There is something about Ash Wednesday that always makes me nostalgic for my childhood. This shouldn’t come as a surprise–I was raised Catholic, and went to Catholic school almost all my life, from 3rd grade through college. These day my religious beliefs are best classified as “complicated.” Still, I’ve come to accept that it’s next to impossible to undo all of the beliefs and traditions instilled in me as a child, even if they don’t quite match up with the ways that I have evolved as an adult.

This poem came, rather unbidden, a few months ago. As Lent begins, and as the world grapples with Pope Benedict XVI’s historic resignation, it feels appropriate to share it with all of you today.

English: Ash Wednesday, watercolor, 78 x 113 c...

“Ash Wednesday” by Julian Fałat (Photo source: Wikipedia Commons)

“The Old Ways”

the ancients ordered their lives around nature
     patterns of stars, paths of planets
     movements of the moon, transitions of tides.
i order my life around the academic calendar
     and so i measure the rise and fall of time by midterms and finals,
     the too-short spring break,
     the never-long-enough summer vacation.

but there was a time when the year began
     with the lighting of the easter candle, and the swirl of incense.
     when the washing of feet
          the carrying of a cross
          meditations on death, sacrifice, loss
     preceded rebirth and transformation,
          ushered in the start of a new cycle that would be better than the last.

there was a time when the advent calendar
     with its hidden chocolate treats
     and a candlelit wreath—
          three purple candles, one rose—
     stoked my anticipation for christmas
     when we marked the birth of the babe in the manger
     with midnight mass and voices raised in song.

and there was a time when we set aside forty days
     to walk in the desert.
     oh, we giggled as kids
          gave up silly things like candy and soda and television
     but we wore our ashes with sober pride
          spoke our confessions with sincerity.

that was when school days were ordered around prayer
     when we thought the rest of the world worshipped as we did.
but i left all that behind
     turned my back in favor of practices more humane
          less corrupt
     practices that allow for love in all forms,
     preserve women’s control over their own bodies,
     protect the most innocent within the flock.

and yet…
     and yet.

i miss the old mysteries, the old stories.
i long for a whiff of that sacred incense
the glow of the ever-present flame
and i wonder if change is even possible
     if “reform from within” is more than a fairy tale
     if i have a responsibility, a duty, to try.

because mother church, no matter how i struggle against her,
     is my home
and when i try to let go, her saints, her teachings, all her beauty
     haunt me still.
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