Ashes

Ashed by Fr. Steve, in a pattern more like the Chinese symbol for Rain....

Absentmindedly, I dip my fingers into the holy water font to bless myself.  I am surprised when my fingers touch something hard and rough .   Lining the font just inside the door of St. Patrick’s in Milford, NH, is a purple cloth upon which sit a neat pile of white granite stones.   I am overcome with disappointment — immediately recalling the stoop shouldered sigh of Charlie Brown when he opens his Trick or Treat bag and finds nothing but rocks.

What is happening to me?

It is Lent.  There is no holy water.  I  am in the desert with Jesus — grappling with with devil who comes in the form of Girl Scout Cookies and the promise of an Easier, Softer Way.  I consider the stone-faced people already kneeling at 6:45 — really 5:45 since daylight savings has kicked in … dark and cold moon backlighting the stained glass — warm prayers puffing out of their mouths.

I want to be back in Portland.  There is always holy water in the font there.  Sometimes only a tiny little puddle in the big copper basin — discouraging the people who will wash their hands and faces and even their socks, like raccoons cleaning their spoils, in that holy water… hoping to wash away something.  Who knows what.  I have seen someone lay her dirty hand flat on the bottom of the copper bowl,  in a lost puddle soaking up the holiness — an oily rainbow sheen of sin forming around the edges.

On my knees still in my coat, elbows on the pew in front of me, forehead on fists … trying to pray, my fingers knead the creases in my forehead where the ashes from twenty days ago settled.   The old priest ashed me, his thumb smearing across my forehead leaving Chinese calligraphy in contrast to the neat crosses on the brows of the people who lined up in the other three lines.   “Wash it off” he said.  I wore mine all day.   “Pardon me, ma’am, you have something on your forehead” the Clean and Safe guy said as he offered his rag to me.  The lady in the Nordstrom Rack shoe section looked meanly at me and spat out “whatthefuckisupwithRickSantorum”.  Catholic now.

I think about the gentle brown-eyed priest carrying that basin back from the sacristy – refilled (from some magic holy water spring that bubbles up from the Portland sewers?) — after he has scrubbed out the latest clothes washing.  He always fills it up to the brim and staggers a little under the weight of it.   A year ago,  he challenged me with the reality of facing my own desert.  Grappling with the devil and God’s love and what my life means — what my job is going to be.

In the early morning class where all the hopeful sit,  the priest told us what it means to wear the cross on our forehead — and live it in our hearts so that on Good Friday we can reverence the sign of salvation.   The year before,  I was glued to my seat and could not humble myself to kiss that Cross….while all the lame and crippled people went before me…. and it made my face get hot remembering the longing and disgust.

He tapped me on the shoulder and motioned me to stand.  “Act like God” he said –” stand with open arms wanting and ready to love”.   He told me to call his name and to keep calling him until he came to me. I laughed. “Ron” I called. He turned away – put his back to me. I said again, “Ron?”. He walked farther…. people laughed nervously. “Ron” .. I called him again. He went into the dark kitchen where we make the soup for Friday night’s  meal. I heard him stumbling around — rattling the pots and pans in the dark. “Ron”… I called.  I noticed the people watching me and got hot again.  “Ron” — sounding a little desperate now as his voice drifted away.  God wouldn’t do that.  He would sound commanding.   Ron stuck his head around the corner.  “Ron”  I almost whisper,  and then he looks at me. I was relieved to see his face. “Ron” I said again.  He walked to me with his head down and I just had to give him a hug.

I jerk my wandering mind back to where I am now by running through all the prayers I know “oh my jesus forgive us our sins and save us from the fires of hell and lead all souls to heaven epecially those in most need of thy mercy hail mary full of grace and st. michael the archangel defend us in battle blessed is the fruit of thy womb for the sake of his sorrowful passion have mercy on us and on the whole world and relieve me of the bondage of self that I may better do thy will forever and ever world without end amen. “

And then I sit back in the pew, blow on my hands  and hug my coat tighter around me.