Ashes

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. It will go largely unnoticed at the jail where I work – love, while it exists there, is not to be expressed.

Ash Wednesday, however, was observed in full force. A lot of the officers had ashy crosses smudged across their foreheads. Early in the morning I saw the Catholic chaplain, a small nun with a grey habit and an Irish accent, going cell to cell with a black thumb and a pot of ashes. “Ashes for Ash Wednesday?” she asked at each plexiglass window. “Do you want some ashes?”

By 10:30, my boss announced that we were all giving up something for Lent and we had to let her know what it was by 11:00 so she could type it up and post it. Everyone chose something, even those who weren’t especially Christian and including my Jewish coworker.  I chose to go running once a week instead of giving something up, which appeased both my boss and my Jewish coworker, who’s on a running kick.

After work, I went to a church service. Sixteen years after becoming an agnostic, I still observe the cycles of the liturgical year. It gives a pattern to the year; it feels right.

Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent, which feels a bit hopeful in Boston because it means spring is coming. But Lent is a season about vulnerability and ultimately about death.

Jeff’s mother and sister got some bad diagnoses last month. I think about the possibility of death every day. All of us in the family are feeling vulnerable lately.

As I sat in the still, beeswax-scented sanctuary, I felt grateful to have a space that was not about happiness or productivity or solutions. A place to sit with uncertainty and hurt.

And, as sometimes happens when you have time to sit and think, a piece clicked into place. Today I sat with a client who told me I had been pushing him too hard to be okay. He had come into jail terrified and sobbing, and for months afterward I had tried to give him hope and coping skills and all those things I want prisoners to have. And today he told me that he is confused and sad, and I need to back off with the certainty and the optimism and just let him feel confused and sad.

And I heard him, and thanked him for letting me know what he needed. And tonight, on this day that is for remembering we will return to ashes, I was able to sit and feel confused and sad.

The church I went to tonight is one I return to because because it strikes the right balance of ritual and modernism for me. In place of the old-school Confession of Sin, there’s a hymn written by someone who must have struggled with passive aggression as much as I do:

The words of hope I often failed to give,
The prayers of kindness buried by my pride,
The signs of care I argued out of sight;
These I lay down.

The narrowness of vision and of mind,
The need for other folk to serve my will,
And every word and silence meant to hurt,
These I lay down.

The service ended with the Isaiah passage that feels like the mission statement of social work:

God has anointed you
and is sending you
to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted . . .
to comfort all who mourn – to give them a garland instead of ashes,
gladness instead of sorrow . . .
You shall build up the ancient devastation,
repair the ruined cities,
and heal the despair of many generations.

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