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Ash Wednesday: A Buddhist's ReflectionAsh Wednesday: A Buddhist's Reflection

Ash Wednesday: A Buddhist's Reflection

Denial is a healthy spiritual discipline says Trevor Carolan.

Trevor Carolan
6 minute read

We don't hear much about Ash Wednesday anymore. The first day of Lent's 40-day period of austerity and self-reflection fits uneasily with our consumer culture's new, official secular spirit. Shrove or Fat Tuesday, the day before, still rates mention in news dispatches but chiefly by way of Rio's annual Mardi Gras bacchanal that reliably provides cheesecake puffery for latenight newscasts.

It's Ash Wednesday that draws my attention more each passing year. Forty-odd years ago, it presented a real Shakespearean dilemma: to wipe or not to wipe off the smudge of ash the priest daubed upon my forehead at the spartan early morning service. Marked a Catholic, a penitent, and attending public school as I did meant either offering religious explanation all day long, inviting ridicule and normally trouble, or liquidating the very symbol of what Ash Wednesday meant to my family and our faith. The decision was made for me by others.

Ritual involving anything less than consumer gluttony is another thing we see less and less of nowadays, even as the weight of opinion suggests modern civilization is the poorer for it. As human beings, we yearn for ritual — how else to explain the rare exception-to-the-rule Remembrance Day ceremonies that now witness growing public observance? Ash Wednesday is freighted with solemnity, reminding us of our certain mortality and common dusty fate. As an aging Boomer maxed out with tending to the daily business of life maintenance, I'm grateful for this sober annual reminder offering me a real reason to apply the brakes more readily — to slow down.

Ash Wednesday's parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is truly for our consumerist age. You remember the story: A shabby tax collector prays in the temple shadows while the public relations expert preens up front. Having served a three-year term in municipal politics, I regularly encountered these self-righteous characters in civic life and, lacking an ejector-seat for them in council chambers, strove instead to think on the words of the carpenter's son from the Gospel of Luke: "I tell you solemnly," He says, "they have had their reward."

A while ago, an American Public Radio report noted how New York's churches and cathedrals were drawing growing numbers from across the religious, social and cultural spectrum to Ash Wednesday services. Asked why, visitors replied that they were drawn by the humbling interfaith power of this ritual, by its ashes and by the profound self-reflection they were directed toward on the day. They came away, they said, a little more mindful of their place in the order of things.

Downtown in Vancouver, I notice more now the smudge of ash upon the forehead, the mark of Adam, worn not as a symbol of mortification but of mindfulness, of atonement. Not all that long ago, this would have been in bad taste — and a sure-fire cause for dismissal from your job if you'd been fortunate enough to have slipped through the unspoken dragnet that screened out Catholics and Jews from employment with some of the downtown department stores or local government agencies. You don't have to be of colour to celebrate the rise of diversity and pluralism nowadays in Canada.

Wagon train-era readers especially may recall Sandy Koufax, unstoppable ace of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the days when eating fish on Fridays was still a community virtue. With his team ready to start Game 1 of the 1965 World Series, and with Koufax scheduled to pitch in the Big Game, the curve-balling lefty was in crisis, it was reported, and was consulting not with his manager nor business agent but with his rabbi. Koufax was Jewish, and game day fell on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Anglo-Celtic North America learned. Would his faith, could his faith, permit him to play? What had the noble slugger Hank Greenberg done previously? The papers discussed it sagely. It was a unique moment in sports, even popular history. Thanks to Sandy Koufax, I learned more about what it means to be a good Jew, and about what atonement — repentance — might mean for a whole community, even a nation, than I did in 15 years of conventional education and practically a lifetime of mainstream television.

During my boyhood, Catholics fasted earnestly during Lent. We called it "offering up." We all said special prayers; kids gave up chocolate; mums gave up cigarettes; dads gave up liquor; others simply "abstained" — only later did I learn this meant "from the birds and the bees." People worked at it as a family. Looking back, I see that it introduced us to the principle of self-discipline at an early age. For 40 days and nights, like Jesus in the desert or like the friends from Indo-Canadian Muslim families that some of us knew, we relied on inner strength. As kids, we didn't comprehend all this as such: We just "offered something up." In later life, and as a student of Buddhism for nearly 40 years, I've found this a useful strategy that allows pain or grief to serve at least some purpose.

I was reminded of this when smoking reefer became uninteresting to me years ago. Escaping its presence in Vancouver was elusive. Everyone I knew toked up. Curiously, I was out running one early morning and passed the local church. Unaccountably, given my complicated feelings about organized religion, I decided to look in. It was Ash Wednesday.

The priest, now old and partly paralyzed, was a man I recognized from my youth. He'd performed the church service for my sister's wedding. I'd always had good feelings about him, his humility. I sat in the back, in the shadows, and listened to the old priest's recitation of the Lenten service. It was Druidic, humbling, haunting and beautiful. I came out with ashes on my forehead, for the first time in a decade. Later that morning, I tracked down and read T.S. Eliot's poetic meditation on atonement:

"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 had studied his deeply contemplative work "Ash Wednesday" at university. I wore the ashes all day and thereafter explained to friends I'd given up smoking pot for Lent.

The effect was extraordinary. Willful abstinence from anything pleasurable is by now so alien to our society that the apparent spiritual dimension of my fast caught most of my associates completely off balance. They either stashed the inevitable reefer when I was around or chose not to press it upon me. Forty days, I discovered, is just the length to get you, and those close to you, over almost anything. Meaningless things anyway. Offering up is a good tradition, one I introduced to my children each Lent by setting an example. I chose sweets. After all the midwinter feasting, I suppose it could also be a form of dieting, but it seemed to work: Kids quickly make the connection of fasting when rewarded by loved ones with chocolate eggs at the end of Lent on Easter Sunday, when the new bunnies come announcing spring, and fertility and rebirth. Of course, self-reflection and contrition is woven in with all this, too, or we wouldn't have Ash Wednesday. That gets worked in each year as well, and I'm quietly pleased to see that the ritual has continued.

Meanwhile, I'll think again this coming Ash Wednesday of our common dusty fate. Like Zen practice, it's a great leveller. And I'll think of the desert, those arid places of the earth and in our heart that steel us with self-discipline — the kind we need to make it through hard times when our foolish leaders butt heads like bighorn sheep on narrow ledges above bottomless defiles. I'll reflect on Saint Francis, who, like the Buddha, walked away from a life of ease in order to serve; and of the Prayer of Saint Francis, which echoes through time: "Make me a channel of your peace...for...it is in pardoning that we are pardoned...." I'll think as well about the humble tax collector from the Book of Luke — that faceless human brother trapped in a no-exit situation, whose ultimate destination I clearly share. I'll remember his stark humanity, meditating in the shadows and confessing to the Creator in his private way, have mercy on me, a sinner....

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