“Does My Ash Look All Right?”
One Ash Wednesday a decade ago, when I was new to Anglicanism, I knelt at a rail as Fr. Thomas, my priest, smeared a black cross on each forehead. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” he intoned, and marked the preteen girl kneeling next to me. Then, I heard her turn to her mom and whisper, “Does my ash look all right?”
Still kneeling, I started to laugh. Because of course it didn’t look all right. She had a large black smudge in the middle of her forehead. There is no way for that to look all right.
But I also laughed because I heard my own heart in her question. I know I’m limited. I know I’m dust and returning to dust. I bear vulnerability, weariness, and mortality. I bear sin, selfishness, and struggle. But I still want to, you know, look okay.
I want to pretend I am still all right. I have it together. It’s a well practiced facade. I’m a ten-year old girl with a big, black smudge on my face hoping to somehow pass as acceptably cool.
Taken from Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep by Tish Harrison Warren Copyright (c) 2021 by Tish Harrison Warren. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Knowing our Being and the Ground of Being
Martin Heidegger said that being is presence. Whatever else this means, it suggests that in some way presence is a basic property of simply being. Everything that exists has presence by virtue of its being. Being is more straightforward for rocks, trees, and black holes than it is for humans. Inanimate objects are never tempted by false ways of being. They are aligned within their being, and consequently their presence is less ambiguous. This is also true for nonhuman living beings—for example, animals and trees—all of which remain closer to their natures than is true for most humans. As a result, their presence is also more pure and singular.
For humans, living our truth is much more of a challenge. First, we are profoundly alienated from our being. We forget what it is to stand in awe of being itself, and of our being in particular. We are lost in doing and tempted to believe that there is nothing more to us than this. This separation from our being also reflects our separation from Being itself.
At the core of our soul is an ache that is answered only in knowing both our being and the Ground of Being. But that ache is easily ignored and misinterpreted, and consequently we seldom are aware of this most fundamental level of our alienation.
Love Turned Inside-Out
In an interview discussing her most recent book Hamnet, the novelist Maggie O’Farrell shares a great analogy on grief. It started with research she needed to do on embroidery, an area in which she was previously unfamiliar. O’Farrell approached a friend with experience on the subject, and as she recounts,
We were looking at this beautiful thing she had made and she turned it over and the back was much more complicated, quite messy,” she says. “In a sense that’s what grief is: you turn love inside out, like a sock or a glove, that’s what you find, isn’t it? Grief is just the other side of love.
Interview: Maggie O’Farrell: Severe Illness Refigures You-It’s Like Passing Through a Fire, Lisa Allardice, The Guardian, March 27, 2021.
The Messy Middle
I became interested in the subject of transition outer changes around 1970 when I was going through some difficult inner and outer changes. Although I gave up my teaching career because of those changes, I found myself teaching a seminar called “Being in Transition.” (Rule number one: When you’re in transition, you find yourself coming back in new ways to old activities.)
The twenty-five adults who showed up tor that course were in various states of confusion and crisis, and I was a bit at sea myself. I had, after all, left my career and moved my family to the country…I had imagined, I think, that the seminar would attract mostly other exurbanites and that together we could puzzle out this difficult transition. A few of these new country folk were in the class, but the mix was far richer than that…
There was a young woman who was living on her own for the first time. She was appalled to find that the rest of us, her elders, didn’t have our lives in better shape. “Its OK to be messing around when you’re twenty-three,” she said, “but I plan to get it all together by the time I’m your age.” (We all nodded sheepishly and admitted we had planned it that way, too.)