I was in grade-school the first time I saw someone with ashes swept neatly in the shape of a cross on their forehead. I grew up attending a small, private Episcopal school. Each year we were given the opportunity to participate in an Ash-Wednesday service where we would be blessed with a little black mark to carry with us for the rest of the day.
I never participated, and I never thought twice about it. I wasn’t Episcopalian so I didn’t feel compelled to participate or guilty for not. Looking back, I am a little shocked my inquisitive nature did not press me to investigate the practice, but coming from a less-liturgical brand of Christianity, it’s no surprise that the ceremony did not beckon me.
I celebrated Easter – Jesus paying the price for my sin on the cross and then rising from the dead. This, the hallmark holiday of the Christian faith, this is what was most important, no?
I remember the feeling like it was yesterday. I would be dressing in my room, going through motions I practiced daily. Left foot in, right foot in, slide and shimmy down, button, zip, done. All of a sudden my heart would start racing and my mind would be caught in an echo chamber that was monopolized by a ticking clock.
Tick, tock, tick, tock.
With each tick my heart raced faster and each breath I took felt more shallow than the last. Some days my chest would feel tight and heavy, like the shirt I was wearing was made of lead, but this shirt could not be removed.
As a child I would dream of ticking clocks and turning pages, surrounded by a gushing of time that was moving too fast. I could never keep up and I would wake up feeling like I had just fallen, covered in sweat, catching my breath. Now, in college, it wasn’t a dream.
The doctors ran tests on my heart, looking for palpitations, abnormalities, and anything that might explain the pressure and pain. I was feeling pain, and then panic, because there was no reason why it should be happening. I was getting dressed, putting on makeup, walking down the hall, lying in bed – all normal daily activities. All things that become mindless, or should.
“Stress,” he said, looking at me and my mom from across his large mahogany desk. “You’re probably having panic attacks.”
I had never been stressed before, so I didn’t even know where to begin. My mom and I left his office together. She said, “As soon as you’re done with finals next week, you’re coming home. We’re going to have an uneventful month.”
She knew where to begin.
When I was in college, I chose to come home every summer and work, spending time with my family and friends. It was how I unintentionally reset my mind and body one year to the next.
Several summers I worked for a family friend of ours downtown. My commute was long and I rode every morning and afternoon to-and-from the suburbs in an old, beat-up Bronco that didn’t have air-conditioning. This may not seem like a trial, but in Houston – the armpit of hell – this was significant.
It became a ritual. Not one that I was fond of, but a comfortable one nonetheless. Windows rolled down, music turned up in competition with the hum and buzz of traffic, and time.
This particular summer, I was reading “Practice of the Presence of God,” by Brother Lawrence. Each chapter was a therapy session I didn’t know I needed. With each reading and then the corresponding time in the car for contemplation, I was learning to breathe.
In and out. In and out. Abba, I belong to you.
Those seven syllables became a habit for me. I would breathe in Abba and breathe out a feeling of belonging under the instruction of the wise monk I was becoming so fond of. I was learning to focus on what was in front of me – on the five minutes I could control – and forget what was ahead and behind, even if it was just for a moment.
I was practicing the art of being, the art of trusting, and the art of giving up my anxieties one breath at a time. I was learning not to worry.
I can count on my hand the number of times I’ve had an anxiety attack since college. They creep up on me when I least expect and without reason – when I’m brushing my teeth or putting on mascara or heating up my coffee for the third time in an hour. It still startles me, though, and concerns me as I begin to take deep breaths and wonder when the feeling will subside.
It goes as mysteriously as it comes, and often without specific thoughts to chase it away, but it leaves an impression and begs an answer to the question – why?
I still don’t know. I may not ever know. I cling to what I do know.
In and out. In and out. Abba, I belong to you.
Over the past few years, I have begun observing Lent. I started with simple ways – relinquishing a small pleasure here and there and forming habits in their stead. There was no epiphany or reason to my change in practice, it just seemed right.
Last year a close friend asked me “why?” We’re still not of a liturgical denomination, so what was the purpose? Was I participating just to say I did it? Was the observation of Lent a new trend I was caught up in?
These were good questions for me to press into and I’m grateful for the challenges my friend sent my way. It made me pause, and breathe, and contemplate, and wonder.
I still don’t know why.
I know why the greater Church observes Lent. My SheReadsTruth devotional says, “Lent is a 7-week journey of remembering our need for a Savior, a need met only in Jesus Christ.” This all makes sense to me as we approach Easter – the solution for Redemption, full of hope and light.
I think even more, though, Lent has shown me the need to pause, and breathe, and contemplate, and wonder. At darkness. At my sin. At my weary and anxious heart. To wonder why things are the way they are. To learn to breathe deeply of Abba, my Father in Heaven. And to rest in the mystery that is the redemption of a dark and dreary world.
I never did receive ashes on my forehead, but I’m beginning to understand more this outward representation of an inward posture. It’s in and out, just like a breath.
Today, I have ashes on my heart.