I overslept this morning. I’d set an alarm for 5:15 am so I could make the 7am Ash Wednesday service at my church in the city. But I woke up at my usual time instead.

Sometimes waking up is the hardest thing for me, especially when my day-to-day life is in upheaval and so much is uncertain.

Someone died today, jumping in front of a train on the metro. Our conductor announced it and delays on the other lines. Death is close to us.

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

Ash Wednesday is a new thing to me. I’ve appreciated it from a distance more years than I’ve observed it. The ashes, the reminders of mortality, the abstinence for promise of greater celebration at Easter — all these things speak deeply to me.

I am fragile. I am scattered. I feel overwhelmed by everyday stuff right now. Things like dinner plans are just too much to figure out sometimes. I feel tense and weary. I’ve never been so aware of the fragility of life, promises, health, love.

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

There are some things I’m just trying to remember. Slippery new things that I keep bumping into in the dark ways of habits not yet unlearned. The prayers on Sunday mean so much to me, their lines and boundaries hold me together.

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

On Sundays I go to church for the children I teach before the service. The commitment and the simplicity of that world is a gap of light through which I can turn and return to the sanctuary. To kneeling and prayers, to stillness, to vulnerability and blessings, to receive and be told again of wholeness, of love that doesn’t change.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Ashes and oil, reality and promises. Bread and wine. “Put your hand in my side.” 

I keep hearing Eliot’s other poem in my head. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” We fuss and fluster and make plans and deadlines and listen to our music and talk and Tweet and stalk each other on Facebook.

Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

I’ve been living a personal sort of Lent since Advent. Sara’s stuck in my head again. “Everything in me is tightening.”

So I think I’m going to be trying some more positive disciplines this time around, instead of abstaining. I’m learning about boundaries and trying to live in a way that’s healthy. I’m working on being aware of my limits and creating a balance that is not burdensome. Things like rising promptly when my alarm goes off, practicing mandolin, writing every day, doing yoga every day, drinking enough water, giving myself mental space to breathe.

These are my small attempts at creating wholeness and accepting limits.

I am just dust. I have breath in me. I need to care about that.

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover

I read Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday” twice a year. It’s slowly sinking into my bones.

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

This, today, me. This is my reality. It’s what I can do. Here is my limit. That’s okay.

I’m learning to breathe more slowly and remembering to walk with less frenzy. This is okay.

Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit
of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.


We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
– T.S. Eliot, “Journey of the Magi”

Last year, I started writing this post. But life swallowed me up and my job was difficult and my husband started working at a restaurant, and suddenly our life was stretched too thin for me to think real words anymore.

I was having a discussion with a friend (who is now a new sister!) and she asked me something or other about how I felt about Christmas coming. I paused. I felt strange answering her question honestly, because she probably expected something about how happy I felt about decorating or making Christmas desserts, or how good it would be to spend the holiday with family. But I was weary and emotionally drained, and I told her that I liked the season of Advent, anticipating Christmas, because it is a penitential season. I said that I always feel more like fasting than feasting while I wait for Christmas.

She asked me to explain what I meant and got me thinking on this. Since I still feel this way a year later, returning to the Advent season, I think I will return and finish my thought.

Advent is a season of anticipating God’s arrival in the flesh, of waiting and watching. It is much like Lent in this yearning and anticipation. But Lent is a time when Jesus was on earth with his disciples, and I feel it’s more appropriate to be meditating on mortality, penitence, and abstinence during the time leading up to the incarnation, while we prepare for his arrival. The time leading up to Jesus’ birth was a time of silence among the prophets, and the Spirit had left the temple, I’m told. Everything was centered on keeping the feasts and waiting for the Messiah, not unlike the Jews still do today. There was an absence of God’s presence among his people.

Likewise, during Advent, we wait and we watch. We hunger for the coming of Christ the baby like we hunger for heaven or for his eventual return, because it parallels that scene so well–the common yearning for God with us. We speak of heaven: Jesus is coming. But not yet. Reflect and watch and pray.

Advent is a picture of where we are now, everyday. We don’t find Jesus in the plenty–though we can. Instead, he more often comes to us in the silence, in the waiting. We anticipate him and grow tired. But then he comes and finds us in the aches and pains and weariness.
And then he dies. And Easter has so much power and might and life and joy, but we know the promise of heaven best in Jesus incarnate. So we wait for the “second death” when we live with him, like the Eliot poem says.

The magi saw the Christ, they rejoice, and then they go home, tired and weary. And they wait for death with quiet reverence and anticipation of the promise fulfilled in death by the baby king. And like them, we wait for his arrival at Christmas just as we wait for death to unite us with him in the flesh.

This Advent (which starts on Sunday), I’m going to be meditating on the incarnation and on mortality. I’m going to be choosing something to fast from in the spirit of Lent, and I will break my fast at Epiphany in the spirit of the resurrection promise made in the incarnation of Christ. Join me?