Rome, on my way home from time as part of a mission team in Malta.  We got there late, and squashed into the back.  I’d been up since the wee hours of the morning, having flown from Malta only that day, an emotional departure. I’d wandered Rome with my companions, and somehow (though intentionally I’m sure), we’d landed at St. Peter’s with just enough time to catch the last mass of the day, the last distribution of ashes.

It was a visceral moment.  No little smudge on my forehead, but thick crumbly ash in the sign of the cross in my hair, on the top of my head.  I can still feel what it was to reach up and touch the part where I’d braided my hair after a post-flight shower, and encounter bits of ash.

From dust you came and to dust you will return.

I think about that a lot.  What it is to be human, to know brokenness.

I think about ashes, too.  Candle ash, campfire ash, and the ash from burnt palm branches, ashes from a cremation. Such different moments – joy and sorrow, light and darkness, presence and absence.

From dust you came and to dust you will return.

It’s an odd, deep thing to be reminded of your humanity.  Deeper still when it happens surrounded by grand architecture and history, culture shock, the growing knowledge of uncertainty and disintegration of things held dear.

When I close my eyes and return to that place, when I feel again what it was to touch ashes that took days to really wash out of my hair, I feel blessed.  It was a holy moment, even as it led to disintegration. It’s a holy moment six years later as I see the fruits of disintegration and the beginnings of new things.

From dust you came and to dust you will return.

Thanks be to God.

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2 Responses to Ashes

  1. kirsten says:

    Amen, sister. Beautifully written and recollected.

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