Ash Wednesday 2017: A Difficult Balance

Today begins the long march of Christians through the penitential season of Lent. Gone is the bacchanalia of Mardi Gras feasting. Here come the days of fast and abstinence.

I had thought to put up a part of T.S. Eliot’s long conversion poem, Ash Wednesday.

But my sleep-deprived mind kept turning and returning to Richard Wilbur’s Love Calls Us to the Things of This World. It pulled me to notice “the things of this world” while I still can. So this is my offering instead, this exultation, one to carry with you as you also carry the ashes of mortality, the reminder: “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return.” Or, as they said in my childhood, while marking my forehead with the ashes of last Palm Sunday’s fronds:

Meménto, homo, quia pulvis es, et in púlverem revertéris…

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

      The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
                                 Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

      Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

      Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
                                                                     The soul shrinks

      From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
And cries,
                        “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

      Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
      “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
                                 keeping their difficult balance.”

Obviously Mr. Wilbur was sound asleep when that laundry was pulled out into the sun to dry. The laundress responsible for those clean sheets and smocks was probably less moved — or moving on to sit at her mangle, ironing whatever had already dried.

So what are you “giving up” for Lent? As children, we’d struggle to come up with something that wouldn’t hurt too much. My brother always offered to give up my dessert for me.

Perhaps I will attempt this season to give up chastising others. Which means, no doubt, a very long forty-day period of silence. [No cheering in the pews, please].

23 thoughts on “Ash Wednesday 2017: A Difficult Balance

  1. Giving something up for Lent was part of my childhood, being raised Catholic. Usually we gave up candy (not broccoli or spinach).

    My mother knew how to make creamed spinach in such a way that it actually tasted good, compared to what we had in boarding school. Oh, boarding school – the tales I could tell but I will not bore anyone with those.

    Sundays were the best — we got baloney and fresh bread and were happy to get it. Then we got the ice cream: a slice composed of white pink and chocalet (sp). I can’t remember it all, but I remember it was our Sunday treat and we loved it.

    Looking back, I realize boarding school was my mother’s only option and it wasn’t that bad — there were lots of good times but there was also Sister Rita. May she rest in peace, she was a good woman but I didn’t know that when I was a kid.

    • Reading your comment brings to mind soup, soup, and more soup. Have you tried the creamed spinach at Ruth’s Chris Steak House? It’s like a dessert, likely made with heavy cream. I think I’ll break the Lenten fast with it. I have a friendly U.S. food blog with Liturgical Seasonal recipes. I also encourage non-Muslims to convince meat producers, restaurants and supermarkets to label “halal” meats. Hope you visit! It’s an unfunded public service. Also links to Catholic food bloggers.

  2. I posted some thoughts, I thought, a couple of hours ago. Did they fail to go through?

    (Don’t know whether to try again or forget them for here.)

    • Countess,

      It’s our policy to delete comments that are negative, unpleasant, and/or insulting, and have no other point beyond that.

      Dymphna wrote a calm, contemplative Ash Wednesday meditation, and for some unknown reason you felt moved to respond with unpleasantness and dysphoria.

      I don’t understand your motivation. What compels you to micturate on someone’s breakfast cereal in that manner?

      Why respond with condescending criticism to someone who was not criticizing you or anyone else?

      There were so many other ways you could have spent the time you took to write that comment. Those were precious minutes that you’ll never get back.

      You could have been baking a cake, or walking the dog, or writing a letter to an old friend. You could have been listening to Mozart or watching a Buster Keaton movie. Why choose instead to inject smug unpleasantness into something that was thoughtful and not at all unpleasant?

      Now you know why your comment was deleted, but I still have no idea why you wrote it in the first place.

      • “Now you know why your comment was deleted, but I still have no idea why you wrote it in the first place.”

        Because I thought it was _wisely_ (and politely) informative — two viewpoints others might never have really considered (which I am academically qualified to present).

        While I don’t think I can reconstruct them as well, the thoughts now go into one of my blogs and therefore ride on my copyright.

        So, I guess, thank you. I’m glad I thought to take a belated look into this topic.

        As for the likes of walking the dog, my beloved mutt has been dead for more that fifteen years and there will be no replacing him.

  3. What an interesting post, Dymphna. It prompts a few thoughts:

    1) Why are Blake’s drawings (as opposed to his poems) always so miserable?

    2) I studied TS Eliot at school, and have enjoyed revisiting him since, but didn’t know “Ash Wednesday”, so thanks for that.

    3) I’m not sure Richard Wilbur’s poem is in the same class. He did contribute to Leonard Bernstein’s “problem child”, “Candide” (after Voltaire), among several others, including Lillian Hellman. I had the good fortune to attend the rehearsal, at London’s Barbican in December 1990, for the final, definitive version. Lennie, and some of the cast, were down with the “English ‘flu” (he also had the lung cancer which killed him less than a year later), and he looked ill, but the live concert (on dvd) is brilliant- a brave statement of Enlightenment values, originating from the McCarthyite 1950s.

    4) I’m not giving up anything for Lent! Living on a pension is hard enough.

    • Sorry, the rehearsal and concert were in 1989.

      In Bernstein’s 1973 Harvard lectures, he quotes Eliot; the man was a polymath. He also references Lewis Carroll, whose “Alice” books were placed into his coffin by his children.

    • I don’t know whether Blake was influenced by certain early Renaissance Italian artists, who, excited by the new discoveries in anatomy overemphasized the body’s musculature; all his drawings show the superficial muscles just below the skin as if they are the surface of the body, and they’re not. It’s disturbing.

  4. Yes, I remember the cross-shaped ashen smudge on the forehead. Time was that the loan officers took the next 40 days off because there was no money. It was lent.
    Ok,no more puns until Easter. Then I will be the Easter Punny.

  5. I wonder what the local Christians think about the fact that the Bible does not mention Ash Wednesday or Lent, and the early New Testament Church did not observe these days?

    I’m asking because I am fascinated by the fact that what passess off as “christian holidays” of today, are actually not the holidays our Lord would hold?

    • The church that began on Pentecost was – according to Scripture – a body where the Holy Spirit indwelled. It could never be the same as it was during Jesus’ life on earth.

      Many of the feast days are based on the Jewish holy days, others grew under various cultural pressures to meet the needs of the people the Church once served.

      Once again the center of gravity for the Christian church has moved – this time to Africa and China. It cannot stay where life is so materially comfortable there is no need for its presence. See C.S, Lewis…

      In life, as we ride the waves of Time, change is the only constant. We accommodate or we turn bitter…those seem to be the only choices, though I’d love to hear about it if someone has a tertium quid to add to my ‘Either Or’.

      • Actually the whole Lenten season is an RCC invention that was brought from the Babylonian mother and child worship cult that has its beginnings with Semiramis and her child Tammuz. The 40 days is the time between her son’s death and his resurrection (sound familiar?). The Jewish people of Jeremiah’s day would weep for Tammuz during this 40 day period while baking cakes for Semiramis, the Queen of Heaven. Reverend Hislop (I believe I have the name correct) does a nice job of connecting the dots from Babylon to Rome. I have even been present when a priest in the Pasadena Catholic Church lifted up the communion wafer and dedicated it to the honor of Mary, the Queen of Heaven. You should read in The book of Jeremiah what YAH has to say about all this.

      • Hi Dymphna, thank you for your reply. I noticed that you are from a catholic background and I must warn you that I have some strong ideas about this – something along the lines of “wiping out the true memory”. I don’t want to get into any strong arguments about this, so if you feel I’m getting heavy and tiresome, just tell me.

        The matter of fact is, I believe, if you really have faith in Jesus Christ or not?

        Because if you do, then Jesus said that “If you don’t trust Moses, how shall you believe him – Jesus?”

        Because Moses said: God created heaven and earth in 7 days and that he made lights in the sky to be signs for times and seasons.

        For this reason the whole bible follows a lunar calendar, and the 7th day, the day of rest, is Saturday all throughout the Bible. Sunday is called “the first day”.

        So – here we are – pretending to be “Christians”, yet we cannot even keep the true calendar Jesus Christ would be keeping?

        OK – I disagree with you that change is the only constant.

        If you want to know why, it is because “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.”

        • I am the product of a mixed marriage.My mothers’ family were devout Catholics.My father and his family were Presbyterians(Church of Scotalnd).
          My brothers decided to become
          Anglicans(Church of England )as did ,I although I went through a period when I considered becoming a Baptist .

          And I have a problem with people who have a problem with Catholics.

          My mother and aunt both attended Catholic convent boarding schools.And both were the most tolerant women you could hope to meet.Both had Jewish friends .

          My aunt used to make a point ,in adulthood, of attending a different local church of a different denomination every Sunday.As far as my aunt was concerned Christianity was Christianity in all its diverse denominations.She was a professor of English literature.And she believed that Christianity was a metaphoric rather than a literal truth.She found differing denominations intellectually stimulating and felt that to get the whole picture
          ( a balanced perspective) one needed to take account of them all.

          Every lonely person ,was assured of a sympathetic ear and true friendship in need ,if they called on aunt.Invariably aunt would notice their isolation and make the first move ,asking them home for Sunday lunch,buying small gifts fr their birthdays..My mother used to say that her sister spent her life “helping stray dogs over stiles”.It left a sad gap in the community when aunt died.

          My grandfather treated my mother, aunt and grandmother as beings to be loved cherished and generally adored.He never raised his voice ,never swore.He was a giant of a man with huge shoulders ,an engineer by occupation but tender and gentle especially to women and children.

          As Christians we should seek out and celebrate what unites us ,not what divides us..

          • Lets make one thing clear: I don’t have problem with “catholics”.

            “As Christians we should seek out and celebrate what unites us ,not what divides us..”

            Let’s say we agree about love and charity – but Christianity is not just love and charity!

            The division between “us” comes when you try to convince me how Catholics are all a happy family and loving and caring…

            Happy loving families, but then when I’m trying to ask hard questions, my questions kind of evaporate and immediately – some catholics think I am attacking them.

            Why would you think that? Do you feel unsecure in your holidays, that are not from the Bible but from pagan sources? (Jule, Easter, etc…)

            I believe that your response is completely off the point about Christian holidays I was trying to make, and that that makes it a false answer intended to carry the attention elsewhere. Why?

            It is sometimes funny to watch Tucker Carlsson when he meets someone who is hiding something. Those guys that are hiding something – as a rule – don’t directly answer what Tucker asks them. This is something I can’t stand also, and I feel sorry for you “catholics” who feel the need to justify your “catholic world”.

            Part of love is to tell a friend when you think he or she is wrong. And in this case, I believe it is wrong to call “Catholic holidays” a “Christian holidays”, because I can prove they are not.

            [sarcasm redacted]

          • Barn Swallow,

            The first church I ever attended was Lutheran. This was when I was very small. Before I could read I was taught to recite the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed.

            When I was seven we moved to another state, and my parents found a Methodist church they liked, so we became Methodists. Once again, I learned the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. But I noticed a difference — the Lutherans said, “I believe in […] the Holy Catholic Church”, whereas the Methodists said “I believe […] in the Holy Christian Church”. I grew to understand much later that Methodists were so papophobic that they didn’t want the word “Catholic” to pass their lips.

            When we moved to England, I became an Anglican, to the extent that I was churched at all — by then I was a teenager, and had mostly lost interest in such things. Except for the music — I loved the sacred music, and still do. I had to sing Anglican hymns and say Anglican prayers every day in school, and developed a real appreciation for them.

            Then, in my young adulthood, I became unchurched for a decade or so, as happens to so many. It’s not that I was an atheist or unspiritual — I thought of myself as a “syncretic mystic”. I studied intensively the texts of other religions, especially those of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, and learned to understand the bright sacred core that they all hold in common, even when they revile each other. It was also during these investigations that I gained my first inkling that Islam was different. It wasn’t that none of the others described war or viewed it positively, but none of the others made holy war their primary scriptural doctrine. (That’s too big a topic to cover here, so I’ll leave it for another time.)

            Then I married a Catholic who had majored in theology and philosophy, so I broadened my knowledge to include Catholic theology and practices, which I hadn’t known all that well. Dymphna and I had no conflicts concerning religion; on the contrary, each of us was able to help the other understand a culture that had heretofore seemed somewhat alien to us.

            When our son was born, I said, “I’m going back to church — a kid needs church.” We discussed the issue, and settled on the Episcopal Church for two reasons: (1) It was a compromise between Methodism, which was what I was most familiar with, and Catholicism, whose rites are very similar to Episcopal ones; and (2) we liked the people at the local Episcopal church, which is conveniently close to where we live. So that’s where we went, and that’s where we stayed. And I returned to Anglicanism.

            With a mongrel religious background like that one, I have to say that I don’t understand the intramural warfare that seems to preoccupy so many Christians here in the USA. All the varieties of the Christian faith that I have encountered agree on their core doctrines and practices. The Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Great Commission, the Beatitudes, and the most well-known parables are the guiding force for all of them. And that includes all the Catholics I have known.

            My experience with people who have a chip on their shoulders about Catholicism is that they are bringing some internal agenda of their own to the conflict, which may then be enacted on an external stage via their public antagonism towards Catholics. I don’t really understand it, but I see it happen all the time.

            It seems self-evident to me that such conflicts are energy-wasting, destructive, and harmful to our cause. We Christians have far more to unite us than divide us. Furthermore, our open internecine wars provide a welcome opportunity for our common enemies, namely globalist Cultural Marxism and its partner, Islam. A fractured, warring, dispirited Christianity is just what they need.

            So I ask you to refrain from sectarian animus in these comments. It is not at all helpful to anyone who seriously opposes the Great Jihad. The Catholics and all the major Protestant denominations have now gotten into bed with Islam. At the official national level, none has remained true to the tenets of its own faith. I can’t see that this inter-denominational sniping at each other serves any useful purpose at all.

            One final note: I know from discussions with my wife and other Catholics that they are well aware that major feasts (as well as saints) were borrowed from pagan practices. That was a deliberate, conscious effort to co-opt earlier religions in the service of the Christian faith. This is not something that is forgotten or hidden — any Catholic who studies his own faith below the superficial level is familiar with it.

            So don’t think that you’ve stumbled upon a deep, dark secret of Catholicism that Catholics are unaware of! Quite the contrary.

          • So don’t think that you’ve stumbled upon a deep, dark secret of Catholicism that Catholics are unaware of! Quite the contrary.

            Those takeovers of local cultural beliefs – including shrines, etc. – were celebrated until the Church got so big and so very bureaucratic. Part of the secret of America’s thriving Christianity is the wise decision of The Founders to avoid a state church. It would have split the federation asunder. See this audio course:


            BTW, the only place in which the local culture co-opted Christian belief was Haiti. There, the cultural practices are a mix of African animism – voodoo or vodou – and Catholic saints. It’s fascinating if you like that stuff, which I do. Does anyone remember the brouhaha about Michelle Obama’s mother practicing Santeria in the White House? Here’s a report from an Obama-friendly site about the MSM press making hay out of it. Of course, all the usual “Obama is Christian and he was angry, put his foot down, blah, blah…” followed.


            While I’m not drawn to animism except as a source of study, the fact that this practice made it to the White House is of historical significance, and thus innately interesting.

            The B is right about my study of theology. But it also included anthropology, ecclesiology, phenomenology, the psychology of religion, and much more. I was – and remain – fascinated by ritual. It’s an outward expression of a deep human need; we all have rituals and routines that organize both our thinking and our time. The more mindful we are of those structures, the more forgiving we are of others’ organizing patterns. The contemporary idea of ‘hacks’ is a clever re-creation of the need to find more congenial ways to live.

            A by-now old-fashioned but still germane explanation of ritual is from Mircea Eliade:


            The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion

            Finally, I deeply believe the outward expression of any spiritual longing lies in the recognition of our aloneness. We make the journey to birth via our mother: being thrust into the world without our asking for it. And at the end, we die alone. In between those poles, we build our life with blocks of meaning that make sense to us. To my mind, spirituality and sexuality are closely twined; they are both attempts to cover our aloneness (an awkward word. Perhaps someone has a better one. I’m sure there’s a German word for that…Heidegger’s Dasein perhaps?).

            Amen to this subject, I hope.

          • Hi Baron, Dymphna,

            All I was, and am, looking for was that Catholics acknowledge where their feasts come from.

            Thank you Baron for letting me know that you also know. The “one final note” was an answer I was looking for!

            My background is completely opposite to yours. I grown in the most atheistic country in a family of world champions. Never went to church, but had been forced by the school to sing in a catholic choir which made me literally hate church music. Even now, when I try to enter a church, I leave by the moment people start to sing. I just hate it.

            That is maybe why my focus is solely on The Word. And that is probably the problem, because I study the Bible as an outsider, and then I go to see some church, and I see that 99% of churches are about singing and pagan holidays. Oftentimes things that are explicitly shamed and banned in the Bible.

            So I wonder the world, and part of my agenda is to point those who call themselves Christians to the truth – that is “what the Bible really says”.

            And see what happens when I try? Those who call themselves Christians often see my pointing to the truth as an attack, and go on justifying themselves! Every answer is an answer, I guess.

            PS: Maybe its just misunderstanding, me writing in foreign language to foreign people.

            PSS: Not even once have I seen you refer to our Lord Jesus Christ, so frankly, all you have is a Tradition of Men. And I mean no offense, that is just the way I see you and your religions. And I would be lying if I said I have no problem with that…

            But lets just leave it on that “my agenda is the Truth”, and that I can be very bitey when Im after that 😉

            Have a good Weekend, and may our Lord Jesus Christ help us find and acknowledge the Truth about organized religions that have the word “Christian” in their name!

          • This blog is not run as a Christian website per se. We restrain ourselves from using too much specifically Christian content, because we understand that we have numerous atheist, agnostic, Jewish, and Hindu readers. Probably the single largest group after the Christians is the atheists.

            However, we tend to post relevant essays on major Christian feast days. Occasional other Christian-themed posts appear. And you evidently haven’t been reading here for very long if you’ve never seen me write about our Redeemer Jesus Christ. Also, once or twice, when appropriate, I have posted the 39th Psalm.

          • PS for Dymphna: The point of Christianity is that we are never alone! We might be physically alone, but not spiritually. There are great many unseen witnesses between the Heaven and Earth 😉

            PSS: We are born by the will of God, live, and we gonna die once, and then appear before the throne of God for judgement. That is why we shouldn’t be building our life with blocks of meaning that make sense to us, but with blocks that are meaningful to God/Good.

            PSSS: Its sunny outside, I better do some skiing 😉

            we build our life with blocks of meaning that make sense to us

          • Yes, I have not seen you writing about Jesus Christ. And I know your website is not “Christian” per se. Anyhow, excuse my pushing for some answers. I think it all started by my asking local Christians think about the fact that the Bible does not mention Ash Wednesday or Lent… And I have to thank both, that you actually answered. That is not my usual experience when I try to talk “religion” with “religious” people.

            Let me just point to one thing you said, Baron:

            “My experience with people who have a chip on their shoulders about Catholicism is that they are bringing some internal agenda of their own to the conflict, which may then be enacted on an external stage via their public antagonism towards Catholics. I don’t really understand it, but I see it happen all the time.”

            I admit, I do not like catholicism, and all organised religions for that matter. The way I see the message of the Bible is quite simple: Israelites, victims of physical enslavement freed by divine order. Jews, victims of spiritual enslavement by religion freed by divine order… Jesus Christ – killed by organised religion, and the world power. I kind of don’t see the need for organised religion at all! Just like I don’t see the need for World Power. That is why I don’t like Catholicism!

            It just crossed my mind that my agenda originates from the point in time when I realised that Catholic Religion is actually used against True Christianity here in Bohemia. If you ask modern Czechs what is Christianity about, they will say “its like communism, or fascism – one divine guy at the top, totalitarian ideological system, festivals and megalomaniac buildings…” They have no idea about Jesus Christ, yet they have very good idea about “organized religions”. And for years, I have to explain that the Bible actually doesn’t say a thing about this or that… This is the kind of “Catholic Hipocricy” that I am often fighting. (“Catholic” in my speech means “Roman”)

            But it is a fight against evil spirits in high places, not a fight against people. I know many nice catholics too, yet every time they start praying to Mary my heart is almost jumping out screaming “Who told you you should pray to Mary?”

            My friend rejects Christianity because his grandmother was praying to a little statue of Mary – and died of cancer. How can I tell him that “Thou shalt not make yourself an image…”???

            Should I say that his Grandma was misled? Or that she wasn’t Christian although she believed she was?

            I am convinced that Islam will rule the world, sooner or later, because that is the way of the World. All Christian countries turn to Islam after they forget the Truth. That is why I am so interested in this thing I call “catholic hipocricy”. In a nation full of professed atheists (Bohemia), the hipocricy of the Roman Church is a great obstacle to the truths of the Bible, because the big expensive buildings with paintings and statues are simply more visible.

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