Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Sacred Ashes

People have been looking at me strangely all day, and it takes me a moment to remember each time why: I’ve got ashes on my forehead in the shape of a cross. Big bold strokes, all the way into the hairline - not your normal fashion statement. But, you see, today is Ash Wednesday.

I’ve heard various versions of “Hey, you’ve got something on your forehead,” “Here, let me clean that for you,” and “What happened to your face?” over the years, almost all of them since I moved to Nashville. In the more heavily Catholic Texas, where I’m from, people just know. In fact, I’m sure that a high percentage of the 1.1 billion Catholics in the world are walking around with “something on their forehead” today.

“But you’re not Catholic!” some of my friends will tell me. Technically not true: according to canon law, I’m still a Catholic, albeit a pretty bad one. I’ve turned into a “show up for the big days” kind of Catholic, but it’s not because I’m disaffected and fulfilling social obligations, nor because I’m basically uninterested and just following family tradition. On the contrary, I’m deeply interested. I’m just not exclusively Catholic anymore.

When I felt the touch of the deacon’s fingers today marking me with the sacred ash, it felt profound and holy to me – but no more holy than when I was marked with vibhuti, a sacred ash used in Hindu rituals, and instructed to concentrate my meditation on that spot. I did not reject Catholicism in particular or Christian teachings in general, I simply came to understand that my personal experience of the divine, of the holy, was wider than Christianity could contain. The holy calls to us from all things everywhere; my ears simply became attuned to a different frequency.

For these sacred ashes, something holy must be burned. The palms from last year’s Palm Sunday are burned and mixed with oil to make this year’s Ash Wednesday ashes; a variety of elements (you don’t want to know, but they are all considered holy) are burned and mixed together for vibhuti. All of this is a reminder that even what I hold to be holy in my own life must eventually burn to ash to make way for a new holy thing to come into being. Everything burns, everything falls away – my Catholic upbringing, my years of spiritual seeking, even my mystical experiences – so that I may take one more step toward the truth that lies beyond holiness, because it lies beyond all division. I, too, am sacred ash.

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