Mel's Healing Pilgrimage 2016

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

When Ashes Feel Like Salt

For some who observe the season of Lent, Ash Wednesday is an anchor that prepares us for the penitential season. Before we get to celebrate life made new on Easter, we positively must recognize that all things must die. Christ died. We must die. Death cannot be evaded and we will one day return to the formless clay from which we were created.

And yet this reminder, this lesson, has for me this year been an unnecessary, almost brutal assault. For it's been an emotional roller coaster for me and for the people I care for in my life. I've lost friends to cancer and accidents, and had scary talks of cancer and hospice for some in my family. All within the span of 4 months.

Stephen and I were taking advantage of his day off to take a walk along the beach. It was a beautiful day, one where we rejoiced in the perfect Southern California temperatures and cloud-dappled sunny skies. We could see for miles and breathed in fresh ocean air. The breeze kept the allergens away and for the first time in over a week I could see clearly, breathe easily, and didn't sneeze once.

So I broke down when I saw that a dear friend had lost his battle with cancer. Stephen held me up against the wall of a building beside the beach so that I wouldn't crumble to the ground. I at first felt the sadness of a life gone too soon, but then felt something more profound, and I didn't expect the pain.

I visited with John and Gerti three days before. The hospital visitor sticker is still in the car, as I hadn't even had time to dispose of it. And I might not. For while I stood by John's bed, Gerti and I were unsure of what was happening. That happens when so much medication and so many procedures are in play. But before I left, before she left for classes, she asked me to lead us in a prayer.

There's no doubt in my heart that we become alive when we are stitched together in prayer. We become one tissue, one heart, as we pray together. And I was grateful to the point of tears to have the opportunity to hold hands with John and Gerti, to pray together, to give thanks, to ask for healing. Our hands were in each other's hands and our hearts beat as one.

So I cried yesterday as I recalled that moment. It was a deep cry. It was a cry of mourning because that moment of love and unity was one that I will not have again. I agonized that I could not pray with John and Gerti again, not here, not in these bodies.

And as Ash Wednesday comes, when ashes are imposed upon our foreheads, when I impose ashes on the foreheads of others, I think this morning, "This doesn't feel like ashes I'm imposing. This feels like salt. This feels like the salt from the tears from our faces."

I guess I'm supposed to learn something from all this. Or remember something. Or share something. But it feels so raw. The circle of life feels disrupted because it's just been a litany of scares and deaths. I need to see friends and family having babies so that I can see that cycle of life spinning gracefully.

I don't want to rub salt in our wounds. I don't want it in my raw flesh. I want to feel the fresh air of life. I want to feel the spray of the ocean.

I guess there's the rub, isn't it? We can't appreciate life around us, life renewed in front of us, if we don't recognize death, as well. Our faces may be cleansed by the spray of the ocean, but even in that baptismal washing, we can taste the salt, and our toes are grounded in the sand. I like others want the joys of today, every day.

But the joys, the hands held in prayer, the hugs, they are all temporary. We all return to the land from where we came. We cannot hold on to the illusion of permanence. We can only hold on to the promise of love that never ends, of lives made new, of an understanding that our lives do not belong to us but are a gift to use as best we can for the time we have.

Today, I await the imposition of ashes. Today, I feel the intrusion of the salt. Today is only for today.


  1. In this physical world, we can't know something without knowing its opposite. We know light because we also know darkness. We know joy because we also know sadness. We know courage because we also know fear. So what is it that death teaches us about life? Why is it that hospice workers and volunteers do not find their jobs morose? How can we be one in spirit and yet feel separated? There is much to ponder for the next 40 days. Thank you for getting the process started. Today, I too wait for the imposition of ashes, and find it interesting that the words "imposition" and "imposing" are used rather than "sharing" or "applying" or "spreading." Good stuff! More to be revealed, I'm sure.

    1. Indeed. We can't recognize a note until we hear the quiet rest in between the notes. But the thing is, the note is there. We can hear it. We just don't recognize it. We recognize it when we hear the void. Until then it's just noise.

      I'm glad you brought up the word "impose". The ashes are imposed upon us. They are inflicted upon us. They are enforced upon us. And that's because we would otherwise turn away and ignore the reality of death, the eventuality, the plain end. We must be disrupted and intruded if we are to confront what hospice workers see every day.

      Sure it's jarring. It's supposed to be. It's too easy to be fooled into enjoying the treasures and pleasures of this earth, as though they had any real value beyond our lives here. They are merely foretastes. A hint of what is to come. They are not heaven but merely a vague reflection of what can be.

      I look forward to walking this journey through Lent with you as well my friend.

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