Monday, February 20, 2012

Ash Wednesday--A Franciscan Perspective

  Ash Wednesday is upon us and many of us, Catholics as well as members of several other Christian churches will have ashes placed on our forehead with the words "Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return."  Others will hear a more recent formula taken from the Gospel, "Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel."  For a long I have been inclined towards the newer prayer but in recent years I have moved back to the more traditional words.  Both of course have their richness and both are good reminders at the beginning of Lent.  So why my turn to the traditional formula?

   Part of the answer to the above question is the fact that I am getting older and thoughts of my own mortality more easily come to mind. After all, I'm in my late sixties and am a cancer survivor, though I'm in good health at present and barring the unforeseen am not looking to die any time soon.  That having been said I think that it is good to pause occasionally and reflect on the fact that life will come to an end. As one pundit likes to say, "None of us gets out of this life alive." Not only does it help us to realize that we will have to give an account to God, it also puts our life into perspective.  It challenges us to realize the now, this moment, is the only time guaranteed to me.  Yesterday is gone and while we indeed must learn the lessons of history in general and our own history in particular we cannot relive the past, nor should we try to hold onto it.  On the other hand we're not sure of what tomorrow will bring even though we need to make reasonable plans for the future.  Spiritually that challenges us to take advantage of the graces and blessings that the good Lord gives us each and everyday. As the folks in twelve step programs have learned--to take life one day at a time.

   There is a second lesson to be learned from this invitation to remember that we are dust.  Biblically the word that is commonly translated as "dust" can be translated as "earth" or even "mud".  These words remind us that we are creatures, and that God is God.  St. Francis of Assisi, near the end of his life, wrote the beautiful, but often not really well understood Canticle of the Creatures in which he refers to the Sun, Moon, Air and Water (understood at the time to be the four basic elements) as his brothers and sisters.  Some have the impression that this canticle was a sort of nature romanticism of the young Francis.  It was not.  Broken by illness and failure to succeed at several endeavors he was visiting the Poor Clare Sisters at the Church of San Damiano near Assisi. He slept in a sort of lean-to outside the convent and woke up on a glorious sunny morning with mice (creatures) crawling over him.  The poem then represents his acceptance of his creature-hood, his limitedness, his humanity.   He praised God most high for being revealed to us in creation and acknowledges that he is brother to all creatures and they are brothers and sisters to him.

   This Lent perhaps all of us can embrace the fact that we are creatures, the created and not the Creator, challenging ourselves to be rid of pretensions and illusions about ourselves. In this age of environmental  concern we can try to view ourselves as part of creation rather than only as agents who act upon it. And finally we can open ourselves more fully to an appreciation for and respect for human life and for all living things.

   A Happy Lenten journey to all my brother and sister creatures.

   On the light side here is a brief video clip that reminds us of all the Lenten basics:

It comes from a website called Busted Halo. I recommend it.  As the title suggests it shows different ways in which we are sinners striving to become saints.

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