From Mercy in the City
As I’m waking up on Ash Wednesday morning, my first thought is how glad I am that I didn’t decide to make morning workouts part of my Lenten routine. My normal coping mechanism after a late night – a vanilla iced latte – doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of the traditional Ash Wednesday fast, so I walk past the coffee shop near my office and instead fill up my water bottle before sitting down at my desk.
The morning passes relatively quickly, and at noon I join my coworkers, Jesuit and lay, in the simple chapel on the fifth floor of our office building, which doubles as a Jesuit residence. One of the nice things about having priests for coworkers is that on days like this, I don’t have to worry about missing Mass.
I read the first Scripture passage of the Mass (Joel 2:12-18), which is a cry for action, for vigilance, for repentance, which all sound somewhat frightening. But it is also a call for a return to a just God, to a God who – “perhaps” – will have mercy on us.
In the Gospel reading, I hear:
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash you face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret.
I sit up a little straighter. It’s strange to hear this and then to think about heading home through the city where everyone on the subway will see the ashes, which proclaim to the world: I am Catholic! I am fasting! Or, at the very least: I like going to church on days when they hand out free stuff. It sometimes seems oddly contrary to what this Gospel calls us to do. Still, public expression of religion isn’t unusual in New York, and this is one of my favorite things about the city.
On any given day I might see the payot of Orthodox Jewish men trail out from under large black hats. A group of robed Hare Krishna singing and playing a tiny piano and finger cymbals while sitting on blankets in Union Square. On the subway, people with booming voices and ragged jackets proclaim the end of the world. The man running the halal cart lays out a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk as a prayer mat and faces Mecca. And with my ashes, I feel united with all of them in our shared path of faith.
Occasionally, I see an older Filipino woman clutching a rosary as she walks, or a teenage Latina girl reading her Bible. On the whole, though, Catholics aren’t identifiable at first glance. Yet, on Ash Wednesday I’m always surprised by the number of people I see on the streets and in the subways sporting black smudges on their foreheads. And sometimes, despite the tacit but rarely broken code of not making eye contact on the subway, someone will notice your ashes and you’ll exchange The Nod, a kind of half-smile and tilt of the head that acknowledges that we’re not as distant from each other as we think.
Of course there have been times when the black smudge felt more like it marked me as an outsider than inviting interaction or connection with others. During my junior year of college, I studied in England. On Ash Wednesday, I walked down the street a short while after having received my ashes, though already they had become slightly smudged and turned down at the corners of the cross. I happened to run into a British friend of mine. He looked at my forehead and then looked closer, appearing to show some concern. “Why,” he asked politely, “do you have the Batman symbol on your forehead?”
And I am thinking of all these past Ash Wednesdays when the presider says, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return – and hope in the resurrection.” I feel the grain of the ashes settle onto my forehead, I am marked with the sign of the cross, and there, in our small community, I do indeed feel hope.
But by 3:37 p.m., my hunger has overwhelmed my hope. Almost all enthusiasm that I felt leading up to Lent is sapped. Despite my small bowl of soup for lunch, I am tired and crabby, and I am certain that I will feel exactly like this for the next forty days. Somehow I make it through the afternoon and walk through the cold to attend the weekly RCIA session, where Fr. Collins takes a few minutes toward the end of class to further discuss the liturgical season that is just beginning, and with which I am beginning to have a fraught relationship. He explains the concept of fasting to Jackie, Lauren, and Zubair: three small meals, two of which, when combined, do not equal the third. And, as always, he delves beyond the logistics into the larger context.
“Always make sure that last meal on Mardi Gras is pretty good,” Fr. Collins says with a laugh. “But when you’re fasting, you should feel a little uncomfortable. It allows you to cultivate a hunger for other things.”
I know friends who derive great spiritual nourishment from fasting. Mostly I derive hunger pangs. I need to work on this, I think.
“For centuries we were told simply to avoid evil,” Fr. Collins says. “But we must do good and avoid evil. People think: if I get to the end of the list of things not to do, and I haven’t done them, I’m a good person. That just falls a little short of what we’re called to do. It can’t be everything; it has to spur you to do more.”