Another in a budding tradition of anonymous Ash Wednesday posts:
A few years ago, an unnamed friend of Mockingbird wrote a stunning reflection on Ash Wednesday that struck a chord with me, if for no other reason than the title of the piece included the phrase “Written on the Occasion of a Sleepless Night.” Sleepless nights are such a powerful picture of the human condition: an extreme desire for rest that never seems to arrive, and the effort we spend trying to relax only making it harder to do so. Insomnia makes for a great metaphor for life outside of Eden.
It seems that, ever since God’s grace knocked me off the glory train, Ash Wednesday has been the occasion for many a sleepless night. Rarely have I been able to pull myself out of bed to make a morning service. It usually isn’t until 7pm that evening that I’m reminded that “from dust I came, and to dust I shall return.”
The first time I “celebrated” Ash Wednesday, I left the evening service early–right after receiving the ashes–to drive eight hours to attend the funeral of my adolescent cousin. The county coroner said he was probably playing a choking-game, and instead of getting high, he accidentally hung himself. A friend at church had told me it would probably be best to clean off my ashes before I left, so as not to flout my piety in public or expect any reward for doing so. After pulling into a hotel at midnight, exhausted and unable to continue the drive, I remember being startled at the ash-smeared face that returned my gaze in the bathroom mirror. How very appropriate, I thought then and still think now. I also remember how surprisingly difficult it was to clean the ashes off. Again, how appropriate.
Another Ash Wednesday, I received the ashes with stomach pains that would soon lead to another sleepless night of constant bathroom visits. I had gained upwards of 60 lbs that year, developing a critic’s palate for fast food offerings in town. It’s much easier to get high off of salt, fat, and sugar than it is to deal with one’s inner turmoil and past baggage. As I returned to the pew, ashes on my brow, I couldn’t remember the last day I hadn’t ingested fast food, at least once, for three weeks straight. Nor could I remember a day when I hadn’t spent the late hours of the night actively searching out pornography online. That year, I remembered to wash off the ash before I left the church.
And so it goes. Another year, another Ash Wednesday epiphany (church calendar pun very much intended). This year’s sleepless nights are courtesy of job insecurity and money troubles. Next year’s sleepless nights might come as a result of marital strife or illness, though if the past is anything to go by, the real cause is likely to blindside me.
Ash Wednesday is as near and dear to me as any “real” holiday, because it is the day we get to acknowledge that everyone has sleepless nights. Everyone has their own personal tragedy or great heartache or guilt or shame or source of self-loathing. Perhaps there is no truer way to mark human experience than an ashen-cross on the forehead. It is a day, above all, for honesty. Things are not OK. I am not OK.
This Ash Wednesday, then, I am taking permission–and invite you to join me–to recognize that things are not OK. To call a spade a spade. Weep with those who weep, don sackcloth and ash, and hug the cactus that is the ash-smeared face in the mirror. We are not alone in doing so. Perhaps, as the terror of the world and hamster wheel of self-improvement reveal themselves to be impossible to domesticate, we might find our hope not in resilience, but in rescue. Perhaps, if there was a rescue, it might actually be of some value and meaning and worth. To paraphrase Jesus, sick people who refuse to acknowledge their symptoms don’t seek out a doctor, but sick people who do might just find a cure.
May God Bless all insomniacs this Lent.