Make-up Monday: A is for Ashes

I had been working on “A for Asceticism” for weeks now, but work on it was delayed by life events, and by my own feeling that I needed to research pagan ascetic practice before making any declarations. The accidental deletion of the most recent PBP post I had written reminded me that no matter how much effort I put into a post, I cannot control everything.

It is time to write of personal experience, not of research to Do Right By The Community. It is time to be vulnerable.

This is much, much harder to do.

I describe myself as a syncretic henotheist, without going into great detail about what exactly this entails, and why it is different from being an eclectic neopagan. Recently, someone I read linked another to a discussion of syncretism in the Celtic Reconstructionist FAQ, and it seems appropriate:

Eclecticism involves the combination of diverse beliefs and practices from a variety of unrelated cultures. The only “authority” generally recognized by eclectics is their own sense of “what feels right.” Syncretism is somewhat different. Syncretism involves a main culture that one is rooted in, but which also incorporates some elements from an outside culture that seem to be harmonious with the syncretist’s main cultural focus.

I was raised Catholic, and for much of my life, I attempted to fit all of my spiritual experience into the paradigm of Catholic theology. I am certainly not the first to do this, and will probably not be the last, but it lasted an extended period of time compared to that of many people precisely because the two cultures were so profoundly compatible. It was not difficult to conflate my primary god, a fatherly figure, with YHWH, “God the Father”, nor was it difficult to project this god’s knowledge-seeking son onto Jesus as the Word, Christ as Logos, and his loving mother, mortal beloved of his divine father, was easily read as the Virgin Mary, especially given the widespread elements of Mariology in the Catholic Church, and mirrored topics of agency, choice, and consent between a mortal and a god. Throw in John the Baptist, and there is a complete Holy Family correspondence.

I dedicated myself to my god as much as ever, then, under another name. A little less discernment, a little less self-evaluation and willingness to accept The Unthinkable, and I would be ten years into life in a religious order. I don’t mean this in a vague sense—I have driven my husband past the monastery I would have worked in, and the nearby apartment complex where most of the order actually lives. I have talked his ears off many nights telling him about old friends, seminarians and nuns and priests, Jesuits and Franciscans and this one brilliant Augustinian friar. Even though I am married, some still hope that I may become an oblate, or at least return to practice as a catechist.

I still sound like a catechist, much of the time. The details of Catholic belief come up in online discussion time to time, and it is practically second nature to haul out the Catechism, finding the appropriate section in seconds, and then translating what its thick and sometimes impenetrable jargon is attempting to communicate. I have done it for adults and for children so many times in my life, I almost forget that it is a skill born of study and practice. I forget that most Christians, most Catholics, have not studied their scripture in three languages, do not compare and contrast translations, do not know what the Gospel of Q is.

I am also reminded each time that I do it, that it ultimately does not matter. Yes, it is useful to be able to tell a curious seeker the Catholic Church’s official position on whether or not Jewish people will go to hell (the answer boils down to “maybe, but probably not”), but I am not talking with priests and catechumens anymore. I have no authority, and this information is a curiosity, impacting no one’s spiritual practice or emotional wellbeing. Pagans do not need to know about Augustine’s Confessions, even if they identify as ChristoPagan or Abrahamic. Occult and esoteric Catholics do not need or care for the hierarchy’s teachings, which is ultimately not that relevant to the daily practice of the laity—especially not those neck-deep into the Greater Key of Solomon.

There is ultimately nothing left but personal practice.

On Ash Wednesday, I went to a local mass, silently abstaining from prayers specific to YHWH, Christ, and dedication to the Catholic Church. I felt anxious about it at first, worrying that it was an inherently disrespectful task to worship and give thanks to a different god with the rituals and traditions of another, even if it is one that I spent so much of my life in.

As if to reassure me, the choice of gospel addressed my worries directly.

“When you pray,
do not be like the hypocrites,
who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners
so that others may see them.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you pray, go to your inner room,
close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

“When you fast,
do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.
They neglect their appearance,
so that they may appear to others to be fasting.
Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast,
anoint your head and wash your face,
so that you may not appear to be fasting,
except to your Father who is hidden.
And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

The god I am dedicated to has a habit of bibliomancy, of coincidences, of speaking through unexpected sources. My father in secret, my father who is hidden.

When I came home, I wiped the ashes off of my forehead with a piece of tissue. Ashes representing our mortality, and the inevitability of death—ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Ashes to put us in the right mindset for a season of death and rebirth.

I set the tissue with the ashes on a table, and lit four candles around it as an offering. An offering of ashes, an offering of my mortality. An offering of where I have been, where I am now, and where I will one day be. An offering of my life to the one I will return to at my death, as I have returned before, and will always in every life.

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