Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Abstruse


I've never spent much time thinking about Ash Wednesday before. Lent, yes. Shrove Tuesday pancake dinners, sure. (Anything in the church bulletin was studied carefully during the last ten minutes of every sermon during my preteen years.) But Ash Wednesday didn't feature as prominently in my Methodist upbringing as it does in other variations of Christianity. And as I grew older I wandered toward churches with looser ties to mainstream historical denominations, and I also wandered farther away from the kind of traditions that mark a liturgical year.

Those ceremonial elements of church interest me more, though, the older I get. I started to feel like lack of denomination meant detachment, not being rooted in history, or in traditions as a safe places to ground the too-big feelings. In churches with shallow roots, I began to miss the very things I'd dismissed as stuffy when I was a kid. Hard wooden pews. Stained glass. The smell of a hymnal or old building and the groan of an organ. And rituals. Rituals give us chances to mark time, but they also give us words when words fail. I come back to that idea now as a result of my academics, actually. My faith now wants to be a mix of history and stories and that smell of old books. Giving love, asking questions, feeling compassion. And marking joy and loss with tradition.

I think for that reason, I liked the tension in Sara Miles' memoir, City of God: Faith in the Streets. Miles is a pastor in an Episcopalian church in the Mission District of San Francisco. The book focuses on her experiences over a single day--Ash Wednesday in 2012--as she takes ashes to the people on the streets. As I said in my review last month for The Los Angeles Review of Books, Miles writes with refreshing honesty about her faith. For her, Ash Wednesday is about faith in messy and imperfect bodies. She questions even the ceremonial act she undertakes, and her own ability to do that second most important commandment: love her neighbor.

Yesterday Henry wanted to know about Ash Wednesday on the way to school. Today is his birthday, so he saw the holiday on the calendar. Five minutes and two miles isn't long enough to explain liturgical seasons and Lent and references to sin and the reminder from Genesis that we will all return to dust. It took K an hour or so to walk me through the Catholic version before I wrote the review, and I'm still driving around a copy of Catholicism for Dummies in my car. (For red light Vatican reference emergencies.) Faith, and the ceremony surrounding it, is complicated. Abstruse was the word I came to, when pushed by my editor to move away from "complex." If your reference point was Facebook, you might think that Lent meant forced dieting, a spring kick-start of carb and soda and curse word restriction, rather than a period of solemn atonement. Or maybe I'm missing something and the best way to know God really is to be temporarily Paleo. Maybe cavemen were closer to Jesus because they didn't eat grains? It just makes me chuckle how this all shakes out in the social media world of 2014.

I don't pretend to observe Ash Wednesday. Only to say that I've been thinking about it with respect today. Miles' memoir was thoughtful and honest in a way that made me consider my own faith. And also, the two ideas that Ash Wednesday seems to represent, as best as I can cobble together: reflection and acceptance of our mortality. Being reflective about my behavior--taking ownership of my actions--that's just something I could stand to do a little bit more of. And perhaps it's morbid to think about your death, but the other side of that is gratitude for the life that's in front of you.

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