Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Mark of my Faith

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday when Catholics attend Mass and receive ashes on their forehead.

These ashes are applied in the sign of the cross with the words 'Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.'

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a period that is meant to echo Christ's forty days in the desert. A time when we are called to make sacrifices designed to sharpen our focus on Christ's sacrifice for us, and on how we should live our lives in His light.

At least, this is my basic or simplified understanding of Lent - and it is one that I've followed with varying degrees of success or failure (mostly the latter I'm ashamed to say) over the years.

Jay and I received our ashes at Mass yesterday morning while Miss E was at school. We turned up to collect her a little while later and a few steps in the gate of the school I felt the stares, and one mother came right up to me and said 'I have to tell you, you have grease all over your forehead, did you know?'

I instantly felt bad - I felt bad for her that she was trying to be nice and was telling me in case I didn't know, that my face was 'dirty' - but I also felt incredibly awkward in having to explain that it was not grease.

The penny dropped quickly for this mom and she said 'oh yeah, it's Ash Wednesday' then her next question 'Aren't you supposed to wash that off?' And I briefly answered, 'no - part of the point of having the ashes is to wear them all day as a mark of faith'

This happened me last year also, albeit that it was with someone a little more rude.

These experiences bring a multitude of questions for me. Clearly, many people are not aware that ashes are part of the Ash Wednesday ritual for some and this strikes me as odd initially - since I come from an area where the population is pretty much 50% Catholic and 50% non-Catholic - but the non-Catholic population by and large is aware that Catholics receive ashes on Ash Wednesday and so it's not that big of a deal and rarely elicits comments, at least in my experience.

Deeper than this though are the questions these experiences raise about my Catholic faith and how uncomfortable it makes me to have to defend it or explain it - and then I wonder if my discomfort comes from the fact that I don't feel 100% confident in explaining it correctly - and at 36 and a lifelong Catholic, shouldn't I be confident?

Part of my reticence to discuss my faith comes I'm sure from a bad experience after Miss E was born from an Evangelical Christian who pretty much told me Catholicism was wrong, that it was not a true Christian faith and that I was wrong to have Miss E baptised a Catholic. This is a person who loves God, and does on the whole embody what it means to be a Christian - but she refuses to see that we agree on so, so many areas - we are both followers of Christ, the only difference is that I choose to be so within the 'family' of the Catholic Church.

Maybe it's because 'Religion' is one of those taboo topics, like politics, many people don't like to discuss their faith - or hear of someone else's, and so the general trend is to keep mum, and brush it all under the carpet as something personal and private.

But isn't this absolutely contra to the message that Christ give us - to spread the Good News?

I know the answer to this question - yet I am somewhat uncomfortable in discussing my Christian faith in general, or my Catholic faith in particular with people. So does this mean I don't have the strength of faith I thought I had? Maybe - and I'm pretty sure this needs a little work on my part.

Part of what comes as being a life long Catholic is that you fall into a pattern of attending Mass each week, on holidays and holy days - because, that's what you do. But, how much of that time is spent truly absorbing the word of God, and applying that to our lives, families, passing it on to our kids? Like I said, I have work to do.

My parish has a number of Lenten programs running where parishioners have the opportunity to discuss and inquire about our Catholic faith. The fact that these exist reassures me that I may not be alone in feeling this way.

I expect this post will go the same way as my only post on politics - I'll hear cricket's chirping for days! However, please do share what helps you share your faith, if you're happy to do so.


Iota said...

One of the things I like about life here (maybe it's a bit different where you are)is that religion isn't a taboo subject. It's not even an embarrassing subject - mostly. So whereas in the UK, I always wondered whether taking my kids to church would make them targets for unkind comments or even bullying at school, here, it's just very normal. You go to church, or you don't - it's not such a huge deal as elsewhere. I find that a breath of fresh air.

Jessica @ A Bushel and a Peck said...

I grew up in an area where I felt like most people were Catholic (Boston), and even there the ashes sometimes got a second look. I no longer consider myself to be Catholic, but we go to a Unitarian Universalist church because I want my children to have the aspect of religion in their lives. I feel like the topic can be so polarizing, though, that I usually don't talk about it on my blog, either. Kinda disheartening.

imperfect housewife said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
imperfect housewife said...

I like watching the news channels all day on Ash Wed. . I like to see our elected officials and if they proudly wear this symbol of faith all day (our vice president did!)

lady macleod said...

I have a few things to say - mostly because I know you to be such a dear person.

Let me begin, we know I am a Buddhist. I am a Buddhist because it is the one organized religion that most closely fits my spirituality (and we have never started a war over our faith, I love that). But anyone who knows me well will tell you I take from it what I need, and let the rest go for the monks. I am a deeply spiritual person but not a deeply religious one.

And I ALWAYS hold out the possibility in politics and religion - that I could be wrong.

I feel very strongly about honoring anyone's beliefs as long as they do no harm to others. I have a great deal, a great deal, of trouble with organized religions who think that their way is the ONLY way.

There are many Paths to Enlightenment, Heaven, Nirvana, whatever name you use for your Bliss. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is very firm in his teachings that those who grew up with religions other than Buddhism should stay there and be the best Christian, Jew, Jane, HIndu, or whatever. When one changes religion there is the temptation to make the faith you have left -wrong- in order to justify your change of heart. TRicky business.

I think having your children, or your neighbors for that matter, see an outward symbol of your faith is something for THEM TO HONOUR.

This is, as you noted, a volatile subject but one that needs to be brought out into the light more I think. We need to honour and respect the choice of each individual. The more love and compassion in the world the better. And the power of prayer by any name (I use meditation) is a power like no other.

My only child converted to Judaism when she married. She thought about it long and hard (as she does most things) and wrote me the loveliest letter telling me that she felt perfectly comfortable doing so because of the "wonderful, accepting way that you reared me spiritually". Well, all you mothers know I did some happy tears after that!

I do find that the happier one is your own spirituality the more people ask about it - that happens to me all the time.

Please remember my friend that your reticence is something you must look at in your own heart, but do remember there are a lot of stupid, rude people out there - I'm sorry but it's true. And YOU are a sweet, lovely person who has difficulty telling them to bugger off - which is when you get their email address and zip off a notice to me. :-)

There is so much "them and us" in the world; we need no more.

anymommy said...

It's funny (and it's not what you asked), but I am not at all religious and I still identified with the feeling you described of reticence and not wanting to be drawn out on an issue that is a huge part of my life. I feel this way sometimes (depending on situation and tone) when someone asks me about my daughter, who is obviously, due to physical appearance, adopted. I feel awkward and stumbly and sometimes challenged, even where there's no challenge in the question. I suppose it's because I've been put on the defensive in the past, just like you have regarding Catholicism. Interesting.

Jennifer, Playgroups Are No Place For Children said...

I am late. Obviously.

Anyhow, there is so much I could say about this subject, I'll try to condense my thoughts!

I was raised Catholic and have baptized my children in the Catholic church. I feel like there is so much I don't know or understand about what it means to be Catholic. I really question my faith and wonder if I should consider exploring other religions. But I can't imagine NOT attending Mass and having the history and the routines of the church.

That is just not something I could ever say to a priest, ya know?

Also, since moving to TN, Catholicism is not as prevalant (as say Baptist or Methodist). I'm attending a non-denominational bible study and all the women truly understand their faiths and me...I don't even mention I'm Catholic. I can't explain my religion and I feel like "outsiders" look at Catholics like freaks or not truly Christian.

I don't know if this makes sense, but I "get" being defensive.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

I attend a Church of England church regularly. I don't advertise this fact here in the UK because most people I know don't go to church and don't trust people who do. I blame Evangelical Christians for this. I have not and will not try to convert anyone. Religion, I believe, is highly personal. Some of my family fall into that EC brand of Christianity. I cannot talk to them about religion without getting into a fight so I don't say anything. They assume I believe as they do. I don't. I understand you not wanting to talk about your beliefs. That doesn't mean they're not real and you don't value them. It means you do value them too much to have someone who thinks otherwise to denigrate them.

Sarie said...

Love your comments on religion. Beautiful. And so true. I think we should all be more open about it. Great to meet you briefly and I look forward to getting to know you better!!