Thursday, February 18, 2010

Faith, Foreheads, Father

I got ashes three times yesterday. Once in Union Square, and twice at St. Paul's Chapel. For an hour yesterday I imposed ashes in Union Square with St. Lydia's, so I got ashes before hand. It was neat and very, very cold. We had Sacred Harp singers singing songs about death, which drew people to just watch and listen, and then there were people who got ashes. High point of my time there was when a woman came up for ashes, but asked me about them (I think) in Spanish. She crossed herself and drew on her forehead with her fingers after I didn't understand her. Then I got it and gave her ashes. I was really praying for Pentecost moments the rest of the hour if they were needed. If you click the link to Emily's Blog you can see some of our other high point people who received ashes.

During the time we were outside, though I think we all answered some kind of questions about faith. I was standing there with my little stone pot of ashes and olive oil (Emily and I are not of the same mind about the viscosity of ashes) and there was a couple across from me. I heard the woman say, "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again," and then I looked her in the eyes as my ears perked up. Then I heard her say, "You should probably ask him," to the man. He came over and the three of us had a discussion of Ash Wednesday and Lent. I should've sent them to get one of the rockin' bookmarks that Rachel made, but I didn't think about it. Neither of them got ashes but they got information. Another couple talked to the girl beside me. The man asked her (while pointing to me), "What is his faith." She replied, "That's a profound question, really." He wanted to know my denomination, but she really wanted him to expound on that. She didn't know what my denomination was and told him that. Then they talked about how some Protestants do observe Lent, starting with ashes on Ash Wednesday. Part of that discussion was his telling her she looked Catholic because of her ashes. Then there was an amusing exchange between the man and wife about life, age, and timeshares.

After that we got coffee and I came back to the Close for a few minutes to rest before putting my cassock on and heading down to St. Paul's Chapel from 5:00-6:00. All I can say about that is wow. One of the things that struck me was the diversity of foreheads that people have! While I'd been imposing ashes at Union Square, I didn't impose as many times. I got to notice the different consistencies of skin, and the different sizes. Very short, very high, narrowish, wide, dry, oily, and all in between. Different people had such different reactions to the ashes, too. Some came up smiling (I tried to have an inviting smile; one that was welcoming without breaking the somber mood of the day), some just came up with a blank, intentional look. As I imposed some people looked at me, some looked down, some looked up. I made eye contact with everyone before imposing ashes. Most of the people replied with "Thank you" and sometimes there was an "amen."

Thinking back on it now is more profound than yesterday. Just thinking about all the people - at both locations - who wanted to start observing a holy Lent somehow or another, regardless of whether they were Catholic, United Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, college student who grew up getting ashes and might not be in church much, but connected with God yesterday in keeping a tradition of their faith. The diversity of all of them - the construction worker whose scent of concrete made me think about my dad getting home from work when I was wee and he was working construction - to the man and his daughter who came in and said, "It's our first time" before I imposed the ashes. And there were so many ways of "amen" that I heard. It's nice to be reminded visually that God's people exist in all different shapes and colors, and that liturgical traditions manifest themselves in all different kinds of people.

And for those people, the ashes weren't the only symbol. (I'll be blogging on symbols tomorrow or later today.) During orientation small group Br. Blaine said that while we're currently in the discernment for ordination process, people in hospitals at CPE ordain you. By that he meant that people would call you Father or Minister or Pastor or something to that effect...and that in the moment attending to their spiritual needs is more important than having a lengthy dialogue about how you're a seminarian. Yesterday I was a lay person in a cassock, but I was imposing ashes. Four or five people called me father yesterday and it caught me off guard. This is something I'm going to have to stew on for awhile, but it's already giving me thoughts about priests being a symbol to people, whatever that symbol is. Yesterday it had something to do with getting ashes. Who knows what that was, but yeah. Look for more on symbols soon.


  1. Your advisor was correct about how people identify hospital chaplains. It happened to me several times during my internships in hospitals. People called me "Revd." a lot. I learned to just let it slide and meet them where they were. In that moment I was their pastor, regardless of being (in that capacity) a lay chaplain. And I never share my denomination unless asked directly by a patient. Some could tell because I had a "believer's pin" on one of my jackets (I think sometimes I forgot it was there).

  2. Nice post, Joseph.

    Your insight into the diversity of our world through the "foreheads" of individuals receiving ashes made me truly think about the great openness of the church, our church.

    Moreover, I have been filling the pulpit at a Methodist church here in my college town. It is small, about 25 people at each of the two services, but they have developed such a deep connection to my and what I have to say from the rostrum. The journey of discernment is a perplexing, scary, and hopeful process. I appreciate your thoughts on this subject as well.

    I look forward to the next post, as always.


  3. Thank you, Joseph, for sharing the ashes with all these foreheads, and your reflections with all who find this blog.

  4. You know, Joseph, you were right about the viscosity question. I went a little nuts on the oil! Next year you're in charge. :)