Ash is a strange symbol with which to mark a beginning, but here we are, at the beginning of Lent, using ashes to remind ourselves of the journey we are about to undertake.
The words with which we receive our ashes remind us of the final end of our journey on earth – ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ A bleak reminder of our origins and of the end which awaits us all. The creation account in the second chapter of Genesis does not give much space for human vanity; we are created from the most lowly substance, the dust of the ground; only God’s breath gives us life. Even the word with which we describe ourselves, human is thought to be related to humus: the earth. We cannot escape from reminders of the stuff of which we are made; without the breath of God’s Spirit, all we have to offer is dry and dusty.
And yet the journey of Lent is meant to be a time for new life and growth. How does this fit in with ashes? Well, ash can be a useful fertilizer in the garden, a good source of potassium. And new growth has often to be preceded by pruning, or clearing the ground.
Ash Wednesday is an opportunity for each of us to reflect on where we might benefit from some pruning in our lives, and where we would like to encourage growth. In Chapter 49 of his Rule, St Benedict has a few simple suggestions for his monks, which follow very much the traditional Lenten themes: increasing the amount of prayer, putting right any area where we have been sloppy or negligent, cutting down on food and drink. Benedict is also insistent, however, that his monks do these things from the right motives: that ‘with the joy of spiritual desire’ they may ‘look forward to holy Easter.’ Lent is not meant to be a narcissistic marathon focusing on our own achievements, but an encouragement to open up to the gentle breath of the Spirit.
Chapter 48 of the Rule has another suggestion from Benedict: ‘And in these days of Lent they shall each receive a book from the library, which they shall read straight through from the beginning. These books are to be given out at the beginning of Lent.’ In the spirit of this instruction, we in the Lay Community usually recommend some Lenten reading to our members. This year the book we have chosen is The Way of Benedict: Eight Blessings for Lent by Laurentia Johns OSB of Stanbrook Abbey.