Hearts and Ashes

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM      February 14, 2021

Ash Wednesday has long been a favorite of mine, but perhaps not for the reasons you might suspect. Those who know me well are quite aware that I’m not overly fond of fasting and penance. I’ve long harbored a secret wish to reverse the course of the liturgical seasons, increasing Advent to six weeks and reducing Lent to four weeks. This way, I reason, there would be more days of joyful expectation and fewer days of self-denial. Enough said.

So clearly, I’m not at all a penitential soul. But here’s what I love about Ash Wednesday: it’s one of those rare times when longing is laid bare, and laid bare in almost everyone unapologetically and without embarrassment. For a number of years, I was privileged to help with the distribution of ashes at the beginning of Lent. And I immediately observed something different from what I noticed on people’s faces as they came to receive the Eucharist, perhaps because receiving the Eucharist was a more commonplace weekly practice. Ash Wednesday, however, had the distinction of being a once-a-year moment, and it showed.

What I read on people’s faces as they approached to receive blessed ashes: the absolute ache of pure, unadulterated longing. A desire to return to God with all one’s heart. A yearning to begin again, perhaps for the hundredth time. A hope, no, a certainty, that it just might not be too late to seek forgiveness. A knowing of one’s failings that was swept aside by the deeper knowing of the Holy One’s tender understanding. An intuition that homecoming was not only possible; it was anticipated and welcome.

The intensity of that longing still haunts me. It reminds me of the story of a goatherd who was far from his beloved and yet who could hear, from a thousand miles away, the sound of her comb running through her hair. Yes, that kind of longing. It was all there, in every pair of eyes, in every open face moving towards me up the center aisle of the church. The depths of that yearning seared my soul, melted my heart, caused my eyes to well up with the transparency of it all. As our gazes met, I looked tenderly at each person and saw that every face held a perfect mirror of my own profound desire to return to God with all my heart.

This year the feast of love, Valentine’s Day, stands at the edge of Lent’s beginning. How fitting that a holiday when we proclaim and express our affection for cherished people in our lives should introduce a season when we are overwhelmed by the boundless, unconditional, unaccountably generous love of the Holy One for each of us. This same Holy One who inhabited our human condition and knows so well our limits and incompleteness. This same Holy One who, some spiritual teachers note, is actually the very one who initiates our own longing for the divine. So may we enter into this holiday of love and embrace this season of love in the company of the Holy One, in the company of all lovers of God whose lives have been captured by this insistent, mysterious desire.

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Share the deepest longing of your heart.
Pause in silence to listen to the Holy One’s desire for you.
Give thanks for your belovedness.

Featured image: Tim Marshall, Unsplash

Please hold in your prayer my preparation for programs, retreats, and spiritual direction that will fill my Lenten calendar. And as always, know that you and your intentions are in my prayers of gratitude in the Lenten season ahead.

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4 thoughts on “Hearts and Ashes”

  1. I’m considering how Saints Cyril and Methodius fit in this picture. “One love united these brothers.” That’s For Valentine’s Day. “That they might bring to many the pledges of eternal life.” Lent brings the pledges of eternal life closer to us.

  2. Sr. Chris this was just what I needed. Like you, I not into penance. I want to hear God’s word and ponder it. Thank you. I will pray for you and all the hearts you touch

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