So before I get started on this (sadly) true story, I just wanted to wish everyone a happy...good lord, how many events can we pack into one weekend? Okay, here we go: Happy belated Lincoln's Birthday, Valentine's Day, Chinese New Year, and President's Day; and Happy Mardi Gras today. And Happy Ash Wednesday tomorrow.
Also, Benni surprised me and planned a getaway to Seattle for Valentine's Day weekend, so tomorrow or Thursday I should get around to posting the three gazillion pictures I took during our trip, only I promise I'll narrow it down. To one million. But today...today is a story about Ash Wednesday.
What you should know from the beginning is that I'm not Catholic. I was not raised Catholic, I have very little experience with Catholicism besides debating my two best friends in high school (both of whom were raised Catholic) about the nature of birth control and suicide (in that order) and while I have nothing against Catholicism, as some of my nearest and dearest are Catholic, I am woefully ignorant when it comes to Catholic beliefs, practices, and rituals.
This would become painfully clear on one fateful Ash Wednesday.
In seventh/eighth/ninth grade (it all blurs together after awhile) we had a sort of cultural exchange project that we had to undertake - which meant we, sheltered junior high students that we were, were charged with the assignment to go outside our comfort zone by going to a restaurant that served different food, partaking in worshiping a religion different from the one we were raised in, or attending any other type of cultural event with which we were not familiar. Most students hated this project because the goal of it was to make yourself uncomfortable. But me? I was all for it.
See, I have this really cute personality trait that most people call "Leaps Before She Looks," which usually ends up with me having egg (or blood) on my face and my feet in my mouth. I rush in, totally confident and enthusiastic, to less than stellar results sometimes. It's why in my profile I took the time to mention I was "accident-prone."
One of my Catholic best friends kindly took it upon herself to invite me to her church's Ash Wednesday service, which I attended with her immediate family and grandparents. We settled in to church and things seemed to be going well enough (lots of standing up and sitting down, do they do that to keep you awake?) when the hitch in the plan was revealed: no one took the time to explain to me what the hell was going on.
So when someone smeared dirt on my forehead, no one really explained why. In fact, asking questions about why there was now dirt on my forehead was being actively discouraged, so I just sat there and assumed that here I was, getting cultured, and at some point somebody would tell me something.
And this, in fact, would have been fine, it would have been perfectly okay for me to not know why there was ashes (not dirt, as I learned later) smudged onto my forehead, except that I also didn't know that I wasn't supposed to wash them off.
In the church.
Using the basin of holy water at the front.
Yeah, that happened.
So I'm splashing around in the water, rinsing off these ashes, when I start to hear what I can only liken to a dull roar, which is in fact the rest of the Catholic congregation realizing that not only am I washing off my ashes, I am in fact TAINTING THEIR ENTIRE SUPPLY OF HOLY WATER. There are screams, shouting, pointing, and I think my best friend's sweet elderly grandmother called me something bad under her breath. Those Italians, they sure can name-call, eh?
I'm steered by the elbow out to the church parking lot where the family does this James Bond-style toss of me into the minivan and off we zoom, everyone sitting there quietly with clenched teeth while I look around, confused. Was I not supposed to wash dirt off my forehead? Didn't Jesus frequently wash dirt off his forehead- no wait, that was his feet. But still?
I finally get an explanation that on Ash Wednesday, ashes are placed on your forehead as a sign of repentance for your sins. Which, incidentally enough, means that splashing around in the holy water to rub the ashes off is heavily discouraged. And in retrospect, it would have been really, REALLY good if I'd known that coming into this whole thing. Whoever said ignorance is bliss has never faced the wrath of a 90 year old Catholic Italian woman.
So every once in a while (okay, about eight times a week), my friends lovingly and half-jokingly tell me that I'm going to hell for whatever latest off-color joke or crazy scheme I've come up with. And I usually tell them, Yeah. I already know I'm going to hell. I've been headed there since seventh grade.
Happy Mardi Gras, everyone!