I have never bought oatmeal, marshmallows or fluffernutter for my family. I have never cooked soft-boiled eggs, lima beans or liver. The things that I detested in my childhood have never made their way into my adult life. I have no problem with my kids declining a meal that they dislike, opting for a sandwich or last night’s leftovers instead. The ‘eat-it-or-else’ philosophy did not follow me into motherhood.
On the other hand, there are many rituals, traditions and practices from my upbringing that I have embraced. We were raised Roman Catholic and my mother made certain that we practiced our faith. Keeping true to the sacraments was important and my mom didn’t miss a beat marching to the rhythm of the religious calendar. While I did not embrace these practices in a deeply personal, spiritual way until much later in my life, I did not rebuke them either.
As a young girl I liked going to church, but I dreaded confession, as I was not really sure how to keep track from week to week of the transgression of my childhood. Hating my brother would be described as ‘fighting with my brother’ and I would wedge it in between ‘I lied five times and talked back to my parents.’ The truth is, I would write a mental list of palatable offenses while waiting in line to whisper into the screen in the daunting dark confessional booth. I worried that the stuff I was saying was inaccurate and wondered if being off by 3 or 5 lies could land me a place in eternal hell.
Confession was made worse, however, when the scary, dark booth was eliminated and the progressive movement in our church led us into open rooms with a small screen on a stand shielding my face from the Father’s. There was always the option of sitting in a chair directly across from the priest for face-to-face dialog. No face-to-face for this girl; not a chance.
Perhaps the single most uncomfortable practice for me came once a year; Ash Wednesday and the receiving of ashes. At a designated time that seemed to always land between school and dance class, my mom would haul us to church where we would kneel for prayer and then take our place at the alter for the priest to tell us that we came from ashes and so would return. He would dip his thumb into the ash and smudge our foreheads. It was supposed to be the sign of the cross, but to me looked more like a smudge of dirt. My mother told us not to wipe it off.
At dance class, I was keenly aware of the other girls’ foreheads and searched desperately to find one smudged like my own. I made all kinds of gestures to ‘accidentally’ rub some off, hoping to make them less obvious while maintaining my place in eternal life. If I was lucky, there would be at least one other girl smudged and less clever about the wipe-off, so that her ashes were darker and more obvious, allowing me to draw less attention.
My faith was an ebb and flow through my adolescent years and on into college where going to church was reserved for the family holidays. I had one devoutly Christian friend who dragged a whole group of us to the chapel on campus for the Ash Wednesday smudging and we did so laughing and giggling as if we were doing something outrageous.
Years later upon meeting my husband, I agreed to go to a Christmas Eve service at the Episcopal Church in the town where we lived. It was a slow uphill climb until I reached the place where I not longer felt I was ‘cheating’ on my Catholic heritage and realized that this Christian faith was so similar to my former practice. The service is basically the same, with the exception of an in service group confession. This worked just fine for me.
Through the years, I have grown deeply rooted in my church. We were married in this place, baptized our babies here and recently confirmed my oldest. My son and I serve on the alter many Sundays and I have come to love the traditions of my church. Lent is a meaningful time for me and while I have not required my children to keep Lenten practices, they have followed me along that path. In some years, I have attended Bible studies and Lenten programs and in all years I have challenged myself to deny some of life’s more evil indulgences on a pilgrimage of self purity.
The culminating week, Holy Week is filled with moving services that I have attended through the years: Palm Sunday begins the week as we stroll across the town green singing and waving palms in anticipation of the King’s arrival. The service of Tenebrae is powerful and moving; Maundy Thursday we sit quietly at the foot of a life-sized cross in the dimly lit silence of the late night watch; Good Friday service is followed by Holy Saturday where my children have had their feet washed, partaken in a last supper and heard the door of the tomb slam shut.
The one and only practice that I have not made ritual is Ash Wednesday. Unlike the Catholic practice, the Imposition of Ashes in the Episcopal Church is done during a service; a full service; a Collect, Psalm, Two Reading, Gospel, Sermon and Communion Service. The services are at 6:30am, 12:00 noon, or 7:30 in the evening. Ashes never seemed terribly convenient and I excused myself with the justification that I kept many of the other practices.
“Mom, why is it called Ash Wednesday?” Cadence asked, as we discussed our commitments for the Lenten weeks. I explained about the burning of last year’s palms and about the ashes to ashes message. “Why don’t we do that?” my nine-year-old asked me, really wondering. “Can we go get ashes today?”
“We’ll see.” I answer, thinking about 7:30pm. I have committed to a meeting at the middle school to help in planning the eighth grade dinner dance. As the rainy, dreary day rolls along, I feel increasingly like I am coming down with a cold and cannot seem to get warm. By the days end, I wrestle with fatigue and a headache and decide to beg out of the school meeting. Brad is late coming home and I have fed the kids and flopped on the couch under a blanket, wishing it was late enough to go to bed.
At 7:00, Cadence notices the time and asks when we are going to get ashes. I explain that I am not feeling well and disappointment washes over her. “Maybe Dad will take you.” I offer, knowing the chance of this is slim. I hear him faltering through his explanation in the kitchen, that although he has just walked in the door, he is far from finished and needs to sit down to work. “But Dad, it’s for Jesus.” Cadences pleads before returning next to me on the couch.
“Any luck?” I ask, watching her mouth tighten and head shake no. I can see through her to her mind, still twirling to figure out how she will get to the church. “Do I need to take you?” I ask.
“It’s for Jesus.” She answers and runs off to fetch her coat.
We arrive a couple of minutes into the service and move our way right up to the front, sitting on the right side opposite our usual spot on the left. Cadence opens a prayer book and we find our place as she follows along. The church is dotted with twenty or so people and the familiar is strangely new in the darkness of evening with the prayers altered for the day. We move through the first reading to Psalm 103 with the congregation singing a refrain, “The Lord remembers that we are but dust.”
Cadences forehead scrunches as we sing, and she looks up at me confused. “I don’t get this.” She whispers, pointing to the refrain. I begin to explain the ashes to ashes theory and she interrupts, “not that… this.” She says, pointing repeatedly at the last two words, ‘but dust.’ A moment later I realize that she does not see the word ‘but’ as the word ‘only’; rather she sees it as ‘butt’.
“We are butt dust?” She whispers, not sure if she should be shocked or laughing. I suppress a giggle and am reminded that while she is remarkably mature, she is still only nine. Cadence is completely tuned into the sermon, given by our British female priest, Angela. The time finally comes to move silently to the alter to kneel for ashes. I watch Angela to the left dip her index finger into the bowl and pointedly make a neat black cross on the heads of one after another. Then I see the people turn to leave from Father Hank’s side on the right. Father Hank does nothing half way. He is known for drenching sweet babies at Baptism and it comes as no surprise that he is going big with the ashes; really big; hairline to the bridge of your nose big. I watch as he dips his thumb, painting what could never be mistaken for a smudge of dirt, but clearly a large cross on forehead after forehead and I secretly wish we sat in our usual spot on the left.
Cadence is first and she looks up at me, her little face glowing and freckled with specs of ash beneath the cross. I turn to her after receiving my ashes and she smiles and nods with satisfaction. She makes her way around the church during the Peace, shaking hands saying “Peace be with you.” Back in the pew next to me, we open the Hymnal to sing. “Is it still there?” She asks. I smile and nod.
On the way home, I tell Cadence that the very last thing I wanted to do this evening was to get off the couch to come to church, but I am grateful that she brought me. “Will it still be on my head tomorrow?” She asks.
“Maybe a little.” I answer, thinking back to dance class. “Will that bother you to go to school with ashes?”
“No way. I want them there.” She answers. “It’s for Jesus.”