Ashes and Mercy

Lovely Maya Love,

You’ve been with me now just as long in my arms as in my womb.

This morning as I shuffled forward to receive the sign of ashes on my head for the first time as a Catholic, I noticed it was also the first time in a decade to make that pilgrimage alone without my kids. I remember Joshua’s first ashen cross six years ago and the stark and painful reality I allowed my maternal mind to submit to: this tiny babe too—dust, and to dust we shall return. This morning I am consoling myself with the beauty that daddy gets to carry you to the altar today even though I’m not there. There is goodness in my occasional separation from motherhood, and I am thankful for God’s leading me into my vocation these past few years. But I miss you. I feel a sense of horror at being separate from you as your forehead is first marked with ashes. I feel a sense of horror at allowing again the reality that we are so fragile. My heart is wrestling.

The whole world is wrestling. Russia invaded Ukraine last week and all our weariness as the pandemic wanes is braced yet longer for whatever comes of this. At home, I cook three meals a day from dried grains and legumes, doing my best to stretch our grocery budget as inflation presses on us even before we’ve recovered from last year’s house-buying. It’s a tired time to be alive and it’s a tired time to be a Powell.

There’s more than tired and wrestling though. I want to claim more, believe more, practice more. You are our more—our Ebenezer: magic is real too, and love. You’ve brought us there, and not just to magic but to redemption specifically. I slipped Zoë’s ring onto my right middle finger this morning before I left home, and as I drove to work I thought how the gift of Zoë made the soil of our hearts fertile to receive you, to receive the love God wants for us. The winter of death we experienced in that loss is somehow bearing fruit in the spring you’ve brought.

But today the change of seasons feels like mud, like stubborn ice, like tender shoots so susceptible to being crushed. I remember when we were given Zoë my meditations were full of the wonder of life’s fierceness: resurrection and resilience. Grass sprouting through concrete sidewalks. Lately I think of life’s tenderness: dust to dust.

Maybe Lent is just what I’ve been waiting for as I ache for a respite from the wrestling. Our family’s happiness feels rusted over and for the life of me I can’t restore it. We’re stressed and weary and short tempered, all of us. It’s been this way for so many months that it’s years now. It was only a couple nights ago that you heard me lose my temper (again) and scream ugly words at precious, disobedient children. Again. Your sweet new ears, already exposed to this dark world. It crushes me every time. I’ve brooded in my more anxious moments that the reason you love Daddy so much is that you don’t feel safe with me. Ridiculous, I realize. For one thing, he’s not all sunshine either.

We ache over our dark parts, cowering sometimes in the full view of what ruin we humans are capable of. And yet we are promised not only life but redemption. Reconciliation. We come broken and Christ heals us. Ruin gives way to restoration. Often it’s such a powerful phenomenon that we shudder to realize we wouldn’t have wanted it another way in retrospect.

So here I am today at the outset Lent—our first Lent since its practices have become a matter of corporate submission for us instead of only private choice. I’ve been feeling desperate week after week and month after month for our brokenness to be cast and mended while at the same time feeling conflicted and uncomfortable with the grace of confession, so tangled in the web of toxic and abusive spirituality that I want to leave behind. I don’t know how to confess. Or what.

Home is a reflection for a later date, but it is a factor here too, or actually the whole solution. So here’s a preface. We’ve been meditating on John O’Donohue’s Blessing for a New Home this winter: “May it be a house of welcome for the broken and diminished.” That final line resonates most with me right now, making room for me to embrace the rest of the poem, too, in hopefulness and faith.

As the Mass ends we have sung “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling.” In the line “Oh for the wonderful love he has promised” I recall the sacred moment of sight I had two weeks ago in Chicago. A choir of inner city youth sang a composite anthem that gave my soul words. “I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining.” “Put one foot in front of the other and lead with love.” “I’ve Got a Robe.” I realized so viscerally and with such newness that it felt like a birth: I belong. Immediately, my mind is brought back to the present moment, here with ashes on my head, as I sing the second line of this old gospel tune. “Though we have sinned he has mercy upon us, mercy for you and for me.”

“Oh sinner, come home.”

It took us months to move from Bloomington to Indianapolis and we’re all still feeling stunned and drained. I’ve tried time after time to create space and open our hearts for the life we want, the way of being in the world that is love. But all my intentions and attempts feel too ambitious, premature. Always I am left just more aware that we are broken and diminished.

I enter this season of Lent mostly cynical and incredibly tired of wrestling. This morning I find I’m curious, too, even hopeful. Perhaps these Lenten disciplines could be a path of restoration for us. Mostly, I’m grateful for the invitation to come home. To mark dust on my brow and yours. To enter this liminal time between winter and spring—the tender, fragile, messy time when life awakens. To take the penitential path. To let redemption do its work. To receive mercy.

Perhaps next time I write to you you’ll be turning one and we’ll have come to Easter. Come through penitence, confessing our nature, confessing our brokenness, to find mercy. Mercy for you and for me. Mercy, yes, but belonging too. Home for us sinners.

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