wp-image-1731534322jpg.jpg

An Ash Wednesday I’ll Never Forget:

Chesterton did not actually say that those of us who don’t believe in God will believe in anything, but he ought to have because it’s true. Between the ages of 12 and 20, before I began my return to the Church on February 17, 2010, I believed in, among other things, Buddhism, vegetarianism, pacifism, gay marriage, Marxism, libertarianism, literary criticism and – most shamefully, I think – the literary merits of Finnegans Wake.

Priests looking for youth evangelisation strategies should note that was only the penultimate item on this list that did me any good, for had I not one day found myself writing a rather dull and pointless essay on Yeats and TS Eliot, I might never have returned to the faith. Perhaps the Catholic Truth Society should do up a neat little pamphlet on FR Leavis. But let me back up.

I was a very pious child who grew up fearing hell with an almost physical intensity. Even the sight of shoulder devils in cartoons could fill me with dread. Yet I also struggled from an early age with very grave doubts. I distinctly remember lying in bed aged seven and thinking to myself: “When you die, there is nothing.”

Fast forward half a decade and I had become one of those obnoxious 12-year-olds who should not be allowed to read books. When my catechism teacher told us that skipping Mass was a mortal sin, I decided that there probably wasn’t a hell or a heaven, much less a God who cared what any of us did with his time on Sundays or any other day of the week.

At some point towards the end of my teenage years I ceased to be a thoroughgoing materialist. (How I unclasped myself from Feuerbach’s dank tendrils and came to believe in Something rather than nothing is difficult to say, but I chalk it up to falling seriously in love for the first time and listening to Van Morrison.)

I then became, or so I like fondly to think, America’s last earnest pagan. I do not mean that I worshipped Zeus or Diana – the closest I ever came was burning lavender-scented incense while reciting from Keats, a practice I would heartily recommend to all students reading English. But I did pay homage, almost literally, to things like grey waves, thunderstorms, autumnal leaves, the faces of beautiful women, the smell of lilacs and the first snow. Whatever was out there, the quaint little story about a Nazarene seemed to me too small for it.

Is it strange to say that I cannot remember anything else about that day in February? I have no idea what I ate for breakfast or how cold it was or whether that afternoon was one of those rare occasions on which I did anything at my Gogolian make-work job in the Office of Financial Aid. All I know is that at some point in the course of working on a literary essay I consulted Eliot’s Collected Poems and happened upon “Ash Wednesday”, which I had never much cared for.

But that day in the library I found myself utterly transfixed by this desperate plea for the intercession of our Mother written by an agnostic. (One of my fondest discoveries of recent years has been to learn how much of the poem is a pastiche of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin.) I was especially by these lines from the third stanza:

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain

wp-image-920999082jpg.jpg

Section 1 of Ash Wednesday:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s