How Ashes Might Cure Some of Our Depression: Reflections on Lent

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I have not been attending liturgical churches for long.

Last week was my very first Ash Wednesday. I was excited to receive the smear of ash on my forehead — I’ve always been a sucker for rituals.

I was not prepared, however, for just how healing the service would be.

It shouldn’t have been healing. It should have been weird. It should have even been offensive. I’ve been told my whole life to be positive. So who were all these earnest-faced people, kneeling down, wearing black and gray?

Who were these people, murmuring in approval, when told they were dust?

We heard it over and over, as we knelt to receive ashes.

Remember that you are dust.

Ouch, says our 21st-century-subconscious. How dare you.

Dust is medieval. We shouldn’t have to hear about it anymore.

In the middle ages, people were obsessed with death. The Black Plague can do that to a generation. Everything about their art and culture was skulls and worms and rot. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

I feel like, as a modern culture, we have the opposite problem.

No one mentions death. We sanitize our hospice beds. We buy books on self-improvement. We are all about living our best life, right here, right now. We have become manic with positivity.

We want The Good Life.

We have to have The Good Life.

Death is a rude imposition to that dream.

Our denial of death and loss, however, is costing us. I don’t need to cite statistics at you. Depression is on the rise. We know. We’re painfully aware.

We’re part of that statistic.

Maybe the reason we’re all so depressed is the fact that we’re not allowed to be depressed. Think for a moment: do you have a place where you can go, to be collectively sad? Can you sit with a large group and contemplate death, and pain, and loss?

No?

How interesting.

As I sat, there, singing Kyrie Eleison, I felt my soul stitch back together. For the first time in — maybe my whole life — I was allowed to be bereft. I was allowed to grieve for the person God had intended me to be. The person I am not.

We are afraid to say, “I sin.” But confessing it, in community, made me feel closer to The Good Life than I have ever felt.

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