The road in the end taking the path the sun had taken,
into the western sea, and the moon rising behind you
as you stood where ground turned to ocean: no way
to your future now but the way your shadow could take,
walking before you across water, going where shadows go,
no way to make sense of a world that wouldn’t let you pass
except to call an end to the way you had come…
(David Whyte, “Finisterre”)
So it’s Lent.
I made my own ashes this year, burning fragile strips of palm into dust in an aluminum pan on my back porch with my sister-in-law. “What do we say to make it official?” she asked me, and I said, “Maybe we could just say a prayer.”
We were quiet for a minute, watching the flames consume the old, dry leaves, then she said, “Thank you, palms, for your life and death.”
“And your resurrection as ashes,” I added.
The amount of ashes that were left after we’d burned our 4 or 5 palm branches was startlingly small. There was barely anything left of what had been. I mixed in a few drops of sweet-smelling oil so it would stick to skin. Then I took the mixture to my church where we smeared it onto our hands and heads in a candlelit chapel while we sang, “create in me a clean heart, O God.”
The tiny jar of oil and ashes was, after all, enough to go around our small group, even with some to spare, like the loaves and fishes, endlessly extending to include another hungry heart… and another. And so we proclaimed our humanness, our beings made-of-dust. And so we honored our own deaths.
I know that not everyone celebrates Ash Wednesday, that for some, it’s a strange, incomprehensible ritual. But this is what Ash Wednesday is for me: the start of the journey. It is a moment somewhere on the circle between one Easter and the next, between death and life again, when we pause to bow to our own shadows.
David Whyte walked the Camino de Santiago, the way taken by so many pilgrims for so many years, and wrote the above poem about the tradition of burning your clothes or shoes when you reach the end, when you reach the sea. I picture the ashes catching on the wind, blowing out over the water, consecrating the air as they disappear.
No way to the future now but the way our shadows could take…
Lent is a pilgrimage, and we let our shadows go before us, reaching their long arms into a future we don’t yet know. From here, we follow, stepping quietly after.