Ash Wednesday has always been my least favorite holy day. I’ve disliked it from the time I was a kid, growing up in the 1950s in a Polish-Italian-Irish parish on Chicago’s far northwest side. Each year the good Sisters of Providence who staffed Saint Francis Borgia Elementary School would patiently explain the service beginning Lent. Father Stokes would remind us of our mortality, they said, by smudging a cross of ashes on our foreheads while saying in Latin, “Remember, man, thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.”
Who needs that? I used to think. Why would anyone want to imagine their own death? Talk about downers. To my elementary-school heathen mind, the exercise seemed morbid and pointless. Of course, people die. If they didn’t, the planet would be overrun with really, really old people. And that would not be good. On the other hand, if Julius Caesar were still around that would be good since I had some questions to ask him for a history test.
Back then death, by and large, was just a scary rumor. It happened on TV or the movies, usually involving guns or explosions. When it happened in real life, it was only to people my grandparents’ age. But mostly, it didn’t really happen.
Even now, while intellectually I know I will die (I hope later than sooner), part of me doesn’t really believe it. It’s like the old joke: “Personally, I plan to live forever, and so far my plan is working.”
We spend our time largely denying death, rarely thinking about it. When it does intrude, we resist it with all our might. We jog, we eat right, we take our Lipitor, we think good thoughts. Probably we don’t really believe we will die, until we see someone close to us die: If it could happen to Lori, whoa! it really could happen to me!
So these days when death rears up in my life the affront is a lot more personal; it’s no longer the result of a tragic, freak accident or a random act of violence. It’s mundane, the product of worn-out bodies, the cumulative wear and tear of a life used and misused. Oh yes, I can see where this is all headed — and I don’t like it.
No longer actors in dramas, the people cut down now are dear, sweet friends and relatives as old as me, and, shockingly, sometimes years younger. Their loss is all too real. Each time a part of me dies as well, and what they say is terribly true: the ache never really goes away.
Perhaps it’s because I now know so many dead people personally that finally I have begun to see the wisdom behind Ash Wednesday. As the psalmist says, “Lord, what are mortals, that you notice them; human beings, that you take thought of them? They are but a breath; their days are like a passing shadow” (Psalm 144:3-4). And this, “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Yes, we should number our days. Be aware! the psalmist says. It’s all a gift. Gratitude is what we owe.
Instead, most of us walk around like zombies, half-dead already. One colorless day oozes into the next. We jump through our hoops and take everything and everyone for granted.
No more for me. I want to be awake, alive. I want to live up. Not as in “live it up,” but live up to the ideals I hold dear. I look at my children, friends, relatives, all those I love, and I hold them close to my heart.
When I see that black smudge on your forehead, I hope I remember: None of this had to be, yet it is. I did not have to be, yet I am . . . for awhile.
John Monczunski is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine.