Ash Wednesday Meditations

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Christian penitential season of Lent. This is often a time of great joy and liberation for me, when I try to give up not just a worldly pleasure or two, but those more subtle attachments (usually some form of works-righteousness) that seem outwardly commendable but actually are taking me further away from God. This year, for instance, I’m giving up “Queer as Folk“, the Episcopal Church (no, they’re not the same thing), and having unnecessary opinions.

What does it mean to give up my church? I think it means continuing to pray for it, but ceasing to worry what will become of it. Continuing in loyalty to the vision that made me join–a church that values intellectual inquiry, diversity of beliefs, and the worship of God through the arts and the sacraments as well as through words and concepts–while recognizing that my primary loyalty is to Jesus, and I have to go where he is worshipped, first of all.

As a dear friend reminded me today, Christian community is not optional. We are called to be the body of Christ, so we cannot worship solo. And yet, this Lenten season, I feel a deep call to withdraw from “church” because worrying about the church, arguing within the church, and longing for full acceptance by the church have all become crutches that I use to avoid relying on God alone. It’s time to go where there are no words, where certainty gives way to faith.

Leaving my parish feels like a painful divorce. I’m not ready for a new relationship. I went to a Catholic church today with some friends for the imposition of ashes. For a moment during the service, I really did feel like all the strangers there were my family, because we all loved Jesus together.

Weren’t the desert saints also members of that body, even if they practiced their faith in solitude? In a much less ambitious way, I need to turn inward, but I believe I am still connected to my fellow Christians, in my old parish and beyond. Or maybe I’m making a big mistake. For me, Lent has always been about the freedom to make such mistakes in search of God. I could give up sex, chocolate, and the sight of Gale Harold‘s nude posterior, but if I still think I’m saved by expressing all the right opinions about the Trinity, I’ve missed the point of salvation by grace alone.

From the Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

(Being able to get the entire BCP and a sing-along version of the hymnal online is almost too much temptation for me never to return to church. Call it liturgy porn.)

Well…I’ve just spent an hour writing about everything I was supposed to give up…sin sin sin. Back to you, Tom.

by 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 aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
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 blessed 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 satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
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 the 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, jagged, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an aged shark.

At the first turning of the third stair
Was a slotted window bellied like the figs’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 springs

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, wearing

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 thee,
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 wait
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 t
ransit 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.

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
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.

8 comments on “Ash Wednesday Meditations

  1. Alegria Imperial says:

    Oh, no! A breakaway never sounds good but in reality, it is a must if one were feeling the strain of anything old or the monotony of a rut. Beyond any door that snaps close is vacant air, a stillness that’s both soothing and threatening. Like you, I’ve recently wrenched myself away from something, which unfortunately is nothing old or rutted but out of choice must be left behind. Fortunately it’s merely my country for another that I now realize is only a physical parting. I can’t say the same with a church because church is not a place nor is it people. Yes, I believe you have not left a church; you took it away for your own, away from structures and that includes people. How you express your having left belies an actual turning away. Indeed, you can’t turn away from what’s within you. Wrench it off, you can’t even do that. Blot it out, not even this is possible. Because church cannot be looked on even with mere feelings, you cannot even treat it like you would a broken affair. Church, I believe, seeps into one’s being. Many times in my youth, I tried to change my church, trade places with a Buddhist once, and later, a Scientologist—both seemed more alluring. Existentialist philosophy felt delicious, too, when life took turns that challenged my juvenile dreams. But I had never succeeded in my attempts to delude myself that there is nothing in my being a Catholic worth holding on to. I realized or was it an epiphany in the end that I became my church. Possibly now, you must feel the same.

    By the way, when I ‘talk’ to you, I think in verses! Here’s what had burst during this session:

    we go on, wagging forefingers on skies,
    resenting seasons that fall on us in clumps
    of such rhythmic regularity we just can’t rage
    against or else against the grind

    we feel a heartless hand its fingers
    like iron claws so tight in grip we find
    our waggling a senseless attempt
    at being freed if but one beat one spark:

    one breath that does not fall in hands
    that move from point to point to point,
    interminable points, infinitesimal bits,
    that had so imprisoned us raging—

    one breath that stops and we can’t,
    we won’t find out we’ve moved
    away or out of the seasons we resented,
    the beats we raged against

    for we turn into that which we
    have raged against, unknowing
    for it defies even our knowing.

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