Memory, Questions, and the Wilderness

Reflections on Ash Wednesday and the First Days of Lent

(Note: I’m sending this out a day early because we are experiencing our second ice event in a week and might lose power again.)

Dear Readers,

I remember being a child kneeling at an altar next to my father, feeling ashes pressed onto my forehead by a loving thumb, hearing the voice of my childhood priest, whom I called “Padre” and who called me “Little Bit,” saying “Remember thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.”

I shared this memory with my now-deceased father back when I was in seminary, and he told me that it never happened. “I have never been to an Ash Wednesday service in my life,” he said, which surprised me because he had been the junior warden of our church. “Maybe it was your grandparents who took you,” he suggested, referring to my late mother’s parents, who were Presbyterian, did not observe Ash Wednesday, and who took me to their downtown Phoenix church exactly once, to pose with them for a directory photo.

Not long before my father died he changed his story, declaring that he had taken me to my first Ash Wednesday service. My husband Gary is a retired military judge and has heard a lot of testimony about memory. I am sure my father remembered taking me just like I remember being there. Apparently, we can overwrite our memories and come to believe something that didn’t happen. Gary said the best way to remember something accurately—especially the kind of events he had to hear about as a military judge—is to sit quietly as soon as possible after the incident, not retelling the story, not telling anyone, but just absorbing what happened. Dad had learned how much Ash Wednesday meant to me and wanted to be the one who had introduced me to the service, especially since that’s how I remember it.

I treasure the memory, true or not. I could have conflated my memory with kneeling with my dad at the altar rail on an ordinary Sunday when he would partake and I would receive a blessing—the sign of a cross on my forehead—because back then kids didn’t take communion until we had been confirmed. I don’t remember seeing ashes on my forehead in the mirror or remember seeing my father with ashes on his. Who knows. I certainly didn’t come home from church and sit quietly in an “inner room” so I would remember what “really” happened decades letter while writing a newsletter.

Gary’s explanation about quietly absorbing what happened as soon as possible after an event in order to reliably remember it makes me think about sitting in an inner room, as Heidi Haverkamp subtitled her section about Ash Wednesday in the “First Days of Lent” chapter of Holy Solitude. I love a close reading of Scripture, so am grateful that she shared that the Greek word means “storage room.” Heidi asserts that if we are imitating Jesus’ desert time, we aren’t trying to suffer so much as “grow in this kind of wonder and vulnerability.”

Her subtitle for Thursday in the first days of Lent is “Wilderness.” One reason I chose Holy Solitude as a personal Lenten devotional this year, even before deciding to read it with all of you, was due to Heidi’s skill at formulating questions. Good, open-ended, thought-provoking theological questions are as challenging to write as a paragraph or poem. I did not appreciate their value until taking an adult education class in seminary years ago when I learned that adults learn best through conversation or discussion. As an introvert, I had detested the “discussion” sessions of various classes and had failed to see their value until that epiphany. My understanding of questions transformed the way I lead Bible study and teach adult classes, and also led me to become a bit judgy when it comes to others’ questions. When a writer or teacher does not take time to craft questions, it shows. Heidi’s questions invite deep contemplation, not a quick right answer.

My favorite question Heidi asked in this section is on p. 6: “Is there a wilderness in your life right now that is pushing you to prayer? How would you describe it?”

My wilderness right now is the same thing I tried to take on for Lent last year: contemplating my death. I was inspired to do this following my breast cancer diagnosis. Then my healthy friend Sean died suddenly, shockingly, the morning after I had a long conversation with him. A few days later church was shut down to in-person worship, and then everything was shut down. And then I was inexplicably diagnosed with lung cancer, a cancer far more deadly than breast cancer.

Last April, I ended my Lenten contemplating-my-death notebook with an expletive and stopped journaling that practice, but this new wilderness extended beyond Lent. I am still in that wilderness. I underwent intense surgery that removed half of my left lung, and the surgeon found, to his unpleasant surprise, that the tumor was also on my pulmonary artery, which made the surgery even more difficult than anticipated. I was bleeding so much after the surgery that they had to do a second emergency surgery. I was in the hospital longer than expected, much of it in ICU. The medical team discovered heart issues on top of my cancer issues.

Lung cancer makes no sense. I don’t smoke. Gary has tested our house for radon for years, and we have been in the acceptable range. The surgery and chemo may have worked on that tumor, but since I have no idea how I contracted lung cancer, I can’t change what caused it. My cancer was stage 2B and had spread to at least one lymph node, which statistically gives me a better chance of being dead than alive five years from now. So, I am steeped in the wilderness, living scan to scan, adjusting medications, dealing with side effects from chemo and lingering pain from surgery, trying to work as if all is normal, feeling like my body has betrayed me while serving a church where I preach and preside into a camera while wearing a facemask. That’s my wilderness right now.

Heidi’s three-part question about wilderness ends with, “Are your prayers of wonder, discernment, help, or lament?”

Mine are all four:

Wonder at the way people continue to show love to me: I’ve been showered with gifts, not only physical gifts of lotions, plants, and food but the parishioner who overheard a rumor in a parking lot that the county was allowing a limited number of people without appointments to get the vaccine so he called me because he knows how much I need the shot with my now-limited lungs but couldn’t get an appointment because I’m under 65. The gift of my husband pouring my coffee in the morning because the neuropathy caused by chemo makes it hard for me to handle the full carafe. The gift of my twenty-something niece carefully selecting books she loved and wants to share with me, as well as a video of her dancing when she heard the good results of my six-month scan. The gift of a photo a parishioner texted to me after our live-streamed Ash Wednesday service showing two of her children who had imposed ashes not only on each other but also on their dog.

Discernment about what to do about my newfound priorities. Discerning what writing projects to prioritize now that my MFA program is over. Discerning how “three-quarters time” at church works. Discerning how and when I can see my family in Phoenix again. Discerning how to live scan-to-scan without feeling stressed and scared.

Help: Praying that I will remain cancer-free and COVID-free, and that all those I love will avoid or overcome the virus. That I will avoid and defeat whatever caused a tumor to grow in my lungs. That I will continue to serve at St. David’s on Ash Wednesdays, Easters, and Christmas Eves for years to come. That the teens I led through confirmation classes last year but whose confirmation was indefinitely postponed due to the pandemic will get confirmed before some of them go off to college.

Lament: the precariousness of life. The way walking now feels like running. The way I get breathless in the middle of church services if I move much. All the things I miss that I didn’t realized I loved and that I don’t know that I will be able to do again even after the pandemic, like walking from the chancel into the nave during the passing of the peace to shake hands with people before the announcements. Greeting a hundred people at a time following the service.

Next week, I’m going to dig a little more into what Heidi writes about fasting. A few of you have reached out to me about fasting practices for Lent. If you are fasting from something this year, I’d love to hear about it. I’d also love to hear about a wilderness in your life right now and how it pushes you to prayer. Did Heidi’s question prompt in you a long response like it did for me? Did a different question speak more deeply to you? Please chime in in the comments.



What I’m Writing:

Transfiguration Ice Storm Sermon

Ash Wednesday Sermon (Before Another Ice Storm)

What I’m Reading:

Holy Solitude: The fabulous Lenten devotional by Heidi Haverkamp. Many of you over the past week have told me how much you love it so far. Keep reading!

Cynthia Ezell has an essay about the loss of tiny relationships that stirs me during this pandemic. I belong to three writing groups. The first, a group of three, got me started and into an MFA program. We rarely meet anymore, but we still exchange work from time to time and the other two members are some of my dearest friends. The second is a group of six clergy women writers who meet via Zoom once a week, set goals, write together for an hour, then review. The third is a group of four from the Spalding MFA program who check in at least weekly, set goals and read and offer rigorous feedback on each other’s work. Cynthia Ezell is in the third group and is one of the first people I met at Spalding. I love sharing her essays.

Reading Behind Bars: A True Story of Literature, Law, and the Life of a Prison Librarian by Jill Grunenwald. I started to read this after our power went out around 8 PM last Saturday night and I picked up my Kindle to read in the dark. I don’t remember purchasing it, but assume I did so because I read and enjoyed Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg for my MFA lecture “But Wait, There’s More: The Epilogue in Memoir.” This book had a lot in common with that one, but Reading Behind Bars is set in a minimum-security prison, the memoirist is female, and she has an actual background in and passion for library science. Prison memoirs are a favorite subgenre for me, both those by prisoners and those by staff.

Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich by Amy Laura Hall. This is the book I almost compulsively bought after reading Heidi’s opening to Holy Solitude but then realized I already own. Solid information about Julian and some good tie-ins to books I liked by Margaret Atwood and Marilynne Robinson but written by an academic, so the metaphor of laughing at the devil was not explored in the kind of sensory detail that I had hoped.

J.A. Jance, Missing and Endangered: A Brady Novel of Suspense. Jance has two mystery series set in Arizona (where I’m from) that feature female protagonists. Both offer significant female spiritual leaders as supporting characters (in this series, a Methodist pastor). The books are like candy to me and I read them as soon as they come out. Haven’t finished this one yet but will soon.

The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women by Laura Swan. I’ve had this book for twenty years, and it has survived various moves and purges because I actually want to read it. So, I finally started. I’m reading just a little at a time, like with Holy Solitude.

From Widows to Warriors: Women’s Stories from the Old Testament by Lynn Japinga. I found this writer/academic in a commentary I use for preaching (which, by the way, is also a commentary series for which Heidi Haverkamp and I have both written) and ordered this book after finding one of Japinga’s commentary essays especially helpful. I probably won’t read this cover to cover, since (as you can see above) I am under a large pile of books at present, but I’m referring to it for another project and it’s so good (and her questions, like Heidi’s, are so good) that I might end up having to read it cover to cover anyway.