Ashes didn’t stay on my forehead yesterday. --"Ash Thursday"
“Ash Thursday” happened by accident, like most poems. It’s also, sadly, true.
One evening last February, I left my office at Fordham University in the Bronx earlier than usual. I had been invited to give a poetry reading down in Greenwich Village at The Cornelia Street Café, a marvelous venue on whose storied stage the likes of Alan Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, and other such artists of the beautiful had performed. Even though the café is only 15 miles away from campus, it would take me over an hour to get there in New York City rush hour traffic, and I didn’t want to risk being late.
I had looked forward to this for weeks. I would be reading, along with several other poets whom I didn’t know but whose work I admired, all of us having poems published in the new issue of Tiferet, a beautiful interfaith journal. As a Catholic writer with a continually-evolving sense of the importance of my faith formation to my poet’s imagination, I have long been fascinated by this intersection of faith and art. The opportunity to read my “Catholic” poems alongside those by Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist poets was a delightful prospect. I felt honored to be invited to the feast.
I made my way across campus as darkness began to fall along with a light snow. I climbed into the driver’s seat of my car, and, as is my habit, moved to adjust the rearview mirror. It was then, as I caught a glimpse of my reflection, that I saw the heavy, black cross traced in ashes in the middle of my forehead. I had forgotten—today was Ash Wednesday and, like many of my colleagues and students at the Catholic university where I worked, we had lined up at noon Mass to mark the beginning of the season of Lent and to be marked as Catholics, as penitents, and as followers of Christ. In fact, because so many of us had been marked, and because I had been looking at those crosses all day in my classes and in my department—some of them lightly made, the suggestion of a cross, some of them crude and stark—they had become the norm, invisible to my notice after a few hours. I had not even seen my own, until this moment, and was interested to note that it was the darkest I had seen all day.
My interest, however, quickly gave way to horror. Was it really possible that I was about to walk into the Cornelia Street Café, located in one of the most militantly secular neighborhoods in the world, and read my poems to a potential roomful of Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews wearing a black cross the size of a medieval dagger hilt emblazoned on my forehead? My initial response to this hypothetical question was “Not on your life!” My secondary, guilt-ridden-Catholic-schoolgirl response was, “How dare you even ask the question? Of course you will! You are a Catholic.”
W.B. Yeats once famously stated that poetry does not arise out of the arguments we conduct with others but out of those we conduct within ourselves—never did this observation seem truer to me. There was no clear answer to this sudden conundrum and no obviously correct choice for me to make. The Catholic inside of me argued that one ought to wear the sign of one’s faith with pride—even though, ironically, the ashes are supposed to be a sign of humility. That, in fact, to hide that sign might be interpreted as a denial of the Faith. On the other hand, the Poet and the Citizen of the World inside of me both suggested that the symbol I loved, that I took for granted as a central truth in my own belief as a Christian, has also served as a source of pain and suffering to many peoples in the world. That the cross is a scandal to the Christian in a very different way than it is to the Jew in our post-Holocaust world or to the Muslim whose ancestors endured the Crusades long past but not forgotten. My marching into an interfaith poetry reading with a
black cross temporarily tattooed on my face might be misconstrued as a sign of smug triumphalism as readily as it might be seen a symbol of repentance and piety. I was deeply troubled by the choice I clearly had to make—and make soon.
Helpless cradle-Catholic that I am, it makes sense, I suppose, that both the poem—and this essay—should take the form of a Confession. Bless me, reader, for I have sinned: I washed the cross from my forehead. Though I knew that I might justly be accused of faithlessness, cowardice, and complicity with a culture that views Catholicism with suspicion and prejudice, I chose to wipe away that outward sign of my Faith rather than trouble the hearts and minds of my Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters. After all, I reasoned (wheedled and cajoled), my poems have “Catholic” written all over them. I lay claim to that identity without reservation in the words of my poems and in my speech—I saw no need for an outward show of the symbol that is deeply branded in my heart and so plainly evident in all that I write and say.
I even had scriptural justification for my decision: the Ash Wednesday reading I had heard earlier in the day reminded me (as it always does) of the disturbing disjunction between the public parading of ourselves as observant Catholics (getting ashes being the equivalent of receiving a gold star) and Christ’s warning in Matthew 6:1 regarding the behavior of the hypocrites who parade their fasting and acts of penitence before the synagogue and the city: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
Clearly, my mind was at ease with this decision, but my heart was not. Thus began the poem written down the day after, “Ash Thursday.”
Poetry is an argument, says Yeats. Yes. “Ash Thursday” does not attempt to reconcile the contraries. At the end of the poem, the arguments on both sides (implicit, rather than explicit) still stand, as they inevitably must.
Poetry is a way of being of two minds at the same time, Robert Frost once said (and I paraphrase). In its imaginative space, one submits to the purest fact of human existence—the knowledge of the limitations of our knowledge. Instead of exerting one’s reason (a highly overrated human attribute) to arrive at a definitive answer to unanswerable questions, poetry permits us, in Rilke’s terms, “to live the questions.”
I cannot ever know the rightness or wrongness of my action described in my poem, when I “knelt at the sink / paused at the brink / and washed [the cross] away.” I like to think that, as the De La Salle Brothers say, I do “live Jesus in my heart, forever” and that my decision was somehow the consequence of that way of living, rather than a denial of it. But I cannot know for certain whether even this is true.
The one thing I do know is this: Ash Wednesday ashes can be washed away, but “Ash Thursday” will be always with me.
Angela Alaimo O'Donnell teaches English and is associate director of The Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University in New York City. Her recent book, Saint Sinatra & Other Poems (2011), has been nominated for the Arlin G. Meyer Prize in Imaginative Writing.