There’s a line in one of Bob Dylan’s 1980’s gospel songs that goes: “Either you’ve got faith or you’ve got unbelief, and there is no neutral ground.” Up until a few months ago, I believed this was true. Now I don’t.
There is a neutral ground between belief and unbelief. It’s right out there, wide open for all to see. In fact, the neutral ground is where most human life, and life at its most human, actually takes place.
We are neither fact-collecting automatons nor are we disconnected dreamers. We are somewhere in between – all the time. There is nothing we take in with our senses that isn’t enhanced and interpreted by our imaginations, and there is nothing we imagine that does not derive from some sensory experience. There is no religion. There is no science. There’s just us.
In order to get through our lives alive and with some measure of sanity we need to constantly project our sense of meaning onto the observable world around us. It’s what builds the cars and it’s what sets up the roadside shrines for the people who die in them. It’s ritual of one sort or another. The rest is only detail and construction. Here’s how Ash Wednesday comes into it.
A year ago, in my second most recent entry in this series, I wrote a short piece about how surprised I was to see so many people showing their ashes on the Philadelphia subway system, acknowledging their mortality for all to see. I signed off with a smug “what about the rest of the year?” that totally missed the point. Ritual is important. Ritual is necessary. It preceded theology and will survive it. It doesn’t take days off – ever.
Today I tried to get my own ashes for the first time in 48 years. I was going for a show of solidarity with the other side. I figured somebody had to make the first move. Why it didn’t come off may shed some light on what’s really going on here. It did for me. Here’s the story.
I work in what’s called a “Senior Building”. You’ve got to be over a certain age and have under a certain income to get in – and the showers are built so you can walk in, not have to climb in and risk breaking a hip. I’m the social worker. I’ve been a social worker of one sort or another since I stopped getting my ashes.
Anyway one of the residents on the second floor, who can’t get out of her apartment, let me know that a nun from the local Catholic parish was coming to give her her ashes. She asked if I’d let the sister in, since the resident can’t get out of bed to reach the door buzzer and my office is right next to the front door. That’s when I got the idea of asking for my own ashes and asked if I could join the resident when she got hers.
As it turned out, when the sister arrived at the door, I was helping another resident with a pretty complicated issue of her own. When I excused myself to let the sister in, I saw that she (a senior herself) was struggling with a number of packages – things that the homebound resident couldn’t get out to get for herself –toilet paper mainly. I excused myself for a minute and helped the sister get her packages up to the second floor apartment. Then I went back to the resident I was working with. When the sister came back down, she stuck her head into my office to see if I wanted my ashes. We were in the middle of a tricky phone call with some very forbidding bureaucracy, so I signaled her that I had to pass. The sister gave me a smile and went out.
That smile’s the neutral ground I was talking about – that and the toilet paper.
I’ll have more on this in the next few weeks. There’s a piece I’ve been working on for about four months that’s nearly ready to go. But Ash Wednesday handed me this little story and decided I should break the news early.