Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Season of Penitence Begins

Today is Ash Wednesday.  Many Christians will have ashes smudged on their foreheads today. Here's my forehead at the end of Ash Wednesday 2014:

Why would we do such a thing?  Behold, the words of ancient wisdom:

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  We walk this planet for such a short time.  This high, holy day reminds us of that fact--viscerally.  We are a marked people.

I once met a Hindu priest who smears ash across his forehead as part of his morning ablutions.  He does it for the same reason we will get smudged today:  it reminds him of his mortality.

You can call yourself a creature made out of the ruins of stars (true!), but you're dust all the same.

I hated this holiday as a child and a teen.  It seemed so morbid!  But now I am older and the words of Marvell ring in my ears: 

"But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near"

It's a poetic way of saying that we're getting older, and time is running out.  Those wings beat more loudly every day.

Many of us are dealing not with ash, but with snow.  But snow can be a stunning reminder of our mortality too.  For proof of that claim, I give you the ending of James Joyce's "The Dead":

"A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

If you are in the mood for a literary Lent, check out this list, which I found by way of this blog post by Paul Elie.

Looking back over my writing life, I'm surprised at how often I see the themes of ash and penitence in my writing. I keep returning to that well--or should I say ash pit?

Here's my all-time favorite of my Ash Wednesday poems.  Some day, there will be a book length collection of poems, and this title continues to be my favorite, as it encapsulates the theme of much of my work that explores all the places where we place our faith:

Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site

I didn’t develop a taste for locusts until later.
Instead I craved libraries, those crusted containers of all knowledge,
honey to fill the combs of my brain.

I didn’t see this university as a desert.
How could it be, with its cornucopia of classes,
colleagues who never tired of spirited conversations,
no point too arcane for hours of dissection.
I never foresaw that I might consume too many ideas,
that they might stick in the craw.

I never dreamed a day would come when I preferred
true deserts, far away from intellectual centers.
No young minds to be midwifed,
no hungry mouths draining my most vital juices,
no books with their reproachful, sad sighs, sitting
in the library, that daycare center of the intellect.

The desert doesn’t drown the voice
the way a city does. No drone
of machinery, no cacophony of crowing
scholars to consume my own creativity.
In the desert, the demand is to be still, to conserve
our strength for the trials that are to come.

Here, the earth, scorched by the fissile
testing of the greatest intellects of the last century, reminds
us of the ultimate futility of attempting to understand.
The desert dares us to drop our defenses.
In this place, scoured of all temptations, all distractions,
the sand demands we face our destiny.

(first published in The Ledge)

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