Friday, February 1, 2008

Ashes of last year

Last year I took a four-mile walk to church for the Ash Wednesday service. As I was walking on the sidewalk that ran along a fairly major highway, a car approached on a residential cross-street and decided to run the stop-sign and cut the corner to merge into the rush-hour traffic. The driver failed to notice that I was already crossing the street in front of her. Had I not seen her, I might not have lived to tell the tale; as it was, I was almost able to get out of the way. The car ran over my toe and threw my body backwards; later bruises revealed that it had hit my leg.

I brushed the dirt off and continued my walk to church. During the service, I knelt on my freshly-bruised knee as my priest applied ash to my forehead and said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

A couple weeks later, a friend of mine got hit by a car as he was walking along a highway in New Jersey, lingered in a coma, and died.

I wonder how the lesson of mortality is supposed to affect me. I used to collect near-death experiences like some people collect antiques—each a trophy with its own story—and as a teenager I kept a file on my computer desktop giving instructions for the treatment of my writings after my hypothetical death. One would think that such a melancholy kid like me would not have needed additional lessons of mortality.

But now we approach Ash Wednesday a year later, and the concept of mortality feels different. In the past year, I struggled while living in a community I desperately wanted to work, I felt agonizingly alone in a life packed full of people I loved, I actively damaged a friendship I claimed to value, I surrendered a life-goal I had maintained for seven years, and I nearly lost my sister (a couple weeks before a friend of hers died). The lesson I have learned about my mortality between the ashes of last year and those coming up next week is not one of death; it is one of finitude. I have been revealed to be finite.

I am surprised to learn that there is a grace in being giving limitations. I was reading the 15th-century drama Everyman yesterday, an allegory in which God summons Death to go retrieve Everyman. Everyman pleads
Now, gentle Death, spare me till to-morrow,
That I may amend me
With good advisement.
…and I was pondering the grace given in the fact that Death denies us that chance. The agonized struggles of my past year revealed to me not simply that my best efforts were not good enough but that they were actually bad—that they could create a monstrosity. If God gave me the chance to try to bring about my own sanctification, I would create myself a hell.

This year I am approaching Lent much more aware of my frailty, which I am surprised to learn is a lesson of Grace. Just as Moses’ frailty prevented him from leading the people into the Promised Land—a victory that would give the false impression that the journey was over and the Kingdom had come—I have been shown unable to complete the task ahead of me. Just as Moses eventually stood on the soil of Israel beside the transfigured Christ, I know that my frailty will not be the last word of the story.

But for now, it is a word of Grace.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.

1 comment:

Ashleigh said...

Em, I dunno how I wasn't already a regular at your blog, but I just found it through Shawn's, which I found through Marshall's!

I wanted to say hey and also to let you know that I have been becoming pseudo-Anglican in the past couple months! My roommate has begun attending Church of the Holy Family in CH, and I have attended a few Sunday services with her (her first, a week my church was canceled for snow, and a week we were both sick and black church in Durham sounded waaaay too long if I wanted to come back and rest). I've also gone to a newcomer's dinner with her (she wanted a buddy), an Ash Wednesday service (my first ashes in 10-15 yr!), and tonight, Stations of the Cross!

Have you read any Lauren Winner? She's half-Jewish, raised Jewish, converted to Orthodox Judaism, converted to Jesus, and the Anglican that "started it all" for both me and my roomie. She's a gorgeous writer, and I think you would love her.

Anyway, I just wanted to say hi and let you know I'd been thinking of you as we have explored Anglican traditions. I feel they're really enhancing my relationship with Jesus, and I'm thrilled to learn more.

I, too, have been enjoying Ash Wednesday/Lent, not as much for its emphasis on mortality but on confession. It was great hearing about the difficult ways God's been growing you. I hope things are going well in your cottage and look forward to continuing to read your thoughts. :o)