What follows is an excerpt from a piece that was part of a Lenten blog series I hosted a few years ago on how to introduce the mysteries and beauty of Christian spirituality to everyone, even “the least of these?” How do we make these principles reachable for everyone?
Eyes in the Alley: God’s Beauty for Our Ashes
She fumbled through her purse for her phone. Its unnecessarily loud ring matched the other bells and whistles blasting in her head. They were the kind that told her old lies, played old tapes.
Lipstick, business cards, flash cards for her Spanish class, gloves, make-up mirror…where the hell is that damn thing? she cursed. Out loud apparently. The pastor, full-robed, full-throated, and in full-sermon, rebuked her with a glare. She’d seen it before. Often. It would have been less humiliating to slap her.
She was flustered and wound up tight as a bedspring. And, she was frustrated at her own lack of discernment. Why the hell didn’t I turn this thing off? Who’d be calling now? It’s Sunday, they shouldn’t even be open today she thought, half angry, half relieved. After dropping almost everything, she fingered the noisy culprit. Sliding sideways past her pew neighbors, she answered just in time to catch the call she wished she hadn’t. “Your test results are in, ma’am. Can you meet with the doctor tomorrow?”
He fell backwards against the brick wall, his guts, freshly emptied of the remains of fish-dinner-a-la-dumpster. His head, swimming in too much cheap wine, conspired with his stomach against all lucidity and balance, let alone self-respect. He smelled of piss, puke and pain. These days, only shame kept him alive and the dull remembrance of a life once lived, once alive with the common promise of…well, promise.
Was it only yesterday that he’d felt the warm body of a wife sleeping next to him? She had stayed with him through the final merger, the one he’d promised would bring them financial freedom. She muscled through his two affairs and the drinking that bridged them both. Now, two years, a foreclosure, divorce, and bankruptcy later, he thought he smelled her hair, the fragrance of mint intermingled in aching reminiscence. But it was only the smell of loss mixed with dog shit on his one remaining shoe. He’d lost the other earlier that day foraging for what was left of his meal, now part of his concrete pillow. And, as it began to snow, he blacked out.
She was desperate. It had been too long between hits and her most regular but equally violent trick had just buzzed to be let in. She frantically ravaged through her regular places searching for her small bag of white, powdered courage. If she could get high enough quick enough, perhaps he would get enough soon enough and leave her just enough to start the whole process again.
He pounded on the buzzer. Now, he wasn’t just horny but pissed off and, most likely, more violent as a result. Her lust to forget competed with his to be remembered and a battle ensued as to whose needs would be met first. She gave up. This time, a paying customer in person overruled her quest to be absent. After safely shoeing her daughter away in a back room, yelling for her to lock the door, with quivering hand she buzzed him in.
He stormed and swore his way up the four flights of stairs. It was a distance not her friend when it came to her chances of getting through this unscathed. Her door flew open, along with his zipper and a stream of obscenities. Everything aligned in a perfect storm, conspiring against her and sealing her fate. She lucked out this time and suffered only one punch before he got down to business. Through a left eye, now starting to swell, she toughed it out through one more indignity.
Ash Wednesday. Ashes indicate something. They tell us something has been used up, finished. There is nothing left. Any fuel that had provided light or heat no longer exists. It is rendered useless. Ashes are basically meaningless and, at one level, can provide a bleak picture of what many of us feel about our lives. Sometimes, life offers little more than the used up fodder of someone else’s fire.
In the Gospel however ashes become something more than foul smelling carbon. Jesus reveals to us how the ashes of death are turned to the fertilizer of new life. In his name, we trade our ashes for God’s beauty. Death and dying for life and living.
An anxiety-ridden woman receives the call; a washed-up businessman is now one with the streets; a hooker walks a tightrope of addiction and fear to survive the only lifestyle she knows.
All of us are only a hair’s breadth away from ruin or reward, disaster or dream, life or lies. We’re in this together. And wherever our lives may be in ruins, God can bring about beauty from our ashes.
May it be so.
(R. A. Rife. Lent, 2014)