Lent and Ashes: What They Really Mean in Daily Life

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When I taught high school, a Jewish girl enrolled. She had been struggling to find her place in a public school and heard about our all-girls Catholic school and decided to give it a try. She became very popular and was the star in our musicals leading to a professional career in dance. The first Ash Wednesday she had been with us, she was told by her uninformed girlfriends that she could not receive ashes in chapel that day! So, she posted herself outside the doors as the girls emerged giddy with their foreheads blackened and flecks of ashes tumbling down their cheeks. Her best pal said, “I can’t touch the ashes cuz they’re blest, so I can’t rub some of mine on your forehead. But I have an idea!” They rubbed their foreheads together so some of Mary’s ashes would be placed on Kay’s forehead! I came across the exchange and the two scooted off!

I recalled that creative way of sharing ashes as we discussed methods now being used during this pandemic. These girls were happy. Kay got her ashes and Mary never had to touch them in the process! (I told them later that Kay could have received the ashes as the other girls did and that touching blessed items was allowed. This was before liturgical changes of Vatican II were fully integrated.)


Parishes were debating recently whether to use Q-tips or simply sprinkle the ashes over the heads of each person. We had drive-through sprinkling of ashes in parishes near me. I’m imaging some children gleeful at the thought: just like fairy dust without the bling! One pastor instructed his people during Sunday’s Mass that sprinkling ashes always was the practice in the Early Church and in much of Europe is still the preferred method.

However we do it, the meaning is real. We will spend the next forty days reflecting on our purpose in life. It is a purpose which should rely on our faith, no matter what our faith happens to be. And the ashes remind us of this. Christians get fairly intimate with their faith at this time and they chisel away at their crusted souls to rid themselves of the selfishness that has taken over this past year. We do this by fasting, praying, and admitting our sins. Hopefully, we respond to the call to confess selfishness and repent of it. The ashes remind of us of that every sin is burned away as we seek the comfort of forgiveness. If you have been away from your spiritual home, Lent is a helpful time to come back. The door is always open, simply walk in. The faith community needs you and you need the faith community. Do not be afraid because you are timid or so uncertain. If you study the Gospels, or simply read them on your own, you will see that Jesus focused on people like you: the lost sheep, the prodigal son, the Samaritan woman, and so on. Story after story Jesus was there. You will find Him there waiting for you, preaching about you, simply happy you might even be thinking about Him. Get rid of the selfishness that holds you back. Put aside the grudges you have about religion, or your parish, or your experiences in a religious school. Rise above this – from the ashes – and embrace a new journey these next forty days. GK Chesterton once said, “A religion is not the church one goes to but the cosmos one lives in.” We should consider this seriously from a conservative Catholic man who embraced the Cosmic Christ.

I am loathe to recommend books because there are so many fine reflective books on Lent. Therefore, I want to say that you should please pick up or order a book that focuses on Lent and spiritual practices. Check these online.

For now, I will suggest Jesus by Jim Martin, SJ who will take you through a journey of the Holy Land and share his experiences of all the important points of a Lenten journey. He is very readable and enjoyable. Check your local book stores or your parish libraries or the countless websites of publishers for this book and others related to Lenten spirituality. If you have questions about books, I am happy to help you as I am a bibliophile of sorts.  

Maybe you could join a scripture book club. Look around for these in our neighborhood. Whatever you do, make the New Testament your friend and settle into forty days of walking with Jesus toward the resurrection.

I thank my Anonymous Angels for your many comments on the last several posts. I am so grateful for your readership. I absolutely love connecting with you and sharing what little I can about our mutual interest in spirituality and charity. I pray for each of you, I really do, every day.  

8 thoughts on “Lent and Ashes: What They Really Mean in Daily Life

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  1. I love all the different ways people have found to rend their hearts, not their garments! I always find the irony amazing in the readings, where it says to pray in private, and not be showy, as we are getting ashes on our foreheads to display how we are repenting.
    No matter where or if we get ashes, we are called to work on our relationship with God so we can celebrate Easter with even more joy! Thank you for sharing this story, never knew that!
    My friends, the MSBTs at Mother Boniface Spirituality Center in Philly, are doing zoom conferences on the Lenten readings on the Tuesdays in Lent, check their website or Facebook page for the links.


  2. I remembe Kay. She was so gifted. I found my way back to my faith. It took a while, but I felt like I came home. I joined St Martin of Tours on Maple Hts. I found the place I belong. Only a nice Italan girl like me would find a church with a pastor named Fr. Luigi Miola!
    Ps. Please pray for my friend Mara Pollack, she finally got a live donor for a kidney. A cousin matched. She has a few more tests to go, and both have to have the 2nd Covid Injection so she will have the surgery n April. Her donor is named Michael. Thank you so much. Laura Mazzola Stone’69


  3. Dear Sister Mary Ann. I love your narrative on Lent and
    Ashes. It reminds me of how timid I was regarding the receiving of the host at the Villa. When Sister Regina affirmed it was ok for a non
    Catholic to receive the host I never missed the opportunity. Blessings to you always. Miss you. In faith, love and friendship. Betty H.


  4. I wanted to be Catholic the moment I started high school. There were rituals to follow and a certain pageantry that was exciting. I knew nothing of the faith, so what to do? Find a cool Catholic friend to lead the way and fill in the gaps. I will alwaysI remember Ash Wednesday every yearl and my beloved “smudge buddy” Mary Agnes.


  5. And the learning goes on…
    Once again dear Sr Flannery you share insight into the Lenten Journey…
    With each reflection you bring focus and purpose keeping myself and so many I imagine along the pathway of enlightenment… how fortunate are those of us who had the privilege of sitting in your Classroom… and who now reap the rewards of you in our lives these 51 years still!
    “How Lovely Is This Dwelling Place” …it is beautiful !



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