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Black Smudges

On ashes.

Every year on Ash Wednesday, I am reminded not only of my death, but also that, depending on my life, a nasty surprise may await afterward.

I must have first realized this a few years ago when I spent the night at an old monastery outside Krakow. It was the first Friday in Lent and I, along with several school friends, had just returned from Compline in the chapel. One in our group remained behind. When he didn’t come back to the room, we searched the grounds. We finally found him on the chapel floor, shaking and surrounded by monks. He wasn’t quite sure what had happened. He told us that he felt something behind him, as if a hand were hovering above his neck. He was afraid it would grab him. Then he fainted. The monks helped him up and sent us all back to the room with instructions to settle in for the night.  

But back in the room, he began acting strangely. First, he whimpered in the bed and asked us to pray the rosary with him. As soon as we recited the Hail Mary, however, he thrashed about wildly. He rolled onto the floor and moaned. We continued to pray, not knowing what else we could do. Soon he was screaming. The monks came running in, and he hurled a string of epithets at them, at his friends, and at the Blessed Virgin. The local hospital was called, and he was taken away on a stretcher. The doctors later declared that he had suffered a panic attack.

He may well have. To this day, I don’t understand what happened to him. Neither I nor my friends speak of it. We have all lost touch with him, anyway. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that to pry too much into the matter is imprudent. That night’s import, which was evident even as it unfolded, still remains clear to me. At the very least, it calls to mind Carlyle’s admonition to Marie Antoinette and her retinue: “Light mortals, how ye walk your life-minuet, over bottomless abysses, divided from you by a film!”  

I believe that most people, even those with poor religious formation who are less vigilant, share my horror of the Evil One. It is easier, after all, to fear the pain of Hell than it is to trust in the mercy of God. This is part of the reason why churches are often more full on Ash Wednesday than they are on Easter Sunday. Thoughts about death and returning to dust almost inevitably lead to meditations on the other three Last Things. It’s natural to fear Judgment, and, except perhaps among the blessed, it’s all too typical to assume that the journey will not end in Heaven.

Ash Wednesday is, if nothing else, one of the rare times when most people feel that they have received permission to consider these dire possibilities in public. Along with Valentine’s Day and Halloween, it’s one of the few dates on the liturgical calendar whose significance is also more or less correctly noted on the commercial calendar. This much is evident in the number of politicians, public officials, and news anchors—many of them not even Catholic—who broadcast and participate in television interviews every Ash Wednesday with black smudges on their foreheads. Public atonement will never go out of style.

For the faithful, of course, the day is a prelude to an eternal drama whose significance becomes more evident with each passing year. Lent provides ample time to contemplate Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Good Friday binds them all together on Calvary. And the long Easter season heralds Christ’s triumph over sin, death, and all they entail. Ash Wednesday is part of that cycle, and, if it is plucked out, it still contains an essential truth, but one whose incompletion invites despair.

That's why, when it rolls around each year, my reminder of death is also a reminder that I have a chance to beat it. If I forget, the end will be nasty, but not much of a surprise.