On Making — and Mending — Eyes
As a world power assails civilians in Ukraine, and the prospect of nuclear war looms over the free world, around a billion souls will — or have — taken time out of their Wednesday to remember they are dust.
Ash Wednesday is, among other things, the start of Lent, a long procession of high holy days in which the High Church Christian faithful choose something they like — that’s the spirit, anyway — and give it up. The default is red meat; millions of Catholics swear it off in favor of fish, enough that Lent occasionally heralds fast-food menu changes and culinary turf wars. But other swaths of the church can give up things, too, from makeup to coffee to some favorite TV show.
I’m not High Church. The point of all this giving up is a little foggy to me, what with my off-line Protestant sensibilities. (Filling a burger-shaped hole with God, perhaps?) So, I was both thankful and enlightened when the writer-turned Anglican deaconess Amy Peterson posted a particular poem to Twitter.
“Love (II)” by 17th-century Welsh priest George Herbert is, on its face, a poem about fire, sacrifice, and dust. It covers the fire of the desires we give to God to weld into Himself, the “dust blown by wit” that we scheme into a cloud over our own eyes, and sacrifice — the sacrifice of our minds’ “intentions,” our perfect plans surrendered. But Peterson fired it off as a poem about Lent.
Humanity wants things — the wrong things, maybe, at the wrong times for the wrong reasons. Worse yet, we hurt ourselves and others to get those things. Ash Wednesday, and the promise that proceeds from it, is not the promise to, quoth soft rocker Bear Rhinehart, “never hurt again.” (We know we’ll want, and we know we’ll hurt, and we know both things in advance, already.) Rather, it’s the promise to turn our wants over, to slice them open, to examine them in light of what’s actually most important.
“All knees shall bow to thee,” prophesies Herbert, “all wits shall rise, and praise him who did make and mend our eyes.” Religion isn’t for everyone; I’m not asking you to believe in God, poem notwithstanding. But this is the sentence I found most arresting, most inviting. On Ash Wednesday, and throughout Lent, the desires that derail and define human experience can be reviewed, recast, and remade by the wholeness of the holes we keep trying to fill.
Lent, at its core, is about confronting the deadly sin of lust for what it is — less a concession to the salacious and sultry, more a wanting that clouds us from our great and fulfilling needings. That’s what makes Ash Wednesday the perfect starting gun: It’s a reminder, above all else, that even if we get everything we want, we can’t take it with us where we’re going.