“‘You have come from dust, and to dust you will return.’ In other words, ‘You are going to die. And here are some ashes to remind you, just in case you’ve forgotten.’”
– Mark Roberts, on Ash Wednesday for Patheos
We got our first desktop computer during my senior year of high school. We were living in Detroit and Dad set the computer up on his brown L-shaped desk in his study. I sat at that computer for hours late into the night, but I wasn’t surfing the web – no, no. In fact, when a guy at my school that year mentioned something about one of our favorite bands having a ‘web page’ I was all, What on earth is that? You can’t have a page on a computer. Duh.
It was 1994.
Instead, what I was doing on the computer was typing all of my thoughts and ideas and dreams into a document I had saved there under the file name “emily.” (Sneaky. And also secure.)
I typed out all of my innermost and then printed out each entry, slid the page into a plastic protector, and collected them all in a white two-inch binder with a cool title page I made from super rad clip art.That next year I took the binder to college with me, continuing to add to it as well as read from it when I wanted to remember. My roommate, Faith, asked me about the binder one day, wondering if I ever expected or wanted someone else to read the words I wrote in it. Maybe she thought the only reason why her quiet-ish roommate would have a diary the size of our Western Civ. textbook is if she intended on sharing the words with the world one day.
Her question surprised me. I didn’t write to be read, I wrote because writing helped me know what I thought about things. But her asking made me think about it and a small part of me, secret and hidden, liked the idea of sharing what I wrote with someone.
It felt like somewhere deep within, sharing the writing would be the most honest thing I could do. It represented what was most alive within me, and to imagine sharing that with someone else was a compelling thought. Risky, impossible, crazy. But compelling.
My desire to be known was stirred.
“Much of our isolation is self-chosen . . . This self-reliance has many attractions. It gives us a sense of power, it allows us to move quickly, it offers us the satisfaction of being our own boss, and it praises many rewards and prizes. However, the underside of this self-reliance is loneliness, isolation and a constant fear of not making it in life.”
Henri J.M. Nouwen, Here and Now
On the right-hand corner of my desk, right next to the books I’m currently reading, sits a small envelope holder. This is where I keep notes friends have written. I didn’t plan for it to become a prominent place, but every time I’ve received a note from someone in the actual mail, there it goes, right on my desk where I can see it everyday, a reminder of my inability to do this on my own – this living and working and moving through life.
For the past several months I’ve been reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography of faith, The Seven Storey Mountain. (It’s a long book, but I’m also a slow reader.) He writes in fascinating detail of the time he spent as a student at Columbia in New York, indulging in all of the things young students in the late 1930s could indulge in, resulting in “confusion and misery.”
“Yet, strangely enough, it was on this big factory of a campus that the Holy Ghost was waiting to show me the light, in His own light. And one of the chief means He used, and through which he operated, was human friendship.” – Thomas Merton
Sharing life and friendship with a few peers at Columbia was in important part of a long journey Merton was on toward finding faith. When I read those words, I thought of the role human friendship has played in my own life, how I have both craved and feared vulnerability, how I have sought connection but also denied my need for it.
Nothing causes me to face my own humanity, frailty, and weakness than when I am in communion with others. Nothing causes me to see myself as I really am, to admit I’m not as great as I think, or to face my perceived entitlements than when I am in the midst of other people.
I am easy to live with in a room by myself. Lord, I don’t want to live in a room by myself. Except for when I do.
To know and be known is both compelling and repulsive to me. Do I even know what that means? Truly? I don’t know if I do.
Today on Ash Wednesday, I acknowledge my hopelessness apart from Christ, my anxiety outside of his presence, my certain death if not for his sacrifice.
I acknowledge I have come from dust and will return to dust again. But more than dying one day in the future, I have already died with Christ. I acknowledge my need to de-tatch from the obsessions and addictions that convince me my old man is still alive and re-attach to Christ as my only hope.
I also acknowledge that the way God moves on earth is through the hands and eyes and feet of people – both the ones I’m naturally drawn to and the ones who get on my nerves.
I am hopeless without Him.
I am hopeless without them.
“No matter how sad, wounded, neurotic, or needy we are, that may be exactly what some other person needs us to be at that time. We don’t know the ways we comfort and save each other, not only in spite of our wounds, but also in some cases, because of them.”
-Heather King, Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Therese of Lisieux
I did not grow up in a church that observed Ash Wednesday. In the past few years, I’ve started to learn a little more and have found the Lenten season of deeper reflection to lead into an even more meaningful celebration of the resurrection at Easter.
For further reading:
- Ash Wednesday Practice and Meaning by Mark D. Roberts
- Bread And Wine: Readings For Lent And Easter
- A Gentle Lent by Elizabeth Esther