“You’re the most Catholic UU I’ve ever met,” now-Reverend Madelyn Campbell said to me across the aisle in the seminary lecture hall. And in many ways, she was right, and she’s still right. My wife says I’m Episcopalian in the winter (awesome Advent!), Catholic in the spring (tune-up of Lent), more aggressively Pagan in the summer (who doesn’t love a good bonfire?), and Quaker in the fall (the season of reflection).
And meanwhile, I’m really Pagan all the time, new moons in and full moons out.
Whatever I am, I have fierce opinions about Ash Wednesday. How does this all work?
The Dangerous Waters of Christian Ritual and Theology
Okay, Pagan and UU friends, don’t let your eyes glaze over or fire up. Hear me out. I’m going to write about Ash Wednesday, and maybe about Lent. To some of you, it makes perfect sense that I’d write about such a thing. To others, it might seem strange.
Yes, I have been a witch since I was 19, which is to say 25 years. Yes, I joined a Pagan community when I was 23. Yes, I was initiated into the tradition of Stone Circle Wicca, culminating in my Third Degree in 2003. Yes, I began reading Tarot when I was 18 or 19.
I’m pretty darn Pagan. Even my Unitarian Universalist identity is definitely hyphenated: UU-Pagan. Even when I put it as “Christian-adjacent UU Pagan,” all the first words modify the last.
What Is Ritual For?
I’m a particular kind of Pagan. For me, ritual and its mythic underpinnings are the core of my understanding, my cosmology, my practice.
I like my community ritual intense, muddy, hot-blooded, outside if possible, rain is a bonus, sweat-tears-facepaint all good, full of singing and wailing (when appropriate), and wild and delicious (when appropriate).
Even when I help make ceremony in a UU context, I try to push the envelope. After all, I think that ritual, in order to be worth doing, should take the risk to be transformative, to engage as much of the whole person as possible.
I hope that, like deep prayer, ritual changes our state of mind, heart, soul, and body.
What Is the Appeal?
Nonetheless, if it weren’t for my community rejecting me upon my coming out, age 17, I might be Catholic today.
When I was 25, still in the midst of my studies with the Stone Circle tradition, I began a renewal of sorts, a reexploration of my Catholic roots. I became involved with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, and in 2002, I moved into one of their houses as a Candidate, studying and experiencing their shared life.
These women are amazing.
Many of them are collectivist, feminist, environmentalist, even Divine-Feminine-worshiping women.
The thing was, that for all my passionate attachment to high church music, beautiful variations in liturgy, even the ideas inherent in various doctrines, the stories of saints… Well, I found that I could never go home again. I just was no longer Catholic.
Not only that, but the only “unorthodox” Catholicism that has ever appealed to me is the kind called “Celtic” and that is practiced by people like the Brigandine order at Kildare. Pagan-flavored Catholicism. Just like now I have Catholic-tinted Paganism?
And so I decided to stop trying to go home again, theologically speaking. I had found a new home as a UU, and I found that, like a turtle, my various identities could more or less come with me into Unitarian Universalism.
The Present Tense
I mean those things about why I loved Catholicism and why I am not there still, now, in the present tense. I am no longer Catholic. I cannot go “home” again—I don’t want to, in fact. And I have a passionate attachment to high church music, (what I consider to be) beautiful liturgy, and exploring the background and variations in doctrine as it is understood in different times, places, and cultural contexts.
One of the great transformative annual rituals of the Christian Church, whether Catholic (big C) or otherwise, is Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday calls those who come to receive ashes (called “imposition”) to “Repent and return to the Gospel.” The liturgy is also of course associated with the famous words from Genesis, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Or, to be more familiar and old school: “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.”
Leaving behind just for the moment the concepts of metanoia (Greek), shub (Hebrew), and repentance, I spend here some time on this dust thing. The ashes themselves and what they have represented to me.
Ashes are what is left when matter is mostly consumed by fire. They are what we have after someone is cremated. They are what we have when a hearth fire and its embers, all, are allowed to go out.
They are what is left. They are what endures.
What endures, the earth that is left after all else has had its way.
And they represent the earth from which the Lord, as they are called in that chapter, created the first human and into whose lungs they blew first breath.
There Is a Problem
“Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust you shalt return,” has been thrown out of the mouths of clergy at congregants like a weapon. The ashen crosses have been imposed on foreheads with vigor.
Earth has been the problem.
You are the dust of the Earth.
And the dust of the Earth—like women, like sexuality—has been made into shame, humiliation, ejection from the Garden.
But it needn’t be that way. It needn’t be that way, and there are better ways to fix it than Glitter + Ashes.