Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ashes and pride and a little snake's tail

Today my wife, Faye, and I and our son, James, went to the 6:15 Mass and received our ashes. In my last parish, the ashes were always pale, like cigarette ash. But here, I saw that the ashes were dark black. I had mixed feelings: today I would be in class all day, on campus from 9-3, and I knew few of the young college kids would have ashes on their foreheads. I'd stand out. Worse, I was afraid that even here, where Catholics are in the majority, lots of them wouldn't even know what I had on my face.

I remember in 1987, visiting my mother after a long time overseas, I came down with chicken pox before I got to her house. I spent the two weeks of my visit covered with sores, and when relatives came over, I dreaded their first sight of me. Sure, they knew they were chicken pox, but still my vanity gave me fits. This morning I was sad to see I'm still as vain as I ever was. Sigh. Another character flaw to pray over this Lent.

Sure enough, the first class (psychology) a young woman caught a glimpse of me and blurted out, "What happened to your face?" loudly enough for everyone to hear. One of those awkward silences ensued, all eyes on me. Off to my left, someone muttered, "They're ashes." I spent the next 10 minutes explaining Ash Wednesday, and the ashes, and Lent. The professor, a young atheist, prodded me with questions about my faith, about my desire for the family brother program at the Abbey ("Religion fascinates me," he said."But it seems like a myth to me.") I sent up a prayer for him.

But what surprised me was the overall response: lots of "Cool." and "Sweet." They seemed to be looking at me differently, like I was no longer just the old guy in the freshman psych class. What is it? I believe they're hungry, and when someone talks openly about faith and mortification, it touches that part of them that the world never touches---the part that wants something more than themselves. That's tough for these young kids, who've grown up in a culture bent on convincing us nothing transcends us, or our comfort, or our immediate satisfaction. I know it sells, but what I saw this morning confirms my suspicion that what hedonistic philosophy really does is make empty shells out of people.

I thanked God for the chance to witness to them, and for giving me the grace to keep it low-key. I don't know all their names, but God does, and I'll keep all of them in my prayers. Especially the young professor, whose fascination with religion tells me God is calling him. He's a research psychologist, though, full of science and data points, and probably surrounded professionally by other atheists. He has a long road, but God will prevail in calling him home someday.

Lunchtime was a rush to study for my lab quiz. They had fish in the cafeteria, but it looked far too good for Ash Wednesday so I settled for the cheese sandwich, dry. Tonight we had beans and rice for supper, and drank water. I was hungry when my plate was empty, and that's a good thing. Still, I can't see that it gives me solidarity with the poor, because they are hungry and don't know when they'll eat next, or if they'll eat again. That fear seems far worse to me than the hunger, and especially for the parents who don't know if they'll find enough food to keep their children alive. There's no way for me to experience their suffering.

When I think of things like that, my ashes and small meals seem almost pointless. Perhaps that's God's way of reminding me how far I have to go.

I've completed my prayer over the Seven Penitential Psalms and found they led me to a great spot to begin my Lenten reflections. I've done my examination of conscience, identified my greatest weaknesses and most common sins, and feel true contrition. Next, tomorrow I hope, will be confession.

On a bad note, I found myself being snappy this morning with my wife, who called me out on it after breakfast. I see a snake's tail in the grass. Satan won't let me go alone into the desert. He'll accompany me the whole way.