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Ashes and nudges

Posted on March 6, 2018 by Maple Creek

by Madonna Hamel

A while ago I wrote about ritual: Within certain monastic traditions everyday acts are as important as holy rituals, because their job is to honour the sacred in everyday life. Indeed, if life is holy, than every little bit of it should be seen as holy too. As I get older it’s the simple daily rituals that hold the most meaning for me: knowing I can talk to a friend or a sister at the end of a hard day, walking to the bend in the road and then returning as the sun lights up the sky, that first hot cuppa in the morning with my journal and the sunrise, a hot bath, a book, candles in the dark, music playing while chopping vegetables, a poem a day.

Each one of these gestures or acts is easily achieved, requires no great fortune, earns no big accolades, takes no monumental effort. They are the stitches that pull the pieces of life together, as essential as the thread that links the patches of a quilt. Without them the ragged fabric of my life would fall around me, unable to unify, bind, connect, wrap and swaddle in the bigger blanket of a life. Without them my life would feel empty, pointless, unconsoling. It’s always the little things, with their subtle powers, that seem to be able to burrow past the censors and make a home in my heart.”

And then there are the seasonal rituals. The ones meant to get out attention, shove and jerk and nudge and eventually shift us out of fear, cynicism, grumpiness, mean-spiritedness and complacency. If we follow them with awareness and even a modicum of attention, if we suspend our mind chatter and worry and daily recitations of chores to be done and harms to remedy, they can effect allow for their collective magical potential.

Christmas has the most socially-sanctioned rituals, it seems to me. Wishing each other a happy or merry season, festooning homes with lights in the darkest time of year, gathering family near, exchanging gifts- all these rituals are meant to be gestures of deep affection and are-prioritizing. They can just as easily, however, be gestures of submission to a money-making venture run “by a big eastern syndicate”, as Lucy describes Christmas in Merry Christmas Charlie Brown, a line that stick since childhood. A ritual, it seems, only works if we are halfway there, already willing to to get into another headspace, zone, frame of mind, altered perspective. If we’re not willing to willingness to wish for ourselves and others feelings of ‘good will’, ‘peacefulness’, ‘joy ’, and ‘genuine merriment’, no amount of candle-lighting, incense burning, prostration, deprivation or recitation is going to get us there. The fact that I have to welcome transition and transformation in order for any change to occur often escapes me- even when the change is for the good.

I grew up with rituals of the mass. Most of us, as kids, saw them as rituals of punishment, not something we would have chosen on an early Sunday morning. And in all fairness it was often because they were performed by people who looked equally bored and recited every word with the same tired inflection. There was nothing of the awe, mystery and enormous relinquishment that should have accompanied the re-enactment of a man’s last meal. And yet that meal continues to fascinate me: how a group of people who may not even get along, share a meal every Sunday, in the hopes that they will be changed, healed of their fears, gripes, weaknesses and crimes. The ritual of breaking bread together, with people you might not even talk to during the week, is the point of mass for me. It reminds me that we all belong and we all just need to get along, if even for an hour a week (especially, then, for an hour a week) because we’re all in this together.

Of course, there the rituals we celebrate with only a few people, binding ourselves as friends, couples, families. And we may not even know we do them until we stop doing them and start to miss them. In Quebec my producer at CBC and I used to meet every Thursday morning, early, at Kreighoff’s, a classic french cafe with plenty of little rooms crammed tight with tables and characters having tete-a-tetes, espressos and croissants. It was noisy and cozy and the milk steamer was always hissing and there was always laughter. We met because we loved to read but at work, in the bustle of getting a show on air, there was never an opportunity to talk about what we were reading. I kept waking early on Thursdays, long after I moved away, the ritual had ingrained itself in my body and I was more than willing.

Some rituals we just call habits. And many we could do without. But without endearing and enduring rituals we have nothing to counter the bad habits. Others can be so symbolic they serve no function at all, as one friend likes to say. “Like, what about the Ash Wednesday practice of the priest making the mark of a cross with ashes on our foreheads?” he fumes. “Why the hell is that still around? So, you can mope around with a long face reminding everyone what a long-suffering sinner you are? How especially bad you are?”

“ I know,” I responded. “It’s absurd, isn’t it. But on another level it’s humbling. And I can’t think of a culture more in need of humbling than ours. Our desire to ‘be someone’, get famous, hobnob with celebrities whose cause for celebration is questionable is messed up! Ashes on the forehead is a weird counteraction against our obsession with how we look. I mean: it’s completely unattractive. It looks like someone put out their cigarette on your forehead. And, of course, it draws attention at the same time. But. Fundamentally it’s a reminder that we came from ashes and to ashes we will return. And, frankly, in my own mad rush to leave some kind of immortal morsel of myself, I need that reminder. If we could have some kind of ritual or symbol to signify that we all indeed ‘put our pants on one leg at a time’ then maybe we should do that too.”

For the few years I lived with my father in Kelowna I made a decision to attend mass with him every Sunday. Then every Sunday quickly became every morning. One of the reasons for that was the parish priest, Fr. Pat. One year, a week before Ash Wednesday, he reminded us that he was still collecting palms to burn into ashes for Ash Wednesday. I had an image in my head of a palm-burning ritual, with specific accompanying palm-burning prayers and gestures.

After mass I asked him if I could interview him while preparing the ashes. He was hesitant at first. The media does not have a great track record when it comes to registering the consistent acts of kindness flowing forth from fellow Catholics, even amidst the random sins and crimes. But, at the same time, his belief is that “the church must make itself worthy of its people and not the other way around. So, ok, sure, come by the rectory around four.”

On a windy Tuesday afternoon we squatted over the old dry palms crackling nicely in the hibachi. Where are the candles? Aren’t there special prayers to recite?

“Don’t get all worked up”, he laughs. “The ashes are ‘sacramentals’- in service to the sacrement. The sacrament itself comes in the actual anointing of ashes on foreheads on Ash Wednesday, when we’ll be entering the season from a place of inevitable humility derived from a blatant reminder of our mortality.”

Then he stirs the burning ashes with a golf club and laughs, ” You know, I’m sure half the guys just take ashes from their fireplace.”

Every Lent we are asked to relinquish a personal treat or reward – sweets, wine, coffee- to remind ourselves of what we take for granted.

“This is not for punishment,” clarified Fr. Pat. “ It’s to exercise the habit of gratitude.”

“ Really? Why didn’t anyone put it that way when I was kid?”

He also suggested I not share with too many people what I am giving up for Lent. who needs the ribbing when we fall short from perfect?

“We all fall, Madonna. It’s not a shame. It’s a given. It’s as much a reason for why we belong as any sanctimonious action!”

I just got back from a trip to Hawaii. One late afternoon, after a hike across a crater, we went to a Duke’s hideaway for a cool drink. The petite hostess had a smudge on her forehead that dominated her delicate face. I acknowledged her conviction, to stand before hundreds of tourists lining up for mai tais, surfside views, and expensive snacks, knowing full well that most of them wouldn’t have a clue what that mess was about. I laughed with her at how I’d been stuck in Mardis Gras all week, and thanked her for the nudge.

Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie home.

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