From ashes to insight

I must confess that often the yearly ritual of receiving ashes on my forehead at the beginning of Lent has become dangerously routine. Certainly I pause at the solemnity of the occasion, but it has never touched me with the power that it will this year.

This new awakening began for me when we received news that a dear Poor Clare sister had died. I had visited with her a few months earlier and had enjoyed her quick wit and lively personality. I was not immediately shocked or saddened when I heard of her death. She was a woman at peace with life and with God. However, not long after her death, I was surprised that I felt an intense weight of pain and sadness.

As I thought about it, I realized that I have experienced similar painful sadness when other loved ones have died. After the religious services when I was alone and left with the memorial cards and other memorabilia reminding me of their presence in my life, I could no longer hide behind busyness to avoid my sadness. I had to face the stark reality of death and admit my own fears. I realized that death is unbelievably painful to me in its raw terms: the still body, the loss of that lively spirit. I saw the burial again in my mind. I wanted to deny the death and shout out that this cannot be.

Hidden in that pain is, of course, the awareness of my own death. What will that be like? When I dare to sit quietly and ponder these sad thoughts, I soon want to get busy and hide behind distractions so that these fears will go away. As I realized that I was afraid of death, I knew it was time to face those fears. I had to realize that I will not live forever.

Recently, I decided to meditate on my pain and sadness. As I sat quietly with my fear, my body felt like cement. I waited for some sense of comfort to come. Having nowhere else to go, I waited and waited. Looking for a sense of certainty, I wanted a sign that I could hold on to. My fear of death was paralyzing me. Many questions raced through my mind. How and when will it happen? Why do we have to go through with death? Why doesn't God do it differently?

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