"Have Mercy"

February 10, 2015

I remember the frustration of my college literature professor as she struggled to convey her adult angst to us.  She had suffered, especially in the illness of her little boy, and we had not.  One of the poems that she yearned for us to absorb was "Ash Wednesday" by T. S. Eliot.  To her credit, I am still thinking about it.   Here is a sample:

 

"Because I know that time is always time

and place is always and only place

and what is actual is actual only for one time

and only for one place

I rejoice that things are as they are and

I renounce the blessed face

and renounce the voice

because I cannot hope to turn again

Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something

upon which to rejoice

and pray to God to have mercy upon us

and pray that I may forget 

these matters that with myself I too much discuss"

 

Soon it will be that season around which Eliot constructed his lines of wearied wisdom.  Ash Wednesday, February 18, is the beginning of Lent - a good time to think seriously about the outlines of our faith, and the outlines of our life.  It is a time to employ certain disciplines to focus on the present moment with both care and contentment.  Eliot goes on, a bit later in the poem, to say, "Teach us to care and not to care, Teach us to sit still."

 

In our contentious and shallow culture, as we are tempted by the easy scorn of the internet and constant social wrangling, it is very important for us to practice what our Christian faith preaches.  Let me offer a couple of examples.

 

We believe in confession, not arrogance.  This means admitting our mistakes and sins, and also the mistakes and sins of our forbears, which are many.  This does not show weakness, but rather deep trust in the power of God to forgive and transform us.

 

We admit our mortality, and do not claim to be invincible.  This is hard.  If we try the meditative prayer, "Breathing in, I know that one day I will have to let go of everything and everyone I cherish, Breathing out, there is no way to bring them along,"  most of us want to run out of the room!  This very moment is what we have with others and God, and it is God's gift. This realization builds profound gratitude and appreciation in us.

 

So we return to the old practice of the universal church on Ash Wednesday, to kneel and receive ashes on our foreheads, and to hear the words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  And in them, we hear not guilt, but grace.

  

Christ's Peace, Greg Bain

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