We’ve heard the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Lent has begun. They sound like ominous words; we expect that no one wants to hear that they will die. But ashes on foreheads aren’t holy obligations, they are holy promises. Minuscule holy promises, reminders of the consuming fire of both life and death that we cannot control, scattered onto our foreheads so we will bear the mark of a people who are promised that in death, life is changed, not ended.
Getting sober was, for me, the process of dying. But, of course, I died while moving so quickly through my life that I had blurry heels. It was a quiet death, slow, smiling, and I didn’t realize the fullness of how much I had rotted until that life fully ended. I was actively participating in my life and actively dying just the same. There’s room to say that we are all actively dying, which is as true and tangible as the ash that might dribble down onto your nose, dirtying your face as a reminder that there is no cross perfectly placed, no emblem of faith perfectly drawn. Our lives are like ashes encountering skin, each touch somehow universal and somehow unique to us at the same time, no two ashy crosses the same.
When I was in that tender place of discerning sobriety—reading sobriety memoirs with a box of Chardonnay—I felt in my heart, soul, and mind that I was not just dying, but that I had been actively living a deadened life. I was numb. I had, in some respects, lost even the memory of what it felt like to laugh uncontrollably or well up at the sight of joyous moments. If I had hilarious stories to tell, they were as blurry as my heels, or someone else had to tell me the funny things I said. I didn’t have full knowledge of myself: my interior self or my exterior self. I knew myself, but it was a mediated knowing. I lived, in the truest sense, through a glass darkly. I trusted other sources to tell me who I was, what I liked, sometimes how I had been the night before, and many of the sources were untrustworthy narrators that I couldn’t silence, because in numbing pain I had numbed agency.
In numbing out the voices of shame and pain I didn’t want to wade into, I had also numbed the gracious, powerful, loving voice of God—the only voice that stood a chance of silencing the voices that grieved me. It wasn't that God wasn’t speaking to me, that God wasn’t loving me with the deepest love a life can receive. It is simply that I received God’s love mediated by the loss of feeling, mediated by hangovers and shame. I knew that I had the experience of feeling joy; I could remember it in a distant way, the way a child remembers a 950 square foot townhouse as the mansion where they were raised, but I had lost the muscle memory. I had lost the memory of joy that I wanted to keep at the top of my heart, easily accessible, in the breast pocket of my life.
Ash Wednesday can sound like a death sentence, and it is, but it serves as a reminder that we are alive. The dead don’t need to know that they will die; only the living receive the proclamation. It’s through my sobriety that I have come to see the ashes on my forehead as the promises and passageways that have seen me through death to the fullness of life.