Mel's Healing Pilgrimage 2016

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Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Healing Ashes

For many years, I viewed Lent as that season where I gave up something and eventually got to Easter. It was simplistic and easy enough for the child that I was. When I left the church, I gave up any practice. When I returned, I came back with somewhat the same ideas. It caught me off guard when I realized I was adjusting my notion of Lent and what it meant to me. 

Like the camino, Lent is an opportunity to journey on, to explore and find my way to new life, to reconciliation, to wholeness. It's not enough to give up something in a penitential way, but also to take something on, also in a penitential way. Like much of life, to change and move forward, you sometimes have to let go and sometimes have to take on.

It's remarkable how a simple Lenten practice can become a part of your life. Ten years ago, Stephen and I started a simple Lenten discipline of helping at Union Station Homeless Services and, after Lent ended, we found that the journey was destined to continue. It's something that's ingrained in our lives.

There's also the letting go. I shared a story last night with some folks at our bi-monthly Lay Counseling Ministry meeting. I had some beads around my neck and we were talking about Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday. Perhaps 15 years ago, when I was finding myself changing how I viewed Lent, I was doing a work job back east at a historically Methodist college and needed to find a lunch-hour Ash Wednesday service. I found one at the college chapel. Picture it with me.

You enter into the quiet space. As you enter, you find a large stone gourd, many slips of paper, and pencils. A small sign instructs you what to do. "Write the sins, sorrows, and regrets that you carry with you today and every day on a piece of paper and leave it here in the gourd." So I did. I took a couple pieces of paper and wrote some things down and left it. I then sat and waited for the service to begin. As the service began, the gourd processed in and was set on a stand in front of us all.

It was a traditional Lenten service for the most part. But when we came to the litany, it changed. As we recited the litany of prayers for ourselves and for the world, the celebrant lit a match. And the match went into the gourd. Soon all those sins, sorrows, and regrets were aflame, as we continued with our prayers. After the flames died down, the celebrant began to grind away at the smoldering remains until they were pulverized.

We had our ashes. 

Ashes made of the burnt and ground up memories of our sins. Of our sorrows. Of our regrets. We then all moved forward to the front of the church, bowed our heads down, and the ashes were placed on our heads. The traditional phrase was said: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

That ritual has stuck with me ever since. In it, we are reminded that we are impermanent and will one day return to dust. And strikingly, in a wondrous healing way, our sorrows also were called out as impermanent. Our sins are impermanent. Our regrets are impermanent. All will go away some day.

The remnants of my sins, sorrows, and regrets were placed on my forehead to remind me that they, like me, were not fixed forever. And I found healing in that act. I found forgiveness. Forgiveness by God. Forgiveness for others. Forgiveness for myself.

I think of this ritual whenever I feel the need to fend off the burden of sin, sorrow, and regret. I light a candle and imagine myself burning these thoughts away. And every year, on Ash Wednesday, I let the ashes of those feelings bless me.

May your Ash Wednesday be graced with healing ashes.

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