Ash Wednesday: A Memoir

When I was a kid, Lent was my favorite time of year. That might sound strange, but there is a back story. Lent meant spring was not far away and right behind spring came summer—a magical time of year for me, because I would be off to my grandfather’s farm for the summer.

During Lent we had fish more than just every Friday. I love fish. If we were especially lucky, we would get some of my mother’s homemade donuts on Friday.

Other greater mysteries surround Lent, so mysterious that I am not sure I can describe them.

I grew up in Louisville, KY, in a Southern Roman Catholic ghetto. That means my childhood was indeed very strange and peculiar. Southern Roman Catholic ghettos were the exception. My ancestors, at least the ones we counted, were English Catholics, who had settled in Maryland with the original royal land grant to Lord Baltimore. They then moved into Kentucky shortly after the revolution, where they proceeded to make bourbon.

English Catholics are not Italian, not Irish, and not German Catholics. An old Catholic joke has it that American Catholicism is the government of the Germans by the Irish for the Italians. English Catholics were apart from this cabal and gave immigrant and ethnic Catholicism a great deal of trouble. But that is another story.

Lent in my ghetto began the week before with big celebrations ending on Shrove Tuesday, as it was called in my neighborhood. Some know it as Mardi Gras, a southern Catholic tradition from New Orleans, while many others call it Carnival. Needless to say, our Shrove Tuesday was nothing like their Mardi Gras. We were English, after all. We would visit all our neighbors, that is, our Catholic neighbors, where there would be cookies, cake, pies, and barbeque (we were southern Catholics). And drinking (we were Catholic).

After Shrove Tuesday, we are on to Lent which begins with Ash Wednesday. My earliest religious memory is of Ash Wednesday. The memory is probably not as pure as I remember it—undoubtedly many Ash Wednesdays coalesce in my memory.

In my memory it is dark, very early in the morning. I am holding my father’s rough hand. I am very young, not yet in grade school. We were standing in line—a long line—in church. The church is dark, a cave of a place. No lights in the church, only candles and the smell of incense.

My father was a quiet man, but the night before he had been celebrating, having a drink, something I hardly ever saw him do. But yesterday had been Shrove Tuesday. My grandfather and grandmother were up from the farm. And now I stood between the two men I loved the most—my grandfather and my father—holding my father’s hand by his large, rough index finger. This was a special day, the only day of the year that my grandfather went to church. A falling out with an Irish priest many years ago had led him and the men of their small town to withdraw from church attendance. You can bet there is another backstory there. Church history on the micro scale is fascinating, if mostly overlooked.

In my memory, we stood in that line forever, or maybe I only wanted it to go on forever. The church was crowded, mostly with men at this time of day. When I was older in grade school, I remember this same ceremony with mostly children and women. There were more men in church than I had ever seen on any other day, even Christmas and Easter. Even the Italian men were there, as well as the bookies in their sharkskin suits.

When the three of us got to head of the line, there stood Father Reevey, a very large man, but a wonderful, funny, kind, and gentle Irish priest. He stood towering over us, with only my father and grandfather to protect me. He was dressed in flowing black robes which I associated with funerals. He leaned over me and marked my forehead with ashes. They had a gritty, sandy feeling.

He intoned: “Remember, man, dust thou art and to dust you shall return.” In the church of my childhood, this was one of the few phrases in English I ever heard in church. It made a huge impression on me. That rite has continued to haunt me.

The church did what it was supposed to do. When I was very young, it ritualized my death for me. Lent always seemed like a very special time of year because we waited with Jesus for his death and our death. It is not morbid to think about death once in a while. It’s realistic. We are going to die and turn into ashes. There is no escaping that fate. The church had found a way to ritualize that, even for a young kid like me. The rite identified my death with a larger reality, the death of Jesus, and gave my death, my turning into ashes, real meaning.

Lent was a special time of year, a time of abstinence. We didn’t eat meat. We fasted, not as part of a fad diet, but as a religious discipline. It was not penitence for our sins. As I look back on it, sin and repentance had almost nothing to do with Lent. I don’t remember much talk of that—maybe I was not paying attention. I think that part was meant more for the Irish and Germans.

What I remember with the ashes, the fasting, and abstinence, was a deep sense of impermanence, of the transitoriness of life, which was an important lesson to learn, even at an early age.

I also remember a deep sense of belonging to a rite and ritual that had gone on for a long, long time. Lent always gave me a strong sense of the communion of the saints. It was not just me, my family, or my parish. People had been doing this for a very long time. We belonged to the age of the martyrs, stood in line with the early catechumens, did penance like those public sinners of olde.

When later I studied other religions, I found that most religions had similar disciplines, often called praxis. In my understanding, religion is much more about praxis than faith. The reduction of religion to faith is the Christian fallacy.

Disciplines like these are disappearing from modern American Christianity, which seems to me much more about middle class values, getting ahead, wealth, and God’s so-called blessings. We are missing something by not fasting and abstaining, by not joining the communion of saints who have practiced these disciplines before us.

On Shrove Tuesday, laissez les bons temps rouler. But on Ash Wednesday, consider the ashes on your forehead. “For you are dust and to dust shall you return” (Gen 3:19). It’s our fate and there is nothing we can do about it. It is not individual. We belong to the communion of saints. Jesus went before us. We enter into the desert; do penance, not for our sins, but for life, to discover life.

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