Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ash Wednesday, 2001 to present day

Or maybe the other way around?

Today is a fasting day, which is kind of a bummer after the happy gluttony of Super Bowl Sunday and Mardi Gras. I didn't want to get up because my stomach was already growling when the alarm went off this morning, and I felt that by turning it off and sleeping an extra hour, I would lessen the time of my fast and therefore not suffer as much.

It would be nice if that had worked out, wouldn't it?

Meelyn was the first person downstairs and she asked if I'd like to split a peanut butter sandwich with her: the rule for fasting is that all Roman Catholics aged 14+ must observe the required fasts, which consist of two small meals not equal to one full meal, and then one regular meal. No meat (unless there are medical reasons that would make a fast unhealthy). So half a peanut butter sandwich sounded like just the thing.

Unfortunately, when I got downstairs twenty minutes later, Meelyn had already made the sandwich and eaten her half. I say "unfortunately" because she had made it with strawberry jam.

"Meelyn," I said, "you put jam on this sandwich."


"Well, it's Lent. We've given up sweets, remember? All sweets? We've been talking about this for days? 'No cookies, no candy, no jam on our toast'?"

She came into the kitchen carrying her plate. "Oh yeah," she said sheepishly. Her face brightened. "But I did use the sugar-free jam and it wasn't very good, so there! It didn't really count as a sweet!"

I gave her a baleful look (I also gave up diet soda pop and not having a soft drink it the mornings makes me all twitchy and weird) and left the sandwich on the counter.

Tonight, we head off to Mass at 5:30. We'll receive our ashes on our foreheads and receive Jesus in our souls and come home to eat macaroni and cheese.

It's all so much different than the first Ash Wednesday we experienced seven years ago.

At the time, I still considered myself a Protestant. My husband, the girls and I were going to the same charismatic evangelical church my own family had been attending since I was fourteen years old. It was as familiar and comfortable as a pair of fleecy slippers.

But you know how that even the most comfortable pair of fleecy slippers can wear out? That's how I felt about that church. It was still comfortable, but something was wrong and it was wrong enough that it couldn't be ignored. I was very nervous because it appeared that what was wrong was me. I felt so extremely empty. There wasn't a word the pastor could say -- and he was a very gifted teacher -- that I felt I hadn't heard before. I was tired of singing worship choruses. I was tired of church on Sunday morning and Sunday evening and Wednesday night. What did it all matter? This particular church had nothing more to offer me. I was at the end of that particular experience.

At that time, I would no more have thought about continuing on my Christian faith as a Catholic than I would have cut off my own foot. Catholicism was so far from being an option, it wasn't even on my radar. But heck if I knew what other church was out there. I had no interest in mainline denominations; anyone who has ever read statistics on churches and church attendance in the United States can clearly see that the mainline churches are doing a slow bleed. There was no way anyone was ever going to get me through the doors of a fundamentalist denomination. That left evangelical churches and out of the many thousands of those there are, I felt that what my current denomination had to offer was among the best out there.

I wasn't interested in how many ladies' Bible studies a place offered. I didn't care about youth programs. I was (and still am) utterly horrified by the idea of attending a church where I could sit in a "coffee shop" drinking a half-caf non-fat latte and watching the pastor deliver his message on a plasma screen television; that seemed a little too much like ridiculously self-indulgent behavior to me, not even being able to bestir oneself for two hours on a Sunday morning to devote full and complete attention to worshiping God, but instead having to avail oneself of the grown-up version of a church nursery. That was definitely not for me.

Nothing seemed to be for me. It was very depressing. I was worried that I was losing my soul - that the enemy had found some way to breach my defenses and was slowly dragging me away to eventual damnation, peeling my fingers off the cross one by one.

Gradually, I began remember the Episcopalian traditions of my childhood and how close to Jesus I had felt as a little kid and decided to see if bringing some of those tradtions -- Advent, Lent -- into my own family would help me know Him and love Him more.

In October 2000, I started a project to write a Book of Hours for the season of Advent. I did hours and hours of research through library books and the internet and eventually compiled the four week prayer book that I think may well be the most precious and dearly-loved thing I've ever written, before or since. I gave them out to about fourteen people: some went to my church, some went to family members, some went to friends from different churches. One person was terribly offended and one person wrote me that she followed every reading faithfully. Most people thanked me warmly, but obviously thought I was a tiny bit strange.

That was also the same year I bought an Advent wreath from the grandaddy of all online Catholic stores, Catholic, and waited with trepidation for it to arrive in the mail: at the time, it seemed extremely daring to order something from an actual Catholic store. My husband, who was raised in an extremely anti-Catholic fundamentalist denomination, was extremely unimpressed and refused to light the candles and pray the little prayers with me and the girls.

In spite of his non-participation, those weeks leading up to Christmas were the best I'd ever known.

And if Christmas could be that much better, what could following those Episcopal traditions of my childhood do for Easter?

Raised in the Episcopal church, I had never been comfortable with the way my family's charismatic evangelical church celebrated Easter. All there was to it was Easter -- all the alleluia-he-is-risen and not one moment of thought given to His sacrifice and what it meant to us as Christians. I asked the pastor that year if there was a chance that the church could hold a Good Friday service and he said, "I don't think so. We tried that a couple of times when we first moved here years ago and nobody came."

Nobody came. I was really struck by that, considering that I was one of the ones who hadn't come. It reminded me uncomfortably of how there was only one faithful disciple there with Jesus at the foot of the cross on the day He was crucified; all the others were hiding in fear of there lives, which was somewhat understandable. But what were all of us doing, now? Out buying outfits to wear on Easter Sunday? Shopping for the big feast? Why weren't we there with Him? More to the point, why hadn't I been there with Him?

Now I look back on that and find it extremely telling that this same pastor's daughter was married on Holy Saturday a few years back. Because I'd known her from her infancy, I went to the wedding, but sat in the back row of the church where I could make a discreet exit when the ceremony was over. It seemed really shocking to be at a joyful occasion like a wedding when, a couple thousand years ago, the disciples were mourning the death of the Lord, praying and hoping that what He'd told them was true and that He would be raised from the dead as He'd promised. It seemed wrong to pre-empt the joy of His resurrection and the wonder of Easter with a wedding. It was wrong.

With no Good Friday service at my own church, the next best thing seemed like a service of some sort at someone else's church. In 2000, I went with my mother's friend Carole to the First United Methodist Church to a Good Friday service, but in 2001, I decided to do the whole thing and go for the ashes.

Again, my husband was not interested. He was not going to go to a church to have ashes wiped on his forehead with someone's dirty old thumb. Let alone a priest. No priest was going to touch him; he wasn't going to any church, but most definitely not a Catholic church. No way. Not a chance.

No other church in New Castle that I could locate was having an Ash Wednesday service, so St. Anne's was literally the only game in town. When I went there with the girls, it was the first time I'd been in a Catholic church in about twenty-five years. I got tears in my eyes when I saw the padded kneelers, so familiar to me from my childhood. At my current church, there was no such thing as a time when everyone would kneel in contemplation of Christ Jesus. I kept a close eye on the statues to make sure there was no worship going on and was a tiny bit disappointed that nothing untoward happened - with Catholics, you just never knew. I was considerably startled by the fact that the church, which was relatively empty when Meelyn, Aisling and I had first arrived, was completely packed by the time things were supposed to begin. Even more, I was astounded by the fact that everyone was so very quiet. There were hundreds of people in the church, but only the least bit of sibilant whispering indicated that the place was packed to the rafters; it might have been the brush on a evergreen branch against a window, the flutter of pages in a missal.

But the silence was strangely alive. It was comforting, warm, and not in the least bit weird or embarrassing. I was used to being in a church where a reverent hush was omething that never happened. The beginning of the service was a time to be up and moving around, saying hello to friends and then fleeing to a seat with a little scream when the pastor came out. A rock band was always playing loudly up front. There was a festival atmosphere, nothing like the calm, happy quietude of this place.

As a member of a charismatic church, I was familiar with the presence of the Holy Spirit. But this place had more. I couldn't figure it out. It puzzled me and frankly, it hacked me off a little. I'd gone to St. Anne's thinking I'd find a poky, three-quarters empty place with a few bored parishioners mumbling their way through the rote prayers. I'd gone there firmly believing that no one in that place would be taking this whole ashes-on-the-forehead thing as seriously as I was. Because I was enlightened. I wasn't hampered by superstitions and man-made traditions. I truly knew what a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus was like.

I look back on that uncomely arrogance and just cringe.

But I just couldn't get over that sense of MORE.

I went to talk to my pastor in his office a few days later and explained how strange it all was. "I could feel....God...there," I said uncertainly, aggrieved and yet strangely exhilarated.

I found out why a couple of weeks later, but that's another story.

At any rate, the first Mass I attended as an adult was an Ash Wednesday Mass. My life began to chance dramatically from that day on and the change has continued up to this day, with the jam on the sandwich, the lack of a diet soda, and a peaceful, blissful joy that He brought us all home to His Church.

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