Getting Dirty on Ash Wednesday

| March 5, 2014

Getting-Dirty-on-Ash-WednesdayMy friend, Claire, is an avid gardener…well, sort of. She has a large, fenced-in back yard always filled with luxuriant blooms. Her tulips always bloom before anyone else’s and the blooms last longer. Her daffodils are early too, with lots and lots of flowers, and they last longer. Later in the season her roses are bigger and more abundant than anyone else’s. Her garden is impressive! Her neighbors all “oooh and ahhh” over the show.

One day she shared with me her secret. Most of her flowers are plastic! She stores all those flowers in her basement, and at night when no one can see, she ‘plants’ them in the garden. And then she replaces those with new flowers corresponding (but, of course, a touch earlier) with what is next due to bloom. She does this all summer long. Sure, she grows the real thing, but probably 75% of her garden is artificial. Sheesh!

Meanwhile, this time of year I’m getting antsy to get outside and start planting real planting. Yes, I really want to get my hands dirty. It’s great to get back to nature. This is what, I think, Ash Wednesday is about.

Today we will come in droves to church – and it’s not even a holy day – to receive a dark mark of ashes on our foreheads. Then we’ll walk around all day with that mark. Last year I went into a McDonalds on Ash Wednesday (for a fish sandwich, of course) and the counter person looked at me and made a swiping motion across her forehead – twice – and then finally said, “Sir, there’s dirt on your forehead.” I said, “It’s Ash Wednesday, and it’s supposed to be there.” Her response was, “Oh, I need to get some.” Yes, we all want to get dirty on Ash Wednesday. But why? I think it’s because we all have lots that is artificial in our lives; lots that is plastic and not real. Stuff that is only for show or only to impress or only to get “ooohs and ahhhs.” Yet we all hunger, deep down, to be real and authentic.

Starting today, Ash Wednesday, throw out the plastic stuff from your life, and those ashes on your forehead are telling you to start with the soil, the ground, of your life.
Saint Teresa of Avila says in her book, The Way of Perfection: “True humility neither disquiets nor troubles nor disturbs the soul; rather, it brings peace, joy and tranquility.” She then goes on, as we expect, about refraining from puffing yourself up, or looking for status, or pointing out your accomplishments (i.e., showing off our plastic flowers). But then Teresa goes the other way, too, and says that true humility is also not about putting yourself down either; imagining that you are mega-sinful or evil or unworthy of anything. Putting yourself down is just as false as pushing yourself forward. She will conclude, “True humility is simply knowing who you are.”

And that brings us back to Ash Wednesday. To me, the cross of ashes on my forehead is a mark of the earth, of the soil. The priest says, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This is taken from Genesis 3:19 and the entire verse reads, “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat your bread until you return to the ground from which you were taken for you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Ground! Soil! The message is to return to the ground and prepare yourself for real growth, real bloom, real beauty – not plastic, not artificial.

Carm-El means “God’s garden” and for months we have featured on this website a quotation from a Carmelite spiritual master set against a backdrop of flowers. Real flowers, not plastic. And these Carmelite spiritual masters produce real flowers, not plastic. They are beautiful blooms in Carm-El, “God’s garden.”

Starting today, Ash Wednesday, throw out the plastic stuff from your life, and those ashes on your forehead are telling you to start with the soil, the ground, of your life. And let the real you sprout instead. Let the real you grow instead. Let the real you bloom instead. That is humility! And Teresa is right, “true humility…brings peace, joy and tranquility.” Hey, aren’t those beautiful flowers?

Gregory Houck
Gregory Houck
Gregory Houck, O.Carm. is Director of Carmelite Formation at Whitefriars Hall in Washington D.C.

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