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 discrete 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 a 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 and (I hope) better 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.