Published February 19, 2004
Ash Wednesday is a humbling day. We walk to the altar and hear the rather dismal words, “Thou art dust, and to dust thou shall return” while the priest makes a smudgy black cross on our foreheads. We sit down and hear the words repeated hundreds of times, until everyone in church has a smudge.
The smudgy black stuff is the residue of burnt palms, which were fresh and beautiful last Palm Sunday. The palms signified Christ’s glorious entrance into Jerusalem and were turned into ashes as a reminder of our mortality and the cycle of life. We know how easily things can go wrong.
Humility is a word you don’t hear very much these days. The word comes from “humus,” meaning the earth—and how telling that the word “human” comes from the same root. We are truly people born of the earth, and yet we forget that so easily.
It is not really very stylish to strive for humility in a society where our clothing, our car and the square footage of our house announce who we are. We are so used to believing that more is better and bigger is better, that the notion of a humble home—or a meek woman—is hard to take.
Fortunately, there are still communities of Religious men and women dedicating their lives to down-to-earth, simple living. I visited one a few years ago, when I embarked on a weekend retreat for women at the Monastery of the Visitation in Snellville.
I had my own little room for the duration, and it was definitely humble, containing a comfortable bed, a no-nonsense easy chair, and a bedside table with a lamp. The only adornments were a crucifix on the wall and a painting of Jesus.
The room had no television, VCR, DVD player, computer, stereo, radio, tape deck, telephone or palm pilot. The environment was stripped to the essentials, so women on retreat could have a respite from the busy world of jangling cell phones, demanding e-mails, overflowing in-boxes and babbling TV sets.
There was time for what really mattered, which was reading, basking in long stretches of silence, going outside for walks—and praying in the chapel.
The whole weekend was a big eye-opener for me. I had packed my bags nervously, knowing I didn’t need to take much but still feeling insecure that I might not take enough. Even though I knew I would be among cloistered nuns, plus other women on retreat, I still packed my cosmetics (insight number one: Vanity runs deep in my soul).
I also felt it was necessary to pack snacks and even a bottle of red wine, perhaps because I feared depriving myself of my usual pleasures. Let’s face it: I was obsessed with my own comforts and not too keen on the whole humility thing.
After all, I’ve spent my entire life in a society where deprivation is considered a sin. I was raised to believe in products that whisper a hidden promise: “Buy me and your life will be better. You will be … prettier, slimmer, more desirable.”
You can poke around in my bathroom and see the evidence of this belief system. There are eye creams, moisturizers, bottles of nail polish, and a basket of cosmetics.
I couldn’t help but notice that the meek little nuns at the monastery had fresh, scrubbed faces and wore simple garments that covered them from head to toe. They didn’t have to waste time primping their hair, curling their eyelashes, wrestling with control-top pantyhose or counting the latest wrinkles in the mirror.
As we headed to supper on the first night, I was blessed with another insight, this time about my own greediness. When I looked at the table in the dining hall, my first thought was that there would not be enough food. Nervously, I recalled the bare-bones breakfast that had consisted of cereal, toast and coffee. Lunch was soup and bread, followed by a light afternoon snack.
By supper, I was quite hungry and I eyed the table in the dining hall with great interest, noting there were platters of vegetables, sliced bread and butter, and dessert. But when I realized we’d be eating “family style” and saw how many women were in the room, counting nuns and visitors, I fretted that I might walk away hungry.
I was definitely humbled a few moments later when the nuns graciously allowed the retreatants to fill our plates first. Although my greedy side urged me to pile the food high upon my dish, something else, quieter and gentler, reminded me that if I took too much, the nuns might go hungry.
The other women on retreat must have heard the same voice because they also took modest portions. And by the time everyone, including the nuns, had filled their plates, there was still food on the table.
Every Ash Wednesday, I reflect on the nuns’ surrender to God. They have no families, no husbands, no pretty dresses, no houses, and no cars. They can’t tool down to the mall on a whim to go shopping or see a movie. Instead, they have their chores to do, and they spend a huge portion of the day in prayer, inviting petitions from people in the outside community.
Still, what I remember most is that the nuns didn’t seem downtrodden or sad. They looked so joyful.
As I proceed to the altar and get my smudge on my forehead and head into another season of penance, I envision the nuns walking to the altar in their little chapel and hearing the same words that I do: “Thou art dust, and to dust thou shall return.”
I suspect they are not startled by the words at all. Living simply, they know what is really important. And realizing that they are dust frees them to love the one who said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
A parishioner at St. Thomas More Church, Decatur, Lorraine V. Murray writes a column for the Faith and Values section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She is the author of “Grace Notes” and “Why Me? Why Now?” You may e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.