There I was, sitting in Bella Napoli in Brookside looking about as “out-of-place” as I possibly could. I was wearing all black with purple stole, holding a ceramic bowl containing ashes. I had prepared myself mentally to perform the now-popular “Ashes-to-Go” ritual, blessing the Lenten journeys of people who were apparently too busy or who couldn’t be bothered to actually go to church. For years there has been a huge “ick” factor for me as it pertained to “Ashes-to-Go.” It smacked of being an ecclesiastical concierge or short-order-cook. I was one of those who proudly touted the moniker “Get your Ash in Church.”
That is, until I met Alexi.
There I was, feeling awkward, and watching my watch when Alexi, who notices that I’m holding something, comes over and looks inside of the bowl. Before I could think of a response, I pulled back. Blame it on the fact that I am entering ministry on this side of the Roman Catholic sex abuse scandal and I’ll be damned if anyone even accuses me. Blame it on the “ick” factor.
He walked off, scampered around the restaurant, but as he circled back around to his grandmother he looked in the bowl again. “They’re ashes,” I smile.
“Grandma, what’s that?” he replied.
“Do you remember all those people who were coming out of Visitation when we were driving past and I told you they were getting ashes for ash Wednesday? That’s what those are,” his grandmother sweetly responds. Then she looks at me and says, “are you Catholic?”
“Roman? No,” I respond with a hint of self-righteousness.
We then began a short conversation about the significance of Ash Wednesday, how it’s an opportunity to interrupt the regularly scheduled program of our lives and refocus our attention on something greater, something divine. After the exchange of a few words, she says that she wants to receive ashes.
“Alexi, do you want some too,” she asks.
“No,” he says as he tries to hide behind her left leg.
“Grandma’s getting some too.”
I use my thumb, sufficiently blackened by all the foreheads I’ve smeared ashes on, to do the sign of the cross on hers. I then bend down to Alexi and say, “would you like some on your hand?”
“Okay,” he says sweetly.
I say my line, “Alexi, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” as I put a small, black dot on his small right hand.
He looks at the dot, then at me, then the dot again. I’m not sure whether he got it or not (though I don’t doubt the ability of children to understand and perceive of spiritual things better than adults most times), but the interaction will stay with me forever for this one reason – his curiosity and willingness to try something new.
In the Gospels, Jesus says “‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4-5). Perhaps, at this very moment, Alexi was reminding me about the spiritual gift of curiosity and how it can open us to new possibilities in God.
If Lent is truly a time to interrupt our regular lives with a greater reality and try something new, why is it that some people do the same things year after year. I can’t tell you the amount of Facebook posts and tweets about giving up chocolate, or bread, or the ever-popular “social media.” We seem to have created an entire popular cult around Lent that threatens to swamp this spiritual ship. It’s interesting to note that in a society that is journeying increasingly further away from Christendom, it seems, at least from my point of view, that the number of people who are willing to give up things for Lent are at an all-time high.
But what about the number of people who are willing to take on new things? What about the numbers of people who are willing to increase their capacity and curiosity for God this season?
In his recently released collection of meditations entitled Beginning Again with God, the Right Reverend Robert C. Wright (10th Bishop of Atlanta) writes that “Questions about God mean that we have divine curiosity, an internal longing to be in closer relationship with God.” Lent is an invitation to closer relationship, but we have to ask the right questions. We have to engage our divine, child-like curiosity.
I heard once that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” For many people, this is Lent. Give up chocolate for 40 days, say a few prayers, resume life as usual after Easter. God isn’t looking for insane. God is looking for crazy. People who are willing to “go beyond the veil,” to pursue increasingly deeper levels of an inexhaustible God. That’s what Alexi taught me – the spiritual practice of being curious.
The Holy is all around us all the time. In our day-to-day meandering, we come close and we go far, but it’s always around. God is just waiting for us to come close enough to the bowl, so that he can bend down and invite us in.
Keep the faith, and make it COLORFUL,