Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday Blessings: Two Views

The church I grew up in didn’t observe Ash Wednesday, or much in the Christian calendar apart from Christmas and Easter. A few years ago, however, our family was drawn to express our faith more sacramentally, so we sought out a service:

We were just a little uneasy. We had never done this before. We knelt at the altar as the minister prayed, "Almighty God, You have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by Your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ, our Savior."

"Amen," we responded as Pastor Brian dipped his thumb in a small bowl of ashes and marked a smudgy black cross on each forehead.

Back in the car our daughter looked in the mirror. "Ooh," disappointment rang in her voice. "It hardly shows. I wanted a nice dark one so it’d last all day." She was going back to school. My husband, who had an appointment with his banker, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and gave his forehead a good scrubbing. I was headed back to my computer, which was unlikely to note whether I had marked the beginning of the Lenten season by attending an Ash Wednesday service or not.

That was 1997, but we haven’t missed an Ash Wednesday service since. The silence, the penitence, the awareness of our own mortality— these are profound things that one seldom encounters in today’s world.
And in A Very Private Grave, the first of my Monastery Murders, my heroine Felicity experiences her first Ash Wednesday service in a monastery in Yorkshire:

The spicy scent of incense met her at the door of the church. She dipped her finger in the bowl of holy water and turned to share it with the monk just behind her. Shy Brother Matthew extended a plump finger without meeting her eyes. They each crossed themselves and slipped into their seats in the choir.

"Miserere mei, Deus. . ."

What was the right term to describe how she was living? Counter-cultural existence? Alternate lifestyle? She pondered for a moment, then smiled. Parallel universe. That was it. She was definitely living in a parallel universe. The rest of the world was out there, going about its everyday life, with no idea that this world existed alongside of it.

It was a wonderful, cozy, secretive feeling as she thought of bankers and shopkeepers rushing home after a busy day, mothers preparing dinner for hungry school children, farmers milking their cows— all over this little green island the workaday world hummed along to the pace of modern life. And here she was on a verdant hillside in Yorkshire living a life hardly anyone knew even existed. Harry Potter. It was a very Harry Potter experience.

She forced her attention back to the penitential service with its weighty readings, somber plainchant responses, and minor key music set against purple vestments. Only when they came to the blessing of the ashes did she realize Fr. Dominic wasn’t in his usual place. Her disappointment was sharp. He had definitely said he was to do the imposition of the ashes and she had felt receiving the ashen cross on her forehead from that dear man would give the ritual added meaning. Instead, Father Antony, one of the secular priests who lectured at the college, not even one of the monastic community, stood to hold the small pot of palm ashes while Father Anselm, the Superior of the Community, blessed them with holy water and incense.

Felicity knelt at the altar rail, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." The ashes were cold, a sooty mark of grief, gritty on her forehead.

"Amen," she responded automatically.

Wishing you all a most blessed, holy and profound Lent.

Donna Fletcher Crow, The Monastery Murders: A Very Private Grave and A Darkly Hidden Truth
The choir and cantors had practiced for weeks to be able to sing Psalm 51 to the haunting melody composed by Allegri. The words ascended to the vaulted ceiling; the echoes reverberated. Candles flickered in the shadowed corners. She had been here for six months— long enough for the uniqueness of it all to have palled to boredom— but somehow it hadn’t.


  1. A thought provoking beginning. I was there with Felicity seeing, feeling, following the path of her observations and thoughts. The stage has been set.

  2. Thank you so much, Heather. unfortunately, the posting scrambled a bit and part of the setting wound up in my bio, but I'm glad you could follow it. Blessings.