Six-year-old Luke Likoudis receives ashes from Father John Tokaz during a 2011 Ash Wednesday Mass at St. James the Apostle Church in Trumansburg, N.Y. (CNS photo)
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.”
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
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 questionare 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.”
feeling my insides rotting away I am advised to take two aspirin and come to
Mass on Sunday once in a whilethat 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.