To my left, a woman in fuchsia taps an iPhone with her acrylic nails. To my right, seven mosaics depict the seven Stations of the Cross. Behind me, a pasture of grazing spiritual sheep of every color, race, shape, and size. Before me, a woman engulfed by a robe leads the entrance antiphon (a fancy word for opening song), as the Priest completes his greeting: “The Grace and Peace of our God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” I am distracted by a blonde man towering beside me whose Adam’s apple dances as he responds: “And also with you.
I am in church. It is Ash Wednesday.
St. Mark’s Church of Venice is a large, cavernous space. Spanning the eastern edge of Ceour d’Alene Avenue and perpendicular to Lincoln Boulevard, two low level buildings—a school and a church—are separated by a parking lot that doubles as a playground for school children. Basketball nets, like their own stations of the cross, lean in Christ-like positions in the last empty parking spaces on this holiest of holy days, as the repentant curse their trickery and back up their cars out of the parking lot, lost pilgrims in search of street parking. Don’t be late for Ash Wednesday mass, or any mass for that matter, as they begin on time.
Sitting in the pews, I reach for a hymnal and turn to the page as instructed by the black cards placed in the hymnal numerical sign in front. The service moves from singing to reading and I hear the priest read:
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.”
I shift uneasily in my seat. I am aware of my foot resting on the kneeling bench. The priest continues:
“But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
As the Priest continues his reading from the Book of Matthew, I face my truth: do I approach the altar to receive ashes and create a mark of the cross upon my forehead? It seems that Matthew’s message is the anti-blogger directive: a personal relationship with God is an entirely private matter. I have a lump in my throat and feel tearful for a moment as I consider the concept of spiritual intimacy with the Divine.
Then the priest addresses us directly. He talks of the 40 days ahead of as a time of spiritual cleaving. He compares Lent to eating at a great restaurant and delaying gratification throughout the day until it’s Gjelina-reservation time.
I feel hungry.
Collection baskets swiftly appear, held out by men who move like pool skimmers. We rise. A posse of lay representatives come forward to administer the ashes and are the first to receive them. Before I know it, we are invited up for our roles and a line of worshippers move like an incoming wave towards the altar. The wave crashes and runs back to the shoreline, where they are now marked with ashen foreheads. Women. Men. Teens. Children. As they pass by, I look into their faces, shining as if they have received a great gift.
The gift that is Catholicism moves me. I am saddened when I hear of priest scandals, meet a “lapsed Catholic” whose anger towards the church has stomach-stapled his hunger for spiritual nourishment, or when I hear words from the Book of Matthew interpreted as hate language – a scripture that reads to me so much like the Book of Deuteronomy but without the angry God. I called a friend who is a priest after mass to clarify the verse read from Matthew 6:6, and heard the classic Christian Apology – spiritual hypocrisy, that is, acts of false piety, can be defined as spiritual boorishness. And, as the spiritual models in the time of Matthew were Jews, that is where this crass observation originated. It is the complexity of how one contorts these ideas that create hatred. As a seeker friend recently said to me about people whose vitriol spit fire at the God concept: “Is this about God, or is this about You?”
Catholicism, from its essence, promotes a stillness and silence in which to seek a profound spiritual beauty. Dogma aside, if that is possible, institutions aside, if that is conceivable, iphones aside if that is even imaginable, Catholicism is a form of Christianity that asks of the individual to possess a comportment of character, a standard of being, an organization of the mind that calls upon the individual’s ability for spiritual intimacy. How ironic that it should get wrapped up in a warped message in a time of spiritual prurience. Sitting in mass on Ash Wednesday, I am reminded of my feelings of awe towards a nun from the order of the Sisters of St. Francis, a spiritual director of mine for many years. It was from her that I learned first hand in her tiny office on Westwood Boulevard of the terror of silence and then the still, small voice that whispered within me my truth when I gave it enough time to finally speak up.
I walk into the aisle unsure of which wave I will catch. I feel pulled towards the ashes and a formal 40-day observance of Lent; at the same time, I feel inside myself a reverence for the commitments of the hundreds of hearts beating around me. As I raise my eyes towards the rafters, the architectural imperative of the cathedral, I see two infants—one above, a delicate statue held to his mother’s bosom beneath a foreboding thicket; and another, almost a specter, floating as it nears me, so small it seems to have been born yesterday. And upon this small head a tiny “t”.
As I emerge into the parking lot, the church bells ring, marking time. They begin with an introduction, as if to awaken me from my slumber. By the time I reach the second row of tightly packed cars, the bells fall into their sequence, ringing each moment like a heartbeat.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five...