Thoughts For Ash Wednesday 2012

Scripture Readings For today's Mass are here.
Daily Reflection from Creighton University Online Ministries here.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a hallowed 40 day season of Lent, a very special time to set aside time for reflection on Jesus Christ - leading to Holy Week and the culmination of His life on earth : His suffering and his sacrifice, his life, death, burial and finally Easter and His resurrection. 

A Few Thoughts and Reflections


Lent is a tree without blossom, without leaf,
Barer than blackthorn in its winter sleep,
Al unadorned. Unlike Christmas which decrees
The setting up, the dressing up of trees,
Lent is a taking down, a stripping bare,
A starkness after all has been withdrawn
Of surplus and superfluous,
leaving no hiding place, only an emptiness
Between black branches, a most precious space
before the leaf, before the time of flowers;
Lest we should only see the leaf, the flower,
Lest we should miss the stars. 

Jean M. Watt 

Most of our first world modern cocky self assured assertiveness may not fit well with the staged ritual of receiving ashes.

Undoubtedly Ash Wednesday is a day that temporarily engulfs me to contend with the stark and sober facts of human finitude and mortality.

It is a day that brings me closer to the brink of Gerard Manley Hopkin's cliffs of fall ...

This poem below by Carl Sandburg describes the feeling well..

                                                        Mists on Bodmin Moor Cornwall from here

Last Answers

I wrote a poem on the mist
And a woman asked me what I meant by it.
I had thought till then only of the beauty of the mist,
how pearl and gray of it mix and reel,
And change the drab shanties with lighted lamps at evening
into points of mystery quivering with color.

I answered:
The whole world was mist once long ago and some day
it will all go back to mist,
Our skulls and lungs are more water than bone and tissue
And all poets love dust and mist because all the last answers
Go running back to dust and mist.

When you come to the edge of all the light you
have, and must take a step into the darkness of the
unknown, believe that one of two things will happen.
Either there will be something solid for you to
stand on– or you will be taught how to fly.

From Patrick Overton’s “The Leaning Tree” Book of Poetry.

 Just As I Am- Instrumental. 

The same violin plays the melody and the 2 layers of harmony. Published 1849 - a Charlotte Elliott song.

John Michael Talbot Cast Down Your Cares 

 Looking for paradise? 
Then "water this stick until it blooms" - your own soul, till it becomes a garden."

 You can read more from here 

So how do I try and get going ? 

For many of us Lent means some sort of fasting ,repentance / metanoia/ change in lifestyle, whether renouncing something old or taking something new on, in almsgiving , doing more for others, trying to attend the wonderful liturgies the church has especially given us, reading more selectively and reflecting; some will go on individual /group silent retreats.

 Lenten fasts and watching what goes into my mouth, maybe means I have a much better chance of controlling what comes out of it. 

The small surrenders of fasting and abstinence might teach me some self-discipline...

Repentance/metanoia : are for opening up a space for transformation by the grace of God and the Holy Spirit 

 This is a Good reflection  and a gentle look at sin and repentance as these can scare the hell out of so many of us !


On Almsgiving

"My beloved, let us not become fiercer than the animals. Those have everything in common and none has more than the others; but you, even though a human, become fiercer than the wild beast, when you shut in a house the food that would suffice to feed thousands of poor. 

And of course, we share not only nature but many more; we share the sky and the sun and the moon and the air and the sea and the earth and the life and the death and the ageing and the sickness and the health and the need for food and clothing. 

How is it then not absurd, for those who have so much in common, to be so avaricious with money and not to maintain the same equality? Because death takes away pleasure but leads to punishment. 

So, to avoid this, let us practice almsgiving. Because it is the queen of virtues which will relieve us from punishment. Let us turn the useless into useful by setting aside the great riches and on Judgement Day, even if we have committed thousands of sins, God will forgive us”.

 John Chrysostom

"Man acts as a wild beast, having a most intense sense of ownership. With this subject of the difference between humans and nature concerning the matter of charity deals also the caricature by Michalis Kountouris. We can ask children to describe the caricature at a first level: A beggar receives charity from a tree and that’s the reason he looks at it with gratitude or even perplexity. The landscape is relatively deserted, there is no other human in the picture and the leaves on the tree are only few.  The tree (and consequently nature), even though poor itself, has always something to give to humans. The nature, so much hurt and destroyed by man, gives us always everything it can. This way, nature sets the example of charity for the man, who looks at her in perplexity as he can’t easily believe its generosity."

and here are some encouraging words from Richard Rohr for Ash Wednesday...
"It seems that we need new beginnings, or everything eventually devolves and declines into unnecessary and sad endings. You were made for so much more! So today you must pray for the desire to desire! Even if you do not feel it yet, ask for new and even unknown desires. For you will eventually get what you really desire. I promise you. 
 It is the Holy Spirit doing the desiring at your deepest level. Therefore you will get nothing less than what you really desire, and almost surely much more.
"You are the desiring of God. God desires through you and longs for Life and Love through you and in you. Allow it, speak it, and you will find your place in the universe of things. Now let me tell you something: You cannot begin to desire something if you have not already slightly tasted it. Now make that deep and hidden desire conscious, deliberate, and wholehearted.
 Make your desires good and far-reaching on this Ash Wednesday of new beginnings. You could not have such desires if God had not already desired them first—in you and for you and as you!
Remember finally, that the ashes on your forehead are created from the burnt palms of last Palm Sunday. New beginnings invariably come from old false things that are allowed to die."
Richard Rohr: From Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent, p. 13

Most parishes will offer a Lent Course, something I have not been to for a number of years, but my memories of some of the characters likely to be encountered in such a group are not dissimilar from the cartoon below...

These days I prefer to read, browse the net, contemplate and even try to pray: it is a time to go deeper, introspect and examine my relationship with God :it is a time to head out into the wilderness with Jesus  and ask questions such as :
What can I do to listen to God?  How do I start the conversation and keep it going ?
What do I do with the silences and the not knowing ?
 It does me good to temper that and go easy on the navel -gazing by emerging now and again to merge in some sort of community act for others..

If I write in Lent then I hope some of it may be of the nature Anne Lamott describes below...

 Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

"We write to expose the unexposed.  If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must.  

Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in.  Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut.  

But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words–not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues. "

"Ash Wednesday"was the first long poem written by TS Eliot after his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927. The poem was first published in April 1930 and is sometimes referred to as Eliot’s “conversion poem,”  based on Dante’s Purgatorio.  It deals with the struggles that arise when a person who once lacked faith in the past begins to strive and move towards God. 

But it is not a once and for all turning- even if we have a faith, its nature can be elusive and passes through seasons of spiritual desolation, dryness and thirst and life events can throw us off -balance and separate us from the source and purpose of our life in God...

The poem is rich in ambiguity and wrestles with the desire to move from spiritual barrenness to hope for human salvation. 

Eliot says we do not want to turn again- the demands placed on us may feel daunting - to be driven into the desert and to confront the barrenness and wilderness : to be confronted by Satan is pretty scary, but then Christ is with us; he has done it for us and come through it....

Ash Wednesday, T.S. Eliot:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is
nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.


Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to sateity
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.


At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitful face of hope and of despair.

At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jaggèd, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond
Or the toothed gullet of an agèd shark.

At the first turning of the third stair
Was a slotted window bellied like the fig’s fruit
And beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene
The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green
Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair;
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mind
over the third stair,
Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair
Climbing the third stair.

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy

but speak the word only.


Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary’s colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolour
Who moved among the others as they walked,
Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the

Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand
In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary’s colour,
Sovegna vos

Here are the years that walk between, bearing
Away the fiddles and the flutes, restoring
One who moves in the time between sleep and waking,

White light folded, sheathing about her, folded.
The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but
spoke no word

But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken

Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew

And after this our exile


If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny
the voice

Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season,
time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.

O my people.


Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

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