“Because they know I’m not good enough.”
The answer was emphatically not what I was expecting. “Janet” (not her real name), raised Catholic and Lutheran in spots and now “nothing” (her words), had been saying how she missed ritual and the touch of God in her life. She wanted these for her husband and children, too. I was encouraging her to come back to Catholic faith when she declared that the only group she felt comfortable belonging to was the local organic foods co-op. I asked her why, expecting something about the co-op’s “openness” and “acceptance.”
But she said it very plainly: “Because they know I’m not good enough.”
Janet is certainly not like “Mrs. Begorrah,” the character in Bernard Basset’s novel Priest in the Presbytery, “who was easiest to please, for she asked no more of the [preacher] than plenty of hell-fire. . .”. Janet does not like threats. But she does like truth. And the truth is that she feels a discontent with herself that is not simply the result of low self-esteem or a slightly-off brain chemistry or unrealistic expectations or a dysfunctional family background. The co-op, while accepting her, says without qualm that her lifestyle is unhealthy and she needs to change to be healthy and right with Nature. But the discontent is still there.
Janet might be religiously “nothing” now but she is disturbed. And in her disturbance is a lesson for the preacher on Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday would probably be the most popular holy day of obligation if it were a holy day of obligation. As it is, no canonical penalties for absence drive Catholics to attend. But attend they do in droves. Why do they come? They come for what might be called the “bad news of the Gospel.”
The ashes and the words of imposition are their own stark sermon. They grab us by the jowl just as we sometimes do to children who will not look at us for fear of hearing what we say. “From dust you were made; to dust you shall return.” We have what Walker Percy called “the thanatos syndrome,” a strange taste for death and destruction, with a corresponding insensibility to the God who is life itself. This taste and its corresponding tastelessness we call sin. We are dying. The task of the Ash Wednesday preacher is two-fold: 1) repeat out loud the diagnosis written in ash on my forehead and 2) ask the corresponding question—are you willing to undergo the treatment you started at your baptism?
In the fifteen years as a Catholic attending Ash Wednesday services, I have never failed to be seized by the jowls in the rite. What I have usually failed to hear, however, are the words of explanation and the challenge to seek healing. With Janet and countless others I have been told too often that the divine discontent I feel is really just a minor head cold: “You’re good enough. Don’t feel like you have to give something up as a Christian. Keep doing what you’re doing. Maybe just add a little something to your routine. You’ll be fine without much trouble.”
Shivering and feeling my insides rotting away I am advised to take two aspirin and come to Mass on Sunday once in a while—that is, if it’s not too much trouble.
Is it any wonder many people who intuit clearly the message of the ashen thumb then skip the Mass part and return to the use of the home remedies so readily available elsewhere: endless meetings, sports, sex, video games, financial planning, booze, movies, the inanities of Twitter and Facebook arguments, and gossip about others’ own strain of the syndrome. Some of the remedies are healthy in small doses and in the right circumstances, but the end result of our home treatments is that we waste away more even as we comfort ourselves that we’re “doing something” and we’re “good enough.”
What do I want to hear from bishops, priests and deacons who preach on Ash Wednesday? Like Janet I want to hear the truth. Tell me I have to “cast off every encumbrance” weighing me down, “especially sin, which so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1). Whatever leech, sinful or good, we have superstitiously kept on us must be abandoned. Tell me to stiffen my “slack hands and tottering knees” (12:12) knowing that God himself will hold on to me the whole time. Tell me that my own “resistance in the struggle against sin” has not yet “gone as far as bloodshed” (12:4) and that I must be ready for the Divine Surgeon’s knife. Tell me that the Divine Surgeon tested the therapy on himself and stands ready and, when I’m ready, will fill me with a blood transplant taken from his own side.
Tell me I’m not good enough. Tell me I’m dying. Tell me the treatment is disturbing and drastic, that it will take up all of my time. Tell me I’ll have to give up lots of things I like and take up other things I hate. Tell me it’s worth it.
Tell me I need Jesus in the worst possible way.