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Published March 19 2012

Salonen: Lenten ashes a reminder of life of faith

Each year at the start of Lent, I’m forced to confront in a very public and visible way the sacrifices inherent in living a life of faith.

Last year, I was driving through a coffee line after Ash Wednesday Mass when the barista leaned in close and whispered, “There’s a black mark on your forehead.”

Just minutes earlier, the priest had whispered, “You are dust and to dust you shall return,” while placing an ashen cross between my temples, bringing my life into stark perspective once again.

This Ash Wednesday, our newsroom assembled for an after-work gathering downtown. Having attended noon Mass earlier, I was not only the new kid on the block but marked with a big, black smudge.

I’d forgotten about the dark blob when a latecomer arrived. I couldn’t figure out why, as we talked, she kept glancing to a spot above my eyes, a look of horror growing on her face. “Is something wrong?” she finally blurted out, motioning nervously toward my forehead.

You’d think I’d get used to this, but every Lent it’s a different scenario.

Back in high school in northeastern Montana, Lent meant sitting with the rest of the Catholic kids at eateries following out-of-town basketball games, nibbling olive-speckled pizza while drooling over the succulent-looking sausage and pepperoni bits being consumed by our Protestants peers.

It wasn’t until college that I began questioning whether choosing a fish sandwich over a burger would really cause the earth to tremble. One Friday during Lent I rebelliously ordered a Big Mac and discovered I was still standing on solid ground – or so I thought.

But I eventually began to feel uneasy. Was it wisdom or foolishness that had led me to shrug off centuries-old traditions and a faith many of my ancestors would have literally died to keep?

As parenthood approached, the need to better understand my faith turned urgent. How could I answer my kids’ questions when I still had so many of my own?

Thus began a deep search of the soul, which included coming home after work and voraciously reading, and reading some more until, months later, my thirst had been sufficiently drenched and quenched.

I began ordering fish sandwiches during Lent again, this time with understanding and purpose.

I also wrote a letter to my parents to thank them for the faith they’d done their best to impart, even though I hadn’t fully recognized the shining jewel they’d been trying to offer me.

Never again would I take for granted the celebrations, traditions and seasons of my faith, for in that intense time of Q&A and prayer, I’d inadvertently come face to face with the living God.

It’s one thing to have faith as a parent, however, and another to convey the importance of that faith to children who are easily enticed by other, seemingly more attractive offerings. At some point I realized that even if I live out my faith well, it won’t guarantee my kids will see the brilliance and source of the jewel’s sparkle.

I’ve learned, often the hard way, that in order to pass down the best of what is right and good, we must intently nurture these things within ourselves. And then pray and hope that some fine day our children will see a fish sandwich as something more than a dumb, unnecessary ritual.

Maybe they’ll realize, in their own time and way, that it symbolizes living for others, reminds us what we truly hunger for, and helps us see that faith has the potential to unite us with the rest of humanity in a way nothing else can.

My highest goal as a parent has become keeping my faith light shining brightly so that it will become the most irresistible, enticing force in my children’s minds and hearts.

If I accomplish that, the reward will be not fleeting and earthly, but permanent and eternal. And ashes will just be that.