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Puke and ashes: catharsis and calamity

On Wednesday, I started a fast by cleaning up cat puke. I could not hurry due to my back injury. I had to slowly lower myself down to the floor. I had to slowly shift for one spot of vomit to the next to wipe it all up. There was a god awful lot of it. I had to “sit” with this puke for more than a few minutes. This is not my ideal meditation.

I started with the easy bits, the small dribbles and circles of liquid. Then I moved on to the difficult parts, the large mounds of semi-digested food. Even using lots of paper towels, about which I simultaneously felt guilty and relieved, even using lots of paper towels, I could feel its warmth and texture through all the layers of digested wood pulp.

I paused my puke cleaning labors several times, closing my eyes, concentrating on my breath, trying to avoid retching. Twice, I ended up puking small mouthfuls of water and medicine into the trash bag I was using to collect the wadded paper towels full of grossness.

It was a moving meditation, a catharsis of sorts.

In moments like this, the God, in which I more often than not do not believe but occasionally breathe in, seems a prankster. I can imagine that S/he has a room full of real gag vomit just waiting for the worst right moments. Timing is everything.

Besides cleaning up cat-haris, I went to Ash Wednesday services. I had never “celebrated” Ash Wednesday before. There were a surprising number of people in the pews.

Ash Wednesday gets short shrift because it seems to be all about sin. Though someone I read recently suggested that its unsellishness is why it goes largely unnoticed. Like Yom Kippur, it is difficult to repackage and sell it back to people. You cannot say “season’s greetings” with a [Crappy Corporation of Your Choice] gift card. A large sack and ash cloth of fudge would be tasteless.

Ash Wednesday is about sin and confession and penitence. I realize this will put me in a very small minority, but I find the concept of sin comforting. Not because I think there is some All Father counting mine up and concluding, “Damn, she’s not doing too bad.” Not because I think I will go to heaven or hell based on those sins. But because periodically taking stock of how we much harm we cause and communally confessing it may help us in our resolve to do better.

Paraphrasing and editing the Litany of Penitence from Liturgy for Ash Wednesday as found in the Book of Common Prayer, I present a list of sins that can speak to many of us regardless of our spot on a theist/atheist continuum.

We confess our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people, our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves, our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work, the wrongs we have done: our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty, false judgments, uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us, our waste and pollution of creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives . . . (Book of Common Prayer, p268)

Tallying up and confessing ours sins- in the sense of offenses against people, principles and/or, for those who believe, God- is useful. We have a catharsis. We, like my cat, are purged.

Tangent Theater: Over the years there have been all sorts of theatrical debates (both senses) about whether or not catharsis is a good thing. Bertolt Brecht is the Guru-Godfather of Perspicacious and/or Pretentious Political Theater and Film who, I recently and painfully discovered, few theater people now seem to be familiar with. Though perhaps it is as strange poetic justice that they are not familiar with verfremdungseffekt. Brecht theorized that catharsis in theater soaked up all emotion, leaving the audience with no impetus for action. I’m not going to go into why this ain’t necessarily so; I spent a good chunk of my undergraduate thesis challenging this notion. Suffice to say that catharsis can happen in the most Epic Theater.

I think catharsis can be political; it can motivate change. Most often it doesn’t, but it can.

If I am careful, it I am canny, I can use confession’s catharsis to help me change. The catharsis allows me to turn off the soap opera of self-hate. I can, if I am caring, put down the burden of my imperfections, my frailties, my mistakes, my sins, and take up the burdens of justice, kindness, compassion, mercy, joy. By relegating the belly button lint detail to specific times and places, by putting the litany of castigation and confession in its proper place, I can focus on the work that I am called to do.

Confessing my sins on Wednesday does not mean I forget them. I even, despite my best intentions, keep on committing them. But having a ritualized time and place for confession, on Sunday I will confess again, though not as dramatically, means that when I catch myself in “sin” I seem to spend less time agonizing and more time gently correcting my course, making slightly better choices. It helps me focus on the work instead of the bullshit.

Ash Wednesday is a meditation not just on morality but also on our corporality, our mortality. It is about the limits of our lives, our time limited lives.

I walked up to the communion rail. I knelt down. The Celebrant imposed ashes on my forehead saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (BCP, p. 265).

It wasn’t until I sat back down in my pew and watched the double lines of people waiting to have ashes imposed that I cracked. My heart broke.

I thought about how all those people waiting in line would someday die. Every single one of them. I thought about the millions of people all over the world who were celebrating Ash Wednesday. All of them would die. Every single one of them. Then I thought about all the people over the millennium who’d ever been ashed at the alter, who were now dead, collections of bones, dust and/or ashes.

And then I thought about all the people who had even been before. All of them had died.

All the people being, all will die.

All the people to come, all will die.

All sainted sinners, all will die.

All sinning saints, all will die.

All puking cats, all will die.

All animals, all will die.

All plants, all will die.

All will die.

This is not negotiable. This is not fixable. This is not correctable.

I will die.

All will die.

Ashes, ashes. We all fall down.

I wept.

I felt a great tenderness for all living beings. I breathed in mystery for just a moment. I was glad that I came. Glad I confessed. Glad my heart broke. Glad I witnessed. Glad as I wept.

Friday morning, I woke to the news of the earthquake that rocked Japan. I woke to the tsunami that swamped Japan. Hundreds had died. Hundreds, possibly thousands more will die. My heart broke. I wept for an an hour.

I have no homily that connects cleaning up my cat’s puke, Ash Wednesday and the calamity in Japan. I have no homily, only heart break.

Ashes, ashes. We all fall down.

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  1. […] spoke in even softer than normal church soft voices. I have written about Ash Wednesday before. See Puke and ashes: catharsis and calamity. Ash Wednesday may be my favorite (non-feast) feast day. Considering how powerfully moved I am by […]

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