On Ash Wednesday, to everyone’s surprise, especially mine, I went to the early morning mass at St. Paul’s up the street from me. It’s a quirky New England story of a church. In the 1800s, the British mill owner in the neighborhood did what all the other Brit mill owners of the time did—he built apartment houses, a grocery store, and a church for his employees. Those millworkers of the time (and the residents to this day, because inertia, man) were primarily French Canadian immigrants, so, Catholic. The Brit mill owner was Anglican, so he built an Anglican-style church. It is shaped like a cross, and had no center aisle (that was changed sometime in the twentieth century), and to this day, it has no confessionals. The church building itself also straddles not only two towns, but two states—Blackstone, Massachusetts, where I live, and North Smithfield, Rhode Island. That only matters for couples getting married there. If you try to get married in this church with a Rhode Island marriage license, it’s a whole thing, because the altar is completely in Massachusetts. There are tales of couples having a quick second ceremony in the vestibule, to make sure it is a legit Rhode Island wedding.
So, yeah, I found a church in my neighborhood that is just a little bit off, like me.
On a whim last Wednesday, I joined my elderly neighbors for mass and ashes. It felt odd, but good. The morning light through the stained glass windows, and the echoes of our prayers as they bounce off the granite floors and arched ceiling made me feel like I was a part of something solid and ancient. I am still not ready to rejoin the faith of my childhood, but I am sincerely glad I went. God met me there.
And so now here we are at the start of Lent—the official liturgical season of Sick Pilgrims everywhere, what with all the brooding about death and such.
I find myself this season thinking about not just my death, though, but my creation and recreation. Before you accuse me of heresy, I am not talking about reincarnation. A decade ago, while taking my geek son to a robot festival at Worcester Poly Tech, a dreamy astrophysicist speaking at the event spoke poetically about the Law of Conservation of Mass. He noted that since the Big Bang, no matter has been created or destroyed. It just rearranges itself over and over again, meaning our bodies are literally made out of the stardust from that first creative explosion. From dust we began to dust we will return.
I am made from the same dust that once formed my ancestors, formed the Blessed Mother, formed her son, Jesus. That is a pretty marvelous thing, indeed.
Seamus Heaney pointed out the importance of recognizing the marvelous, the sacred in our ordinary lives in his poem, “Lightenings viii.”
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’
The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
Our lives, and all the life around us, formed from that ancient stardust, are marvelous. It is my intention this Lent to remember that.
Here is my Lenten prayer:
For not recognizing the glory of the Almighty Creator that surrounds me,
For forgetting that every drop of water in the seas, lakes, rivers, and rainclouds is precious,
For not acting as if every life from seed to compost, from conception to natural death is sacred,
For walking recklessly, as if all ground were not holy ground
Father open my eyes to see the sacred, the marvelous all around me.
Son guide my steps that I may be a good steward of your gifts.
Spirit illuminate the way with the glow of those very first stars.
Blessed Mother give me a mother’s heart filled with love for this place and all that live in it.
Saints join me in the journey.
This post was contributed by writer and teacher Kristen Allen.