One of my first years in Dallas, I was sitting in a restaurant awaiting evening choir practice on Ash Wednesday. I was deep in concentration grading Geometry proofs when a man approached and said “I’m sorry to bother you, miss. But do you know you have dirt on your forehead?” I was baffled. Surprisingly, I had never been asked that question before. I had always lived in predominantly Catholic communities, and therefore, always presumed that everyone knew this outward sign of our faith. Confused, I said “It’s for Ash Wednesday.” He paused briefly, as if he wanted to say more, but then just mumbled okay and walked away.
I thought about that encounter a lot that day and even years later. I had presumed that an explanation of the “dirt” on my forehead would be sufficient with the words “Ash Wednesday.” And perhaps, I also was a little embarrassed to go into detail about why I was wearing “dirt” on my forehead on that day. And perhaps, at that time in my life, I also was a little embarrassed that an automatic explanation of why was not ready on my lips. I had participated in Ash Wednesday all my life, but did I really know, enough to explain to others, what it signifies?
Nowadays, I’ve had to plan Ash Wednesday masses and teach courses about the liturgical calendar, so my understanding is definitely clearer than it was that day (including that Catholics are not the only Christians to receive ashes). Something about physically participating in not just receiving but giving ashes cements understanding a little more in one’s brain. And something about having to teach others about the Lenten season in its fullness increases confidence in sharing that understanding with others.
So clearly since that day in that restaurant over a decade ago, I’ve learned a better response to the question of the “dirt.” And my faith is stronger for that increase in knowledge and understanding. But that was not the biggest lesson of that moment for me. After many reflections over that brief moment in time, I realized that I did not just miss an opportunity to share my faith with another person. I also missed the opportunity to have him share his with me. What would have that conversation looked like if I had said “These are ashes, a sign of my faith as a Catholic. Is there a symbol in your life that serves as an outward sign of what you believe?” And then let the conversation go where it led. What would that conversation have looked like if I just took time to be more fully present to another human being who had circumstantially entered my path?
I was thinking about this moment recently while teaching a night class. I arrived 45 minutes early and thought “This is great, I’ll set up and then work on some stuff before they come!” Instead, one of my students also arrived 45 minutes early. At first, I worked while she sat quietly. After a few minutes, however, I remembered this idea of lost opportunities. So I sat down and asked her about her work in her parish. Over the next half hour she told me all about her life in her parish and the challenges that had recently arisen for her. Her words took me on a journey outside of my own bubble of experience and into hers. And I am the better for it.
As I format and place these words on the screen today, I am, once again, sitting with “dirt” on my forehead. A smudge of ashes that symbolizes not only that I am “dust and to dust I shall return” but that I share that with every person walking alongside me on this earth… even those I may never meet. Even those for whom ashes and Ash Wednesday are not a part of their tradition. So while I am still in that interim between dust and dust, particularly in this season of Lent, I hope to make more of an effort to encounter those around me and engage more in the beauty of their humanity.