Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Catholic Identification Day

Usually I carry my Catholicism around like a secret.

There isn’t a way for someone passing me on the street to know that I am Catholic. Passersby can’t see the Rosary ring in my pocket or the prayer cards in my wallet. The Daily Roman Missal nestled in my handbag is invisible to them.

I suppose if I were to get hit by a bus or something, they would find out when they opened my purse. But barring unforeseen catastrophe, only I know that I’m Catholic.

And then Ash Wednesday comes, with early morning Mass. The hasty smudge. Those searing words, which bring death to the forefront of my mind. “Remember you are dust” – am I nothing more than dust? – “and to dust you shall return” – so ephemeral is our earthly life. Thank God for our faith in the immortal soul, without which those words would be terrifying.

 And when the priest says, “The Mass is ended,” it is time. We have no choice but to show our Catholicism to the world.

On the subway ride to work, I got a lot of funny stares. But I buried my head in a book to avoid the looks.

Walking to work, though, I had to look up again. After a hostile glare from a blonde girl with a suitcase, I stopped making eye contact with people for a while. But my curiosity won out and I looked around again. I wanted to see who else had the ashes, who else bore the mark of our old unyielding faith.

I only saw one, and he walked past too quickly for us to make eye contact. So I walked alone, doing my best to hold my head high, proud to bear what one hymn calls “the seal of Him who died.”

When I got to work, my co-worker Daniel, who is Jewish, greeted me with a friendly smile.

“Did you go to Mass?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said with a smile in return.

Pushing my hair aside, I turned my forehead to him. “Can you see it?” I asked. “It’s light, but it’s there.” He nodded agreeably. I walked back to my desk, thinking about how Daniel’s religion too has a tradition of penance, of public atonement, in the holiday of Yom Kippur.

It is a fascinating part of the human condition, this urge to atone. To make reparation. It may be evidence of our need for God.

Many days we forget how desperately we need Him, how indispensable He is to every part of our daily living. But today we bear His mark upon our brows and we have no choice but to remember, and to be seen.


  1. My sisters and Mum went to Ash Wednesday mass in the morning, then went to the shops straight after (I went in the evening with my Dad). Anyway, at the shops, the sales assistant pointed to my little sister's forehead and said, "She's got dirt on her face."

    Mum smiled sweetly back and merely said, "It's ash."

    The sales assistant didn't dare say anything after that. She probably thought my family were weird, but they didn't care. In fact, they took it as a joke!

  2. Great post, Tess. Your last paragraph especially hit me. Going to a small Catholic college, it's easy to be open about my Faith. I need to remember to make it a habit that will last when I leave, as well. God bless you!

  3. You have a great blog, Tess! I'd love to share my new book with you "40 Day LoveFest for Christians: a daily practice of self-love and reflection"

    I'll send you a complimentary pdf copy if you email me at tina@tinanies.com

  4. Clare, thank you so much! I know what you mean; when I was at Notre Dame, everyone got ashes on Ash Wednesday, so it wasn't a big deal. Now, I feel like I'm being wildly countercultural just for practicing my faith. It's awesome, but it does take courage! I think the strong community and prayer life that you are building up now in college will be a huge help to you after you graduate. Thank you for your lovely comments, by the way; they always make my day. :)