Paying Attention on Ash Wednesday

February 21, 2007

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It returns each year when the trees are bare and the earth freezes over.

Ash Wednesday ushers in the season of Lent, a barren time between the cross hairs of late winter and early spring. It's a time of service, of prayer and reflection, an inward-looking time. I did not always see it that way.

When I was a child, I hated Ash Wednesday. You lined up in front of an altar, a priest smudged your forehead with black ash, then like a ghost from a horror movie, intoned in a somber voice, 'you are dust and unto dust you shall return.'

But now, in mid-life, I find I look forward to each year to Ash Wednesday. I think it's a good thing to be reminded at least once a year that our lives will one day come to an end.

In her poem, “What The Living Do,” Marie Howe addresses her younger brother Johnny, who has died of AIDS. “It's winter again and the sky is a headstrong blue,” Howe says.

Her kitchen sink is clogged. The dishes are piling up, the Drano® won't work, and the heat's on too high in her apartment and she can't turn it off. She is walking down a street in Cambridge carrying a bag of groceries and the bag breaks, and the coffee she's been drinking from a cup spills down her coat sleeve.

Most of us would moan and groan about any one of these annoyances. But these events look quite different to Howe since her brother had died. Suddenly it hits her: This is what the living do. S

he goes on to say, “This is it: buying a hair brush, slamming the car door shut in the cold.” These are the privileges of the living. These are the incidental details of life that her brother, and the dead, give up.

My view of Ash Wednesday began to change soon after I moved to Chicago. That winter, I was starting a new job as a reporter with The Wall Street Journal's Chicago bureau.

I ventured into St. Peter's Church in the Loop. There, Franciscan friars dole out ashes all day long, and throngs of downtown workers line up to get them. The priest who gave me my ashes didn't use the traditional phrase about dust. He said something like, “Repent, and listen to the good news of the gospels.”

These few words offered a whole new sense Ash Wednesday. I began to see the day as a once-a-year wake up call: an invitation to listen, to become more attentive to life.

Our lives change when we pay attention. The Buddhist monk and poet Thich Nhat Hahn writes about the small act of chewing a piece of bread with a bit of warm milk. If we chew slowly, mindfully, he says, savoring the taste at every second, then a simple meal of bread and milk can taste like a feast.

A friend of mine who moved several years ago from the Midwest to the desert outside of Tucson, had a similar experience. She says when she first arrived in the desert, she saw only browns and grays in the landscape. Over time, she began to look more closely. Now she says “I never knew there were so many shades of brown and gray.”

When I'm paying attention, I'm more apt to see my life, not as a series of random events with seemingly no connection, but as a journey. When I look at my life that way, my destination becomes less and less important. What's of consequence is the journey. I give myself permission to follow detours, venture on side trips. And when the unexpected turns up, I'm prepared to welcome it in, like a guest.

Every Ash Wednesday, I try to pick a phrase or two to reflect during the six weeks of Lent. This year, it's a line I came upon recently from the writings of the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. “Start a huge and foolish project, like Noah,” Rumi says. I don't know yet what that phrase ultimately will come to mean to me. But I'm certain it will become clear. If not during this Lenten season, then at the appropriated time. Until then, I'm grateful just for the journey.

Music used:
The Innocence Mission - "Lakes of Canada" - Birds of My Neighborhood (MCA, 1999)
Air - "Radian" - 10,000 Hz Legend (Astralwerks, 2001)
The Innocence Mission - "July" - Birds of My Neighborhood (MCA, 1999)