Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | April 22, 2011

ashes to ashes

The seven month anniversary of Jeff’s death fell on this year’s Ash Wednesday. Now, I am not a Catholic. I am not even a Christian in most accepted meanings of the word. Can count the number of times I’ve been inside a church in the last ten years on one hand. This includes funerals and music recitals.

But there is something haunting and powerful about “ashes to ashes”, and also about the fact that what remains in this physical realm of my husband’s solid presence now fits into a box the size of a loaf of homemade bread, but much, much heavier. This mystery, these ashes, compelled me to go to church.

There is a Catholic church just up the street from our home, across from the glorious expansive park-like cemetery where, alone now, I walk the dog. Truth be told, I walk myself. With exercise and fresh air the dog and I are both less likely to awaken at the darkest part of the night, the hour of Jeff’s death. Without exercise and fresh air we get to relive it nightly at 3 am. So, exercise and fresh air it is!

It seems likely I have never been inside this church before. I am far more comfortable and familiar with the naves and altars of the fields, groves, and woods of the lovely cemetery than with the stately and imposing stone church across the street.

My newest friend also lost her partner this year. We find in each other, I think, a kindred spirit – humor, skepticism, love of nature, a tendency toward misanthropy. Emanating from her is a quiet, sure spirituality coupled with the gift of the strong faith of her lost lover. This morning she mentioned her deeply religious yet independent, iconoclastic partner “going to get his ashes” last year. Being unschooled in church tradition and rhythm, and lost in my own pathos of the date, acknowledging Ash Wednesday had not occurred to me. Yet suddenly it seemed like a very good idea to “go get some ashes”. Many sudden urges strike me these days, and I am trying to learn to respect and attend to them. Maybe it’s just that there is time to listen. The months following bereavement are like convalescence, or maybe like an enforced vacation, or having a broken leg. Everything moves slower, through thicker air. It doesn’t seem to matter if a chore gets done today, tomorrow, or, often, not at at all. C.S. Lewis called this “the laziness of grief”. I think he was surprised, as I am now, to see himself not bustling about doing the things that used to seem so important.

So it was at two in the afternoon that I decided: if Jeff’s body is naught but ashes now, the least I can do is wear a dark smudge on my forehead for the remainder of this day – a reminder of the fate that awaits us all.

“Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
—Genesis 3:19 is the heart of the Ash Wednesday liturgy.

My friend had mentioned that she was planning to attend a service and briefly I thought about asking if she wanted company. But then it seemed like an intrusion on too private a moment: to sit in a church, grief so raw and close to the surface, with a similarly broken new compatriot by your side? Nah. Far too personal a request.

The Catholic church within walking distance of home held an afternoon worship service. I arrived alone at St. Joseph’s at 2:40 for the three o’clock service. Apprehensively pulled open the heavy wooden door on its black wrought iron hinges and stepped inside. The large church was nearly deserted. There were two or three women seated far apart in the dark oaken pews. I could hear murmuring, and rosary beads clicking together. My footsteps echoed on the stone floor. I was crying before I even sat down. After a moment self-consciousness swelled, loomed oppressively. It was so quiet there and I couldn’t stop weeping. Sometimes the hugeness of missing him, the brutal unchanging monolithic fact of his absence grows overwhelming. It can become a huge wave that sweeps in and I am lost, turned upside down, all tangled limbs, choking on sand and salt.

The familiar jagged edge of panic scraped – maybe I should go outside, breathe, walk in the cemetery for fifteen minutes and come back as the service was starting. That is certainly my tendency – even in grief I have a hard time sitting quietly doing nothing. I made myself stay there. Sit still. No fidgeting. Folded hands. Breathing deeply, slowly, in and out. Abiding.

Ok, I cheated. I read about the upcoming service in the book thoughtfully laid on the pew at my side. In a church, or indeed anywhere, I’ll always look at whatever reading material is available. There is beautiful poetry in some of the hymns. Each writer evidences such deep certainty of their faith in God. I have never known that feeling. Some say it is there if one will only ask sincerely enough, truly let go, allow God to fill the empty places.

Gradually the church became thronged with worshipers. No one sat near me, positioned as I was, clearly an outsider on the aisle seat of the very last pew. I tried to emit bodily a plea for privacy: shoulders hunched inside black wool jacket, head down, feet together, hands folded around a wad of damp tissue. People stayed away. Then over me fell a shadow of someone entering the pew just ahead. I looked up. The woman preparing to sit down in front of me glanced down perfunctorily, as one does, to make eye contact and a brief impersonal smile. Then we both began to laugh through our tears, as we each started crying even harder. I had looked up into the now-familiar sad eyes of my friend.

The church service commenced. One after another we walked forward to present our foreheads, silently allowing them to be smeared with the symbolic thumbprint of ashes.

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Responses

  1. I’m glad you found meaning in the Ashes. The services that prepare us Catholics for Easter – from Ash Wednesday to Palm Sunday and then the Triduum – are the most interesting. So many rituals that we only see once a year – distribution of ashes, feet washing, transfer of the Eucharist, open Tabernacle, Eucharist with no Mass, veneration of the Cross, lighting of the Paschal Candle. And I’m sure each of these traditions speaks to various individuals in a special way. Last year I let the Triduum pass me by as I used frantic busy-ness to get me through each day in a time of profound uncertainty. God was there, but if I stopped for a moment to pay attention, the weight of my situation just smothered me. I guess “trust” just didn’t seem like a real solution last winter. This year Lent flew by – chocolate-less, but fast – so I wanted to take the time to slow down and participate fully in Holy Week. And I am finding that this year, I can listen to the reminders like “Shepherd me oh God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears….” without completely falling to pieces. I hope those Ashes did good for you that day. If you like candles, check out Easter Vigil.

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