Ash Wednesday

ASH WEDNESDAY WAS YESTERDAY, March 9th. I mention it today because, by last night, I had seen only two other people in town wearing ashes.

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It saddened me. Even in childhood, Ash Wednesday captivated me in some unspoken way. I loved walking about displaying the mark of my mortality rubbed onto my forehead. All around were others, adults and kids like me, carrying the same mark. Not everyone, of course, but enough that my burnt-palm ashes did not isolate me.



“Dust thou art; and unto dust thou shalt return.” Such is God’s rebuke to Adam in the Genesis story. Later, Abraham speaks of himself as being “but dust and ashes.” There are those haunting words from Job: “Thine hands have made me . . . yet Thou dost destroy me. Remember, I beseech Thee, that Thou hast made me as the clay; and wilt thou bring me to dust again?’ The psalmist phrased it this way: “For He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust.” Then there is the sorrow of Ecclesiastes: “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto the God Who gave it.”


Flagellants at Doornik, Belgium, in 1347


Down the ages, biblical man was kept mindful of his origin and his end. The generations were bound together by that common recognition. What does it mean for a culture to abandon that reminder? I cannot answer the question. I only know that is virtually no art to commemorate Ash Wednesday.
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Lots of art for Halloween, but nothing at all for a  Perhaps the clue lies in the words of St. Aelfric the Homilist:

We read in the books, both in the Old Law and in the New, that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes, and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little in the beginning of our Lent, that we strew ashes upon our heads, to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during our Lenten fast.

Sin is an unpopular concept. It has been largely banished behind that word mistake. We all make mistakes, after all we are only human. But we do not sin. Psychology tells us so. Still, popular culture retains some residual grasp of the old idea of sin. Most certainly, smoking is a sin against our neighbors. So is parking outside the health club in a spot designated for the handicapped. Then there all those innumerable sins against the environment.  Gaia, it seems, is a less forgiving, more jealous god than the biblical One. Climate change represents the wages of our sin.

We still flagellate ourselves over the small things: incandescent light bulbs, seat belts, recycling infractions, second hand smoke, and the countless—inescapable—violations of liberal/socialist proprieties. We are no longer sinners; only cranks. It shows up in our art. For reasons I cannot quite explain this morning, the dissolution of Ash Wednesday emblematizes the reasons we make so little art that matters. Art is the gesture a culture makes toward significance. But we have repudiated—or abandoned our hold on—the ground of significance.


© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey


  1. “We generally give to our ideas about the unknown the color of our notions about what we do know: If we call death a sleep it’s because it has the appearance of sleep; if we call death a new life, it’s because it seems different from life. We build our beliefs and hopes out of these small misunderstandings with reality and live off husks of bread we call cakes, the way poor children play at being happy.
    But that’s how all life is; at least that’s how the particular way of life generally known as civilization is. Civilization consists in giving an innapropriate name to something and then dreaming what results from that.

    And in fact the false name and the true dream do create a new reality. The object really does become other, because we have made it so.

    We manufacture realities. We use the raw materials we always used but the form lent it by art effectively prevents it from remaining the same. A table made out of pinewood is a pinetree but it is also a table. We sit down at the table not at the pinetree. …”

    [Fernando Pessoa, An excerpt from “The Book of Disquiet,” written in the 1920’s, first published in 1982 by Atica in Lisbon.]

  2. The quote from Pessoa is a better piece of poetry than a rational comment. “Civiilization consists in giving an inappropriate name to something and then dreaming what results from that.” Really? How shallow can a celebrated national poet get? But then Pessoa made up multiple names and identities for himself. So I guess his definition of civilization is largely projection.

  3. How quick to judge. If one’s fetish is rationality and order, I suppose it would indeed seem like a shallow projection—but then again, can rationality and order express life’s mystery and wonder? Sometimes logic is a superficial contrivance in discernment and artistic expression.

    “Excuse me,” said an ocean fish.
    “You are older than I, so can you tell me where
    to find this thing they call the ocean?”

    “The ocean,” said the older fish, “is the thing you are in now.”

    “Oh, this? But this is water. What I’m seeking is the ocean” said the disappointed fish as he swam away to search elsewhere.

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