Ash Wednesday

Miserere mei, Deus

I’m pretty sure I had never seen anyone with ashes on his forehead until I was in college–the imposition of ashes at the start of Lent just wasn’t part of the liturgical life of the Baptist/Methodist/Campbellite town I grew up in.  I was initially puzzled, and then vaguely repulsed by this physical, public acknowledgment of sin and penitence and the messiness of mortality.

Culturally, Mormons aren’t really big on public acknowledgment of sin–we’re optimistic that sin can be contained at home or, at worst, in the bishop’s office.  We speak cheerily of the 4 (or 5, or 7, depending on the teacher’s creativity) R’s of Repentance, a discreet process akin to running the dishwasher.  Some people have to do it surprisingly often, and it seems to take a few others an awfully long time, but there’s no fundamental doubt about whether or not we can all end up clean and shiny and ready for 3 hours of sunshine in our souls and making the pathway bright and wondering if we’ve done any good in the world today.  No “Out of the Depths Have I Cried Unto Thee” in our hymnal, or even Jesus tenderly calling “O sinner, come home.”

And for a long time, that was fine with me.  4 R’s were plenty to cover the follies of my goody-two-shoes youth (or so I thought), and, while I was painfully aware of my “imperfections” and “shortcomings,” I mostly thought those were matters for goal-setting self-improvement.  I knew there were a couple of thorns in my side, but I was pretty confident I could eventually pull them out, with a little assist from God, who had, after all, promised to “make weak things strong unto them.”  It’s telling, actually, that this (verse 27) is our favorite scripture about repentance; we prefer to speak of “weakness” rather than “sin,” and we love having both a tidy reason for our troubles (to make us humble) and a happy ending assured by the end of a single verse, thank you very much.  Penitential Psalms that go on and on in agony?  The hand-wringing despair over human nature in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes? Not for us–we dispatch all of those in a single 35-minute Sunday School class.

(I know I’m oversimplifying, and please understand that I’m not mocking.  I feel a great deal of affection for this general orientation to life; I think it is part of what makes Mormons so good at getting good things done, and it bespeaks a theological optimism which I ultimately share.)

It’s no wonder that Ash Wednesday, with its communal proclamation that we are marked by sin, seemed alien and uncomfortable to me for so long.

No more.  I have been made to understand, painfully, not only that I have more and worse “weaknesses” and “shortcomings” than I ever dreamed (parenthood bestows this knowledge with marvelous alacrity and poignance!), but that I am flawed in ways that will inevitably hurt people I love (and many more whom I should love), and that I will likely not be able to ameliorate some of those flaws in this life.  I am a sinner.  And so are you.  Despite our best intentions and earnest efforts, we will bruise and tear each other’s souls and psyches in ways we can’t hope to mend–grace sews up the ragged edges of our hearts, but we are scarred for life.  For this life, anyway.

Still, why should we bewail this condition publicly, communally?  Isn’t it enough for me to know, to privately plead for atoning mercy?  Perhaps it is, much of the time.  But for me, the last few years have been an astonishing and humbling and excruciatingly liberating exercise in being marked, walking around with ashes on my head and learning to look people in the eye and smile anyway.

I’m divorced.  In our church, where someone says at least once a week “no other success can compensate for failure in the home,” divorce is a terribly public manifestation of the worst private failure we can collectively imagine.  I sit through lessons on strengthening marriage, where quotations from General Authorities are adduced to explain that “the cause [of divorce] is not incompatibility but selfishness,” and I feel as though every eye in the room is on me.  Alas, there are no trap doors in my chapel anywhere; there is nothing to do but let my presence be my confession and my plea.

At first, I found this almost unbearably painful.  For a long while, the only time I cried was on Sunday, and I usually had to run to my car at the end of Sacrament Meeting so that I wouldn’t start in front of people, because it wasn’t the attractive kind of crying.  Of all the losses I suffered, the loss of my sense of myself as good Mormon girl was the one that most provoked huge, heaving, copiously snotty sobs.  And yet, in a beautiful, gracious paradox, in losing that self–the good Mormon girl, the bishop’s daughter, the Elders’ Quorum president’s wife, the would-be Model Molly–I found a happier one.  Because I can’t prove any more that I’m as good as I want everyone to think I am, I’m freed from the futile and ultimately self-centered effort of trying to earn everyone’s good opinion.  I’m free to notice and appreciate and love my sisters and brothers because I no longer fear their judgment.  It turns out, of course, that they never were judging me as harshly as I had feared; I know now, in a way I somehow couldn’t feel before, because I was too busily engaged in judging them, how essentially good and kind most people are, that they look right past the ashes on my forehead to see me.  I see so much more when I look into people’s eyes than when I was anxiously looking over my own shoulder.

I wouldn’t have chosen these ashes; it is likely evidence of my great pride that I had to be thus compelled to be humble.  But I can wear them almost gladly now, grateful that public confession puts private shame into perspective, makes it small in the face of God’s mercy and the fellowship of the Saints.

Turn thou us, O good Lord, and so shall we be turned. Be favourable, O Lord, Be favourable to thy people, Who turn to thee in weeping, fasting, and praying. For thou art a merciful God, Full of compassion, long-suffering, and of great pity. Thou sparest when we deserve punishment, And in thy wrath thinkest upon mercy. Spare thy people, good Lord, Spare them, and let not thine heritage be brought to confusion. Hear us, O Lord, for thy mercy is great, And after the multitude of thy mercies look upon us; Through the merits and mediation of thy blessed Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Lord bless us, and keep us; the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon us, and give us peace, now and for evermore.

Comments

  1. Mark Brown says:

    Thank you, Kristine.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    About the best thing I ever did read.

  3. I have been made to understand, painfully, not only that I have more and worse “weaknesses” and “shortcomings” than I ever dreamed (parenthood bestows this knowledge with marvelous alacrity and poignance!), but that I am flawed in ways that will inevitably hurt people I love (and many more whom I should love), and that I will likely not be able to ameliorate some of those flaws in this life.

    And yet, in a beautiful, gracious paradox, in losing that self–the good Mormon girl, the bishop’s daughter, the Elders’ Quorum president’s wife, the would-be Model Molly–I found a happier one. Because I can’t prove any more that I’m as good as I want everyone to think I am, I’m freed from the futile and ultimately self-centered effort of trying to earn everyone’s good opinion.

    Yeah. Me too.

    Bless you, Kristine.

  4. seconded…amazing

  5. Beautiful

  6. Raw and breathtaking, K- and very close to bruises I know all too well. Thank you for sharing with us.

  7. There’s the wind, and the rain, and the mercy of the fallen
    Who say, Hey, it’s not my place to know what’s right…
    –Dar Williams

  8. Beautiful post, and beautiful music you linked to, by the way.

    I decided that this year I am going to observe Lent. I’m not giving up chocolate, or soda, or even a sin per se, but a time consuming habit that I would be better without. I’d like to take the space that opens up and fill it with things that “are of good report and praiseworthy”, like playing with my child, planning activities for him to learn things and have fun, reading the scriptures and other good books, learning skills that I have been putting off, doing service for others. Basically filling the space with things that will bring me closer to God. I think the idea of Lent, and the observance of the days leading up to Easter, are beautiful. The Church tries so hard to convince everyone that we’re Christian; I figure it wouldn’t hurt to observe a very old Christian tradition.

  9. Kristine says:

    Just as long as you’re not giving up commenting at BCC :)

  10. Kristine,

    I was sort of worried that you would write something that came on the heels of my first post in years because you are such a good writer. Ah well–you have crushed my blog spirit but stirred some other better part of me. Also, when I was a bishop on at least one occasion I fantasized about a trap door that could deliver me from the uncomfortable sobbing that had erupted in my office. Maybe we can lobby the church to start installing them.

  11. Kristine says:

    Mat, I’m sorry!! If it’s any consolation, your post made me cry…

  12. Pure loveliness. Thank you doesn’t seem quite adequate to express the grateful feeling in my heart.

  13. Great post for a great day.

  14. Beautiful. Thanks Kristine.

  15. Third it.

  16. This is wonderful, Kristine.

  17. Aaron R. says:

    This is a gift. Thank you for sharing.

  18. Wonderful insights to start my day. Thanks.

  19. Natalie B. says:

    Fabulous.

  20. I can wear them gladly now, grateful that public confession puts private shame into perspective, makes it small in the face of God’s mercy and the fellowship of the Saints.

    Thank you Kristine. This is a beautiful distillation of something that I have come to, I hope, truly accept about myself over the past couple of years. I think, on some intellectual level, I’d long accepted it, perhaps because my own knowledge of my sins was prescient, foreseeing what I would ultimately have to conclude if I 1) continued to struggle with sin (which some part of me thought I wouldn’t always, but another part of me knew I would), and 2) I was honest with myself (which was always the larger problem anyway). But still, it was a hard Rubicon to cross. Having now crossed it, it is a strange thing: I wouldn’t wish such a realization upon anyone, and yet I cannot imagine what I would be if I hadn’t been forced into it myself, and thus cannot really wish it had been otherwise with me. I suppose this is just another way of saying that I am not the same person I once was–and it was the recognition of sinfulness which made me so.

    Thank you for your honesty and beautiful prose.

  21. Wow. Thanks for this Kristine.

  22. Very thought provoking..”the self centered attempt to earn everyone’s good opinion”.

  23. Thank you, Kristine. This was beautiful and made me cry.

  24. Great post. I share the holy envy for other traditions that integrate a deeper recognition (appreciation?) for sin and despair, as expressed in Psalm 51.

    I loved Miserere Mei from the first time I heard it, as an unlabled unsourced mp3 on my computer. I came to love Psalm 51 separately, enough to spend some time trying to memorize it and reflecting on it each Sacrament mtg. Only later did I find out that Miserere mei *was* Psalm 51 (though I prefer the King’s College Choir version, even with its worse Youtube quality.

  25. That trap door is a much better idea than my invisibility shield I wish for as I sit with my thankfully oblivious children, crying through the Sacrament.

  26. woodboy says:

    For many years I loved going to church on Ash Wednesday to hear Bach’s “O Mensch bewein dein Sunde gross” for the postlude. A few years ago they decided silence at the end of service was better. I’ll be missing ash wednesday service today for the first time in a long time.

  27. This part really resonated with me, too.

    Kristine, in another life I think you could have been an Anglican priest (or minister of music) – this was a wonderful Ash Wednesday sermon. But I’m glad you’re a Mormon ;)

  28. Beautiful post.

    Parenthetically, when I hear “no other success can compensate for failure in the home,” I feel to reply, “I can think of one particular success that can compensate, and we memorialize it every week with bread and water.”

    For a less poetic, more egg-headed approach to confession, etc. I recommend Ed Kimball’s article, “Confession in LDS Doctrine and Practice” from BYU Studies. Here’s a pdf:

    http://tinyurl.com/6csrmf6

  29. Beautiful post–even powerful. Thank you.

  30. NJensen says:

    Thank you for a wonderful post. I sometimes refer to the Church as the passive-aggressive arm of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Any sort of personal, public acknowledgment of sin in testimony meetings and the like is usually met by looks of disgust or at the least distaste. We just can’t stand a blemish in the Church of the Lamb!

    So grateful there are others who feel this need to bare our souls rather than bear our own sufferings.

  31. Scott Breen says:

    Thanks for the post. I’m a divorced Father. Now remarried. Guilt is such a waste of time and positive energy!

  32. StillConfused says:

    Very good statement

  33. Brilliant.

  34. Kevin Barney says:

    Lovely.

  35. I’ve read this twice and teared up both times. I’m sure I will the third time too. There is so much here that is beautiful and needs to be said. Thank you.

  36. Thanks, Kristine.

  37. This was really poignant to me. The link was a beautiful accompaniment.

  38. Thomas Parkin says:

    I’ve been divorced twice. *smile* I know so much of what you’re saying. This was very nice for me, the way you’ve written it down.

    At some point the fact that my Mom always told me I was good boy, and in spite of the fact that everywhere I go I get a reputation for being ‘spiritual’, I have to ask myself if I’m so good why do I produce heartache everywhere I go. I try, fail, try again, to stop projecting and start owning.

    And I comfort myself by reminding myself I have seen some things that folks, including apostles, who want to say divorce is about selfishness, would pray to never see. Sometimes I pray that they will never have to, and sometimes I pray that they see just a little.

  39. Thomas Parkin says:

    I note that I’ve hit that place in me where I’m pissed. I watch inside and trace it way back, to some point where I’m a kid, then when I’m a teen. Maybe this Sunday, with the Sacrament, I’ll find a way to let some of this go – so I can get on with it.

  40. Kristine, that was truly beautiful (and chest constricting!). Your Liturgy of Jello last year is one of my all-time favorites, and this may even top that. Thank you.

  41. Mommie Dearest says:

    It didn’t make me cry. I just don’t do that anymore. But it made me feel something right. Especially after I listened to the lovely music in the link. Thank you so much. I’ve been thinking about the post and the message in the music all day.

  42. Great post. I have nothing to add, but that it was beautiful.

  43. Kristine, darn it all! I’ll have you know I was up until 2 AM listening to that Tallis Scholars’ Miserere mei, Deus YouTube video you linked to. If I ever hear angels sing, I imagine they would sound like this. I finally broke down and bought The Essential Tallis Scholars album available from iTunes, which has a newer studio version.

    I hope you feature a new song find at the start of every new post. Though this one will be hard to top!

  44. Am feeling exactly the same post divorce. Thank you for helping me understand and put into words just some of the emotions I have felt.

  45. Latter-day Guy says:

    This is marvelous. Thank you.

  46. prometheus says:

    Love the music, love the post – thank you very much, Kristine.

  47. Kristine says:

    Glad you liked it, Dan–the Allegri is wonderful, but there’s a whole universe of wondrous stuff. Starting every post with music is not a bad idea; I probably seem smarter with accompaniment ;)

  48. Lawrence says:

    There’s nothing I can say that hasn’t already been said by the others–better in fact. Kristine, sometimes you rise way above. This post soared.

  49. Beautiful Kristine, thank you.

  50. Wow! What a beautiful and inspiring post. Thank you.

  51. Ron Madson says:

    these are the types of messages/posts that cause me, and I suppose many other marginal bloggers, to keep checking back at By Common Consent. thank you for a writing that strikes the “deep heart’s core.”

  52. Bryce Dixon says:

    A subtle devil inspires the desire for the prestige of righteousness, the prestige of Molly Mormon. You have reminded us, or revealed, that when the false prestige of approval from our Ward family is removed, we may turn to the Lord for his never-failing mercy. And perhaps, someday, for his approval, the only approval that counts. Thank you for your important insight. It solved a problem I had been puzzling over.

  53. I’m with Ben — loved this not only based on the great writing and reflections but also because of the linked music and the incorporation by reference of a whole body of feeling and thought devoted to the types of contemplations raised by Psalm 51 and in other scripture lamenting our sinful nature.

  54. I hope you do. Best wishes.

  55. I just can’t imagine divorce — how painful it must be even for those like you and Kristine who could in no way be considered to fall into the category of divorcing because of some kind of selfishness. To me any divorce seems like it would be shattering and extremely painful. I am sorry that the two of you, and presumably others, are made to feel like you have ash on your foreheads merely by virtue of being divorced.

  56. Comments and post, spectacular. This only got better in the comment section, and given the quality of the OP that says a lot. Thanks everyone.

  57. Kevin Barney says:

    Someone please remember to list this in the ongoing 2011 BT Niblet nominations.

  58. I was thinking the same thing. “Liturgy of Jello” and now “Ash Wednesday” have got to be two of my all-time favorites.

  59. This needs to be in the Ensign.

  60. They would never publish something this honest and real in the Ensign without major editing to take out the references to mortal suffering and sinfulness. Too Catholic in its worldview and too contrary to the our prime LDS marketing message of bliss and happiness by obedience to cultural norms.

  61. I don’t think that is true.

  62. john f,

    Please explain further.

  63. I might be the only Catholic here (hello, all!), but I just wanted to say how beautiful this was–you explained it better than some Catholics! :) One of the important things that drew me to Catholicism was that it deals with suffering, guilt, pain, sin and death head-on. There is no dancing around the topic. Death, grief and sorrow are often heard in many of our common prayers. At the beginning of each Mass, we say: “I confess to Almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned…” To me, this is a freeing and deeply meaningful component of my faith. Without facing the grim reality of sin–in our own lives and others–the work Christ accomplished on the Cross is diminished. It gives me great hope that despite the horrific suffering, my own failures and sinfulness, the sin I see in others and even in my own children–that there is something GREATER and lovelier and MORE powerful than all my sin. And that is the glorious, atoning work of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is really why Easter is so important to us–it’s why we Catholics call it the holiest day of the year: because this is the day when sin and death were conquered! YAY! I’m freeeeee!

    One tiny corrective note: Baptists don’t have a “liturgical” life because they don’t practice liturgy at all. :)

    Lastly, ANYONE of ANY faith is welcome at Ash Wednesday service! Before I became Catholic, I attended Ash Wednesday service and had the ashes imposed on my forehead in the sign of the cross. It’s a truly life-changing experience–at least, it was for me.
    Peace and many blessings to you during this holy season of Lent,
    EE

  64. Elizabeth,

    Thanks for that comment. I was raised Catholic and converted to LDS at age 19. I find that the Catholics do emphasize the fragility of our situation much better than the Mormons. I miss the liturgy something awful as it focuses our thoughts and actions more precisely on acknowledgement of our standing before God and on celebration of Redemption. However, the deeper truths I find in the Restored Gospel also provide me with a spiritual nourishment that is unsurpassed. The Book of Mormon complements the Bible in a beautiful way. I love the peace and sacred space of the Temple and how it allows me to receive direct personal insights from God as I ponder and contemplate within its walls. I just wish our Sunday LDS services were not so low church, bland and puritanical in their structure. Mormons don’t do celebration and adoration very well. They are very good at emphasizing emulation of the Saviour though.

  65. Looks the nested comments have gone…

    “This needs to be in the Ensign.”
    It could be!
    http://www.patheos.com/community/mormonportal/2011/03/02/contributing-to-the-ensign-interesting-guidelines/

  66. Do it Kristine.

  67. Wow. WOW.

    Thank you.

  68. Kristine,
    thank you for this. I am a Methodist and, just so you know, we do practice Ash Wednesday. It’s something I love about my religion- the recognition and public acknowledgment of sin is freeing.

  69. Kristine says:

    Samantha–thanks for the correction. My current ignorance about other traditions is superseded only by my high-school-going-to-youth-group-because-the-guy-I-have-a-crush-on-is-Methodist shallowness!

  70. So so beautiful.

  71. Well said, Kristine.

  72. Thank you, Kristine.

    And thanks to #28, BHodges. While I have not personally been divorced, I did feel the stigma in a different way as a child after my parents’ divorce and as a teen after my mom and stepdad divorced. I dreaded the YW lessons on marriage and family. Your thought that there is the success of the atonement touched me deeply. I will remember it. Thank you.

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