I love Ash Wednesday. With every year turning my hair more grey and my skin a tad more wrinkled it strikes deeper. “Remember you are dust and unto dust, you shall return.” The Lord remembers this too. His last enemy to conquer is death, so there’s nothing to be afraid of.
I remember how He entered my mother’s turning back to dust in 2018. His consoling presence drove away the tempter’s futile efforts to crush my trust in His tender mercy. Mom’s death had a greater influence on my remembering than ashes on my forehead. Yet, I need to gather around the Eucharist with my brothers and sisters to remember, because together we watch all things pass away. And who among us has not experienced the crushing loss of one we’ve loved. The Lord stands on the bright horizon of an eternal tomorrow calling us to himself.
Jesus calls us away from sin, death’s companion. By way of a contrite heart and the healing tears of sorrow, his “tender heart so inclined to pity is softened by our prayers” (Miraculous Infant Jesus prayer).
The Church’s annual Lenten launch from Joel and Psalm 51 is a splendid gift to contemplate all through Lent:
Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God, For he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting in punishment. (Joel 2:12-13)
My offences truly I know them;
My sin is always before me.
Against you, you alone have I sinned;
What is evil in your sight I have done.
(Psalm 51: 5-6)
Our great and tender God gave us in Central Ontario a wonderful snowstorm to complement Ash Wednesday. It lasted well into Thursday.
The reports and warnings stirred my excitement as Ash Wednesday approached with its promise of mercy and a ton of snow.
I left for Algonquin Park after morning Mass and adoration as the snow started falling. About an hour’s drive through the Madawaska Highlands had me alone with Jesus and Mary on the Leaf Lake ski trail. St Joseph waited for me at my first stop, Dee’s cabin.
Fresh snow padded the trail; occasionally I stopped to let my heart and mind gaze into the majesty of creation. In those moments I could easily recite a line or two of the Psalm, shifting back and forth from Joel. It was easy to ask Him to give me a contrite heart because “my sins are always before me”. The snow kept falling as if each unique flake carried the soothing touch of His mercy I did not deserve yet longed for.
The sun’s retreat behind the hardwood hills enhanced the sacred silence as the wind increased its playful mood snatching snow from laden branches and tossing it over me with obvious pleasure. I prayed, “Stay with me Lord; tell me things for I love to hear your voice in the silence of your presence. Dearest Mother, cover me and be a mother to me in my sorrow, for I am constantly in need of your love, constantly weak. Ask Jesus to change my heart to be more like his.”
My hunger for a meal intensified along the 5km stretch to Dee’s cabin with nightfall closing in. I only brought water, a little cheese, bread and an orange. Never have I travelled outside fasting. But never have I travelled like this on Ash Wednesday. This hunger generated by sweat and fatigue would be satisfied partially. Yet, to be alone with Christ in my need was the real purpose of being out here.
The last downhill bend carried me to Dee’s where only darkness and silence rested. Only two skiers used the trail today and they were long gone.
I looked to Joseph who didn’t quite have a fire ready for me. The ashes were cold and lifeless in the stove. I knew he was here in a warmer way though. Food had to wait as I stirred a fire to life at minus 10 degrees inside.
I fetched wood from the box outside watching the rays of my headlamp bounce off snowflakes falling more vigorously. Dark silence held my heart in a brief thanksgiving.
Radiant heat soon soothed my tired limbs as I prayed the blessing before eating. What was it like for the disciples to be alone with Jesus in a lonely place I thought. What was it like for Jesus to be alone with His Father as he so often wanted to be?
St. Elizabeth of the Trinity came to mind:
“It is all calm, all peaceful, and the peace of God is so good; that is what St. Paul speaks of when he says that it ‘exceeds all understanding.’ I have such a hunger for Him; He hollows out abysses in my soul, abysses which He alone can fill. To do that He leads me into deep silence which I no longer wish to leave.”
In the deep silence of a snow-filled forest, fire waning, I prayed psalm 51 and the readings for Mass. To the One who died for us, I carried all whose names came to mind. One after another, most close to me, flowed in gentle simple prayer asking for his mercy showered them. Closing with a Marion antiphon I listened for a long time.
Pack filled, stove door secured and headlamp bright I blessed this beautiful log cabin. Outside with skis fastened a firm downward push on my right foot sent me gliding into the snow-filled night.
Thank you, Lord, for leading me into this deep Ash Wednesday silence, not so much covering this holy place as “hollowed out” in my soul where you live holding me, and making yourself known to me. I love you; be merciful to me a sinner.