Wednesday, March 05, 2014

A Liberal Application of Ashes

Are they for everyone - this plate of dirty ashes on my desk?  Some of us don't need to be reminded that life is short and human nature flawed.  I'm seeing, right now, the faces of those I know to be struggling with the deathward stance their lives have taken.  They are beset by acute or chronic illness or are enduring the death of a primary relationship.  They have found themselves sidelined in their employment or vocation.  They are caught up in their own or somebody else's deep moral flaw.  They find themselves burdened by the emotional weight of jobs in which, frankly, they've seen too much.  What more could their parish priest possibly add as he advances upon them this evening at the beginning of an Ash Wednesday service with a black and dripping thumb:  

Roger, you are dust.  To dust you shall return.  Thank you, Father, I knew that.

If the gesture were an assault upon stupidity or shallowness then this would only apply to a narrow slice of humanity who could, I suppose, be especially invited to a service confected just for them - in the ascendent at work, regulars at the gym, perfect children and a perfect house, devoid of questions, doubts or depth.  A liberal application of ashes accompanied by words reminding them of the shortness and uncertainty of human life might, I imagine, provide a theological vessel into which future experiences of failure and contingency could be poured.  But only once these things had happened and once they could be believed.

No, I would submit that these ashes are for everyone - even for the majority of us who are reasonably well but who have been around the block.  They represent something other than the Church's presumption that people aren't aware how life's building blocks are pretty basic stuff - oil and carbon scraped off at the end with a little fluff and lemon juice.  Instead of being bad news about the lives we lead, though, they point us to the value of those lives by providing a frame.

The artist painting a picture of the Puy de Dome or the Pentland Hills or the Mostar Bridge does not have the liberty of including in his painting everything to the infinite right or left, to the utter east or west.  The painting has a frame which defines what the subject most definitely is and ensures that it is not some other thing.  Without its frame life is, at best, undefined.  We are dished out a certain amount.  In the bottom of the bowl is our meat and veg.  Our portion, generous or slender, is not infinite.

It is my experience of people, in the wake of a funeral, that they feel disturbed.   The immediate loss is in the process of being digested and understood.  But beyond any feelings of sympathy or empathy for the family of the deceased and beyond even the loss of somebody loved and valued, there is a nagging recognition of life's ticking clock.  Have the requisite colours been added to my painting - here in this 56th year of life?  What about the broken relationships which have never been mended?  What about the phone conversation not initiated or the letter unwritten?  What about the vow to straighten up?  What about the youthful promise to be courageous?  What about the midlife determination to recover that courage?  Having thrown our handful of earth into the grave we brush the dust from our hand as we walk back to the car.   We return from the Ash Wednesday service and wipe the smudge off our forehead with a soapy washcloth.  

We are the living.   We are the mostly healthy.  We have years left to us and, while there is still time, we have the means to value better what we have within our frame and within our bowl.  A sharp message about life's meagre span grants us the gift of a lifetime.