Religion: Ash Wednesday and Lent

Growing up a Catholic kid in a small town in West Virginia, it was always inevitable that I would have to explain our practice of receiving ashes at least once a year, usually while wearing them.  “Hey, you have something smudged on your forehead.”  I would half chuckle and then explain why I had “dirt on my face”.  There were not that many Catholics in our area at that time.  Not that many at all.  When I moved to New York, I was mystified that so many of my coworkers left work midday to receive the ashes and then came back with them on their foreheads, not being judged because everyone knew what it meant.  The number of Catholic Churches throughout the greater NYC area always made me smile.  There are well over 100 parishes.

Ash Wednesday is a day of prayer, fasting and repentance.  The rules for fasting and abstinence in the United States are: Every person 14 years or older must abstain from meat (and items made with meat) on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all the Fridays of Lent. Every person between the age of 18 and 59 (beginning of 60th year) must fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  Lent technically lasts for 46 days: Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday.  As Erin and I discussed last night, Sundays are not included in Lent because they commemorate the resurrection of Christ and are meant to be days of celebration.  I have not actively participated in Mass since Daddy died (Oct 2016).  I have been somewhat disenfranchised for some time.  I believe I like our new Pope.  But, I hate all of the cover-ups and payoffs that splash across the headlines.

One thing is certain, I do miss the feeling of family and community I experienced as a kid at Sts Peter and Paul Catholic Church.

The Catholic experience of my youth:

As a young kid I was rambunctious.  I attended a public school where there was a dominatrix for a third grade teacher (yes, my post about religion would include a dominatrix).  No, she was not a “real” one but she was a bit of a sadist.  I received regular beatings (close to daily).  Some warranted, some not.  My friend told my Ma that Ms. Johnson was trying to kill me.  Ma took these words seriously and showed up at the school (remaining somewhat hidden) the next day. As my daily beating was about to begin, I can remember Ms. Johnson’s arm coming up and my Ma’s hand catching it on its downward turn.  I can remember Ma pinning her to the wall and a flurry of activity.  It took Ma a little time to get the money together but as soon as she could she transferred me to a Catholic school, the only religious school in the area at the time.  (There I would go on to be called a heathen by Father Seamus Maguire for cracking the chapel window: “some warranted, some not”)   I loved the tradition of Mass, that it was close to the same every time.  I enjoyed the music. I was sad that girls could not be alter servers.  I hated saying 100 Hail Mary’s in the chapel when I was bad (and Sisters Mary Rose, Mary Delores and Mary Ann found me to be bad on several occasions).  I loved piano lessons with Sister Delores, though she would not let me play rock and roll and kept me to simple waltzes.  In sixth grade I realized I wanted to be Catholic and to receive communion like my friends.  I cannot remember the conversations I had with my parents but it was soon after that Dad and I would go to Mass together on Sundays.  Then Dad found that he, too, liked the world of Catholicism.  Soon, Ma joined us and it became a family thing.  In sixth grade, over a foot taller than the normal second graders receiving the sacrament, I received communion on June 1, 1980.  Either that same weekend or around about the same time, both of my parents converted to Catholicism.  I liked that we sat in the same pew every Sunday.  All the way up to Daddy’s death that was the “pew area” we occupied. The people in the pews around us were our church family, even to this day.

I have no specific date for when I started to wane from my religious obligations of Mass and the sacraments.  Over time I was less and less involved, eventually only going to Mass when I would visit Dad and, after his passing, not at all.  I try to do a Lenten commitment every year.  Some successful, others not. As this Ash Wednesday rolled around I started to think about its meaning a little more.  The ashes are a symbol of the life cycle.  As you receive them the priest will tell you: “Remember, man is dust, and unto dust you shall return”.  This comes from Genesis 3:19 “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”  The ashes are also seen as a mark of sorrow and grief for personal sins and as a symbol of repentance.  I will not be receiving ashes today in church for personal reasons that one day I might discuss.  I will, however, be a bit symbolic in my celebration of Ash Wednesday and put my hands in soil to re-pot a plant almost killed by the feral cats this past fall and which I have been growing the roots in water ever since. I wish it was a tad bit warmer, I would do something in the yard, although limited by the time of year and temperature.  But, putting my hands in the dirt, where we return when we die, will be my symbolic nod to the day.

I do not plan to be a hypocrite and say that I am running back to church and taking up all the vestments of religion.  I am not.  I would like to explore the possibility of my rekindling the spiritual side of who I am, whatever that means. So, it will be a process just like anything else.  I thought that Lent would be as good a time as any to dive right in and “explore my options”.

My hopeful commitments for this Lenten season:

  • Read the New Testament before Easter. In recent years, people have taken to publicly using the words of the Bible to spew hate by distorting meaning.  That is not the intended purpose.  By educating myself on what those words really are, what they mean (and to more religions than just the one I know), I feel as if I could be better prepared for the world that is being shaped before our eyes and able to have educated conversations with people I now do not understand.  I want the historical aspect of what was going on while it was written, why it was written and, as an instrument of guidance, where did the authors intend for us to be led.  And yes, there will be blogs as I am sure I will be confused and perchance enlightened along the way.
  • I will eat fish on Fridays (break my arm why don’t you!)
  • I will send 46 messages (one per day) either by email or snail mail to people who have made an impact on my life and tell them I love them and tell them I hope they have joy in their lives.
  • During April I will expand my views by learning more about the traditions and beliefs of other religions.  I think that if I understood where others are coming from, it might be both beneficial and helpful in (again) navigating the world we are currently living in.

So, those are my commitments.  Do you have any plans to observe Lent by giving up an item or committing to an action?  I would love to hear about it if you are.

And for those of you who want to @ me with the whole “priests nowadays” or “religion is a fairy tale” comments: please don’t.  I will not (at this time) engage in those conversations. Directing your anger/angst at me for being Catholic does not solve the horrible situations that too many people have endured.  I am no expert in those matters.  They exist, it is horrible and it needs to be corrected and offending parties held accountable.

I am just a disenfranchised Catholic trying to iron out the wrinkles of her soul.  That is my current journey – trying to better understand a religion I was one adamant about and take away the pieces of it that still matter to me.

Thank you.

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