Suffering and Ash Wednesday

Suffering is the most dissociative word in the Christian lexicon.

Raised Catholic, I was taught to “offer up” my suffering for the salvation of a soul in purgatory. The sooner I embraced my suffering, which meant releasing or suppressing it, the sooner suffering would turn to joy. Joy was the preferred endgame, and it was always within our power.

Likewise, Christian women are often taught to embrace the “privilege of being a woman,” as Dr. Alice Von Hildebrand calls it, which is essentially to suffer more than men due to our capacity to bear children— and therefore have more supernatural meaning in one’s life.

I don’t discount the relationship between suffering and supernatural meaning, but I do take issue with the rhetorical leap so many take to get there. When Christians talk about suffering, rather than spending much time with the associated endurance, pain, and spiritual poverty, we’re encouraged to dissociate from our feelings, and transform our thoughts to positive ones as quickly as possible.

And yet the Bible calls the suffering of women in childbirth a curse. I much prefer the Biblical language, because it doesn’t create false expectations. Suffering is not a privilege. It’s a curse that entered the world at the fall of humanity.

God did not design us to suffer. It’s a generational, evil aberration. Saying otherwise is at best, misleading, at worst, heresy.

Some Catholic tradition holds that Mary’s status as untouched by original sin means that Christ did not pass through her birth canal, and was as painlessly and miraculously born as he was conceived. In that case, Mary received the privileged position of having been returned to a prelapsarian state in order to give birth to the Son of God.

It is perhaps more apt to align the experience of mortal childbirth with Christ himself, who went willingly to his slaughter (a curse made necessary by the fall of man), and was then permitted the dignity of bleeding out his wounds with life giving blood and water.

Christians do not command that Jesus on the cross move past his suffering and fabricate a sense of joy and gratitude as quickly as possible. He must rest in the powerlessness of having taken on human flesh and enduring unspeakable torture.

“My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” says the second person of the Holy Trinity.

And so it is fitting for the Church to provide the privilege of acknowledgment to those who suffer, and to grant them the space, the silence, and perhaps most importantly, the liturgies, rites, and sacramentals that assist in their grappling with grief, hardship, the death of loved ones, the death of dreams, or even the death of ego, which is suffering indeed.

People have a deep and inherent need to honor the suffering they can’t deny or think away. The Icelandic singer/songwriter, Bjork, wrote the song “Family” about her breakup with the father of her daughter, and partner for over a decade, Matthew Barney:

Is there a place
Where I can pay respects
For the death of my family?

So where do I go
To make an offering?
I fall on my knees
Lay my flowers (burn incense)
Light the candles
So where do I go
To make an offering?
To mourn our miraculous triangle?
Father, mother, child.

My friend, Lizzie, said “I wonder whether artists like Bjork who have integrity and seemingly a real desire to seek beauty, truth, and goodness always end up expressing the deepest truths of faith without realizing it.”

My priest says the Ash Wednesday service is one of the most widely attended rites of the year, though it is not a Holy Day of Obligation. There are five different services, but people come all day long to receive ashes. Non-Catholics, lapsed Catholics, people who haven’t set foot in a church in decades come on Ash Wednesday.

“Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

In the readings for Ash Wednesday liturgies, Jesus says: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward (Mathew 6:16).”

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with that passage, since my church does the opposite, making the sign of the cross with ashes in the middle of our foreheads. My siblings and I used to complain of hair in our eyes, itchy foreheads, tremendous sneezes—any reason to brush the ashes away.

As an adult, I’ve made the effort to leave the ashes. They sit on your face with a certain heaviness, a shadow over your eyes, a unibrow from the dusty thumb of your priest applying pressure at the front of your brain.

Here’s the irony: that when everyone—mom, dad, brother, sister, annoying parishioner who hisses the Our Father, toupee’d lector, crazy man who chases our priest to the sacristy to ask for money—has the streak of death on our foreheads, we are equalized.

I am like everyone else. We are all enduring the curse. We are all suffering. We are all going to die.

And somehow—this is the only justice that makes human sense.

The penitential season of Lent begins here, in this mood, recognizing what justice demands. God has every right to slay me. Or at the least, if he is a kind God, to let me disappear into the dust of the earth.

And yet, I am allowed, by his grace, to live.

The privilege of being human is in recognizing Jesus as Savior, and receiving his grace. Therein is our only joy, and since it comes at the cost of our ego and everything else, really, it can often be a painful, even mournful recognition.

It is fitting to go out with ash on our foreheads, and to sit for a moment in the pain of this reckoning.

Elizabeth Duffy writes at Patheos: Elizabeth Duffy: Perspectives on Catholic Life, Family, and Culture and at bettyduffy.blogspot.com. She is a contributor to Living Faith/ Daily Catholic Devotions, and has work published or forthcoming from OSV, On Faith, The Catholic Educator, and Image.

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