Longleaf Stories

full circle in the hundred acre wood

As a child in Southern Baptist churches, the lights were always bright — no dimmer switches. The pitch was fairly straightforward: walk down the aisle, “rededicate” your life to Christ, and go forth into the world. Cheryl K. was a friend of mine in grade school. Dark hair, bangs cut to the middle of her forehead, freckles and white teeth even larger than mine. Just about every time “Just As I Am” was sung, Cheryl headed down the aisle to the front for some face time with the preacher. Took me many years to understand that itself may have been the act for which she was seeking absolution.

My best friend in junior high school was a Catholic girl named Claudia. Her nickname was Dee Dee. To me, her family was so exotic, because they drank liquor openly, occasionally said “damn” and everyone in the family acted like they were happy. What a concept.

There were several things about Dee Dee that might have made my Mother uncomfortable, but the fact that she was Catholic black-listed her and her whole family. In my first act of rebellion, I maintained that friendship and even went for sleep-overs at Claudia’s home.

My part-time job in high school was playing piano for my church: small, Baptist. I recall so well putting on a maroon choir robe and sitting in the corner in between solos, accompanying the choir or playing duets with the organist. It was a great observation post, from which I could observe rowdy children and couples who put their domestic squabbles on hold until after church.

I went away to college as soon as possible — the summer after graduating from high school. It was many years before I darkened the door of a church again.

Fast forward to this Wednesday.

Torrents of rain, intermittent thunder and lightning seemed a perfect backdrop for Ash Wednesday, following as it does the irrational exuberance of Mardis Gras (Fat Tuesday). I belong to Christ Church Parish now. It is Episcopalian, not Catholic, yet full of the rituals derided in my childhood. The rituals which my Mother made fun of are a complex comfort to me now, leading me into a meditative state, if not actual communication with God. I don’t understand why. And that’s okay.

Parking the car by the side of the road on Palafox Street, catercorner from the centenarian church building, I pressed the push-button on the old Lincoln Town Car to slide the driver’s seat back far enough to allow me to struggle into my black trench coat. First, though, I clambered back over the seat to stretch and reach the blue and white striped umbrella. In my experience, umbrellas only serve to get me wetter than I would have been without enlisting their aid, but the rain was sufficiently heavy that I decided to try it.

Splashing through the puddles, I ran up the church steps. Looking up, I was greeted by two serious-looking fellows with twinkles in their eyes, opening the carved wooden doors for me. It was dark inside, even the many stained-glass windows muted. All of the center aisles were occupied, but the space I was looking for, on the far right, up toward the front, was totally clear. Easing out of my raincoat, I laid it and my purse on the wooden pew, raked a hand through my wet hair, and kneeled.

The service, straight from the Book of Common Prayer, began. Words were recited, including Psalm 51, and a homily given by the Rector. The Litany of Penitence was read:

The Celebrant and People together, all kneeling.

Most holy and merciful Father:
We confess to you and to one another,
and to the whole communion of saints
in heaven and on earth,
that we have sinned by our own fault
in thought, word, and deed;
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

The Celebrant continues

We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and
strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We
have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.

Have mercy on us, Lord.

We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us.
We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved
your Holy Spirit.

Have mercy on us, Lord.

We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the
pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives,

We confess to you, Lord.

Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those
more fortunate than ourselves,

We confess to you, Lord.

Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and
our dishonesty in daily life and work,

We confess to you, Lord.

Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to
commend the faith that is in us,

We confess to you, Lord.

Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our
blindness to human need and suffering, and our
indifference to injustice and cruelty,

Accept our repentance, Lord.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our
neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those
who differ from us,

Accept our repentance, Lord.

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of
concern for those who come after us,

Accept our repentance, Lord.

Restore us, good Lord, and let your anger depart from us;
Favorably hear us, for your mercy is great.

 

. . . and more, from the Book of Common Prayer, then Communion, and what I came for today: the imposition of ashes.

Kneeling, brushing my bangs aside, one of the associate priests dipped his fingers into the ashes from last year’s Palm Sunday palms, drew a dusty cross on my forehead, dribbling dry palm ashes across my nose, and said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Thunder rattled the windows, and lightning enlivened the stained glass windows.

Grimly satisfied, I collected my purse, raincoat and umbrella, and ran across the road back to the car.

 

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