Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Ashes Start Us In The Right Place

By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published February 19, 2009

We live by several varieties of seasons all through our lives. There are those brought with the winds and other climatic shifts, and there are those we enter through the dividing of time according to the need to mark our days and years. We need to remember the day of our birth, and the passing on of those we know and love. We need to mark time for its offerings of joy, as well as those of sadness.

These are all embraced by our liturgical calendar.

Ash Wednesday is one clear day of separation on the calendar of Christian life. It marks the beginning of Lent. We will start a strict fast. Our liturgical vestments will change from green to purple. Our large psalter books will be changed the night before. Penance is in the air, on our tables, on our lips, and hopefully in our hearts. It marks a time of repentance.

The chanting of the night office psalms will move us to the more somber and penitential mood of these next six weeks. I remember once celebrating an early Ash Wednesday Mass for some guests in our retreat house. I blessed a small tray of ashes. After the Gospel I placed a dab of ash on their foreheads. With each person, I said the words “Remember thou are dust and to dust thou shall return.”

The ritual never fails to make me ponder this mystery of life as it is contained in the loving ways of God, ways that necessarily involve the passages of birth, repentance, death and rising.

I recently read how the writer Joyce Carol Oates takes great care in refining her prose. She goes over her text with a keen eye, trying to give the narrative a sustained voice. She said it is something “like aerating soil.”

How many times have I received and given ashes? Countless. Ashes do not have the nutrients and other life-giving qualities of soil. Ashes are dead remains, lifeless, worthless. They are the useless residue of what was once fresh and alive. Ashes have no seed. Yet, they are a powerful symbol for millions of Christians. They symbolize a very important aspect to the prose that is a human life.

As seemingly useless as ashes are, they do bear something of life in that they touch upon something we somehow “know” but that lives beneath the level of language. If we “aerate” our experiences enough, we soon discover that we are not and never can be the source of our lives, our happiness, our peace. We fail. We are limited, finite, in need of something that the human intuits but cannot provide. We need to acknowledge our mortality. We assent to some known affinity with the banality of ash.

We are willing to take death in its most stark and lifeless—even hopeless—way and in doing so, acknowledge that we were created and that we shall perish. Our brief lives are a gift, and we have no control over the inevitable coming and power that is death: a power that will reduce us to dust, to ash. Our faith sustains in our hearts the willingness to endure the winters of our lives and know that such are embraced by summers and springs: the Gift that is Easter.

When I was younger it was easier to go along with what I was told was the import of this Lenten time. I gave things up, made sacrifices and perhaps in a more enlightened mode did some small good for another. All of this was drilled into me by the good sisters in my Catholic grammar school and was reinforced at home by the faith of my parents.

I am older now. In some ways I hope I have matured. In other ways I know I have not. Guidelines are plentiful here regarding fast, abstinence, being good and the like. Much of that I do by rote. But it is my heart, I know, that God is seeking to soften and deepen with an awareness that only he can give.

Lent is a time to do or be what I can to reconnect with the only source of Life that there is and ever shall be. It is a time to distance myself from what is simply not of that life, for I do not need it.

Lent is, for all of us, to trust God in his work as the ongoing editor of our lives. He is writing something through us and wants to again reach into us, touch our hearts and aerate them with his love, his Spirit. He wants to remove whatever dead language he can find and breathe into us once again his own words of life. A page has turned on the calendar—we are encouraged to lift our lives to him and let him write.

Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery Web store at