‘The token of the word unheard, unspoken’: Ash Wednesday

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

–T.S. Eliot

The sacral attributes of incense mattered less than the aphrodisiacal. Friday afternoons in high school through junior year I reserved for the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, a brief service in which the unleavened flat toasty bread known to Catholics as a Communion wafer is the subject of prayers and veneration. Clothed in a red chasuble, the priest places the Blessed Sacrament in the transparent center of the monstrance, itself positioned on the altar facing the celebrants. My task as sacristan was to light the coals on which the priest would sprinkle the incense. Mom knew the days of the week by how I smelled: I returned to the house those afternoons stinking like a burning Christmas tree.

Convinced I could will myself to believe by steeping myself in ritual, I realized much later that this is precisely what distinguishes the Church from other Christian sects. To believe and to observe the sacraments amount to the same thing. If a Catholic is overcome by awe, credit the sheer weight of tradition and the enthusiasm with which its servants teach a tradition they are only too pleased to embody. My holy orders were to serve literature, a duty which, like the addled and dying servant in Gustave Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” who confuses her dead parrot with the coming of the Holy Spirit, I had confused with the worship of the Divine.

So moved was I at twelve by a children’s Bible account of the Taking of Enoch, read while waiting for a haircut, that I vowed to be taken too. The terse rhythms of the King James version were more chilling: Enoch “walked with God: and he was no more; for God took him.” My parents, decent if inconsistent Catholics, didn’t hide their confusion but okayed my going to Mass. A lot. To be taken meant I had to do the work. Later I became aware of the sexual undertones of the King James translation; the passivity of worship links Christianity and Islam, the latter meaning, of course, submission to Allah. For the moment, though, I understood this much: Catholicism required me as an object. The sensations produced by responding to the children’s Bible, flinching from the watery grainy texture of the ashes rubbed on my forehead, and the inhaling of incense a year later functioned as synesthetic pleasures. Whether the Church had this in mind I don’t know, and from my experience with priests their sensitivity towards the numinous dissipates when the robes are off and they’re stuck in US-1 traffic. The ritual gave me pleasure; my pleasure may have pleased God; and finding the profane in the sacred may have exceeded the fondest hopes of the St. Brendan’s clergy.

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still.

By eleventh grade I had abruptly and to the distress of our chaplain rather rudely renounced my Catholicism, never to return. Before the pandemic family functions brought me to churches a couple times a year, and I’d read the psalms and excerpts from the Old Testament and the Gospels in the seasonal missalette, still hypnotized by the rhythm of the sentences, their ability to form a union of parrot and spirit — the “function” of literature insofar as it needs one. The words survive the soundest blows. More than a decade after my Ash Wednesday epiphany, the body of St. Brendan’s pastor was found dead in a Bahamas hotel room months after two former altar boys accused him of sexual abuse.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.

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