IT’S GOOD TO REMIND OURSELVES
OF OUR FLAWS AND FAILINGS
I have to confess that there are certain Catholic pious practices I don’t entirely get.
It probably reflects the fact that I’m an adult convert and wasn’t raised in the Church — or that I’ve made less progress on my spiritual journey than I like to assume.
One of the things I don’t get is fasting.
As I understand it, the Church advocates self-denial as a way of detaching ourselves from fleshly preoccupations. Yet I’m never more preoccupied with concerns of the flesh (that is to say, eating) than when I deny myself food.
Now admittedly, my self-denial is of limited duration — Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and such selected occasions — so perhaps it’s a matter of not persisting long enough to build spiritual stamina.
I once knew a fellow who abstained from food entirely every Wednesday and Friday, and he was a veritable saint. Of course, the question presents itself:
Did maintaining this discipline make him virtuous, or did some fundamental saintly character give him the spiritual strength to perform such feats of devotional athleticism?
Another thing I don’t get is the remarkable appeal of Ash Wednesday.
How many times I’ve observed the church packed with people I see at few other times during the year. There’s no canonical obligation to receive that little smudged cross on their foreheads. Yet it means something to them, so they’ll juggle work and family schedules to attend Mass at noon in the middle of the week.
I suppose one could be cynical and assume they want the ash mark to show how holy they are. Though if that’s the case, they’re playing the wrong game. Jesus himself warned against ostentatious displays of piety…
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them.” (Matthew 6:1)
Perhaps it has to do with something Tom Conry captured in his song, “Ashes.”* You probably know it…
We rise again from ashes
From the good we’ve failed to do
We rise again from ashes
To create ourselves anew…
Yeah, yeah, I know it’s one of those post-Vatican II guitar-Mass chestnuts that Catholics of a traditionalist stripe complain are too people-centered. And I’ll grant that the line about creating ourselves anew gives insufficient credit to God.
But then, what’s more people-centered than having ashes smeared on your forehead to remind you of the transitory nature of life and the insufficient way in which we tend to live it?
We offer you our failures
We offer you attempts
The gifts not fully given
The dreams not fully dreamt
Give our stumblings direction
Give our visions wider view
An offering of ashes
An offering to you.*
Well…now that I think about it, maybe I do get the appeal of Ash Wednesday, after all.
Maybe, every now and then, we all just need to remind ourselves of how flawed we are. Of how much we disappoint ourselves and the people around us.
And maybe that need is strong enough to penetrate the hearts of those who can’t pull themselves out of bed to go to Mass on a regular basis. Or even those who observe the shortcomings of others and like to think themselves somehow superior.
“I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else.” (Luke 18:11)
Maybe that’s a better thing to meditate on this Ash Wednesday than thinking about food all day.
After I posted this little essay back in 2014, a reader named Kimberly wrote in to offer an insightful comment about fasting…
“You certainly stumbled upon one of the main points of fasting. We are never more aware of something in our lives than when we are denied it, especially when denying ourselves. We have to face that thing, and it’s relation to us, front and center. We have to face our flaws and our desires, and master them.
“St. Paul himself likens spiritual effort to athletic effort, like running a race. Like athletes, we pick up a discipline to strengthen ourselves, so that we can take up longer and more difficult struggles, just like an athlete picks up longer and more difficult athletic events. You don’t jump into a major marathon with no prep, you don’t start out as a saint, either. And you have to be aware of why you’re doing it, and Who is providing most of the strength.
“Spiritual disciplines don’t always result in spiritual strength. They can also result in spiritual pride. You’ll know you’re doing it right if the fruit is humility.”
Kimberly was definitely onto something.
Someone named Bill Donaghy has come up with a cute guide to various styles used in applying ash marks to penitent foreheads…
If you’re not familiar with Tom Conry’s “Ashes,” you can hear a fragment of this widely used, contemporary liturgical song at…