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The Touch of Ashes

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by Regina M. Laroche


Ash...
Oil…
—the stuff of earth
of death
of life
prayed & thumb-printed onto our flesh—
calling us into the grit of listening
of being
of waiting
with the whole of our yearning, restless selves.

Selves made of earth & breath & fire & water
Selves made of cells & spirit & impulse & blood
Selves at once sacred & messy—
in this season of death & life,
pain & growth incarnate.


Here in the north, winter calls us toward hibernation and stillness, but we push our bodies up against the darkness, up against the cold, up against the season of dormancy and rest to function as if in high summer. And we notice our bodies’ slowness as well as their surprising energy when the air is brisk and bright with snow and sunlight.

It is a season of the body. In the church calendar Lent is a time of preparation, of plumbing the darkness. This echoes how the body of the earth prepares in the frozen darkness for light and life of the distant growing season, the body of the earth turning slowly in the quiet toward the explosion of new beginnings.

The story this season and this faith revolve around is one of flesh steeped in divinity, of body named Holy in its hungers and frailty, loving and joys.

I come to the conversation about bodies and caring as a woman who has made love, given birth, and tended children, parents, friends, gardens, farm animals, and pets. I come as a woman who has danced for as long as I can remember, who started formal dance study thirty-four years ago, and who hopes to dance for the rest of my life. I come as a woman living in dark skin. I come as a woman who has had the story of Jesus and incarnation play upon my imagination and spirit throughout my life.

On Ash Wednesday as the paste of ash and oil is administered, I remember the ashes scraped out of our woodstove each winter morning, the ashes integrated into our garden soil to grow food each spring. I remember the ashes—a quick remedy after the brutal Middle Passage—pressed into flesh wounds of African slaves headed to the auction block. The ashes usher me into a world about bodies—warming them, feeding them, abusing and healing them—and the souls intertwined with them.

The ashes issue this season’s invitation to intentionally experience our bodies, to honor our bodies in their vulnerability.

The ashes issue this season’s invitation to notice the healing, wisdom, and sacredness therein—our own bodies, the bodies of all members of our human family, the bodies and body of all creation.

It is often in the times of suffering, the times of things falling apart when we give attention, care, and compassion. And more often than not these sufferings and related lessons and celebrations happen in the body.

Jesus

Although we are in Lent, consider a poignant story about Jesus and the body after Resurrection. Jesus asks his friends: “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:38-39, italics added). After the disciples encounter his scarred body, Jesus asks for food.

What an earthy, mundane, even embarrassing exchange in the midst of Resurrection holiness. Folks touching wounds, scars, flesh, bone; touching food, which in turn nourishes flesh, bone, and soul.

Jesus invited his very human friends via touch into the damaged imperfection of his body—not to change it but to see it, to know it, to befriend it in a way that changed them, that changed the world. After they touch Jesus, they see Jesus and his realness. After they see Jesus, the friends are able to listen, to receive the gifts he offers to their souls and lives (see Luke 24:44, 45, 49).

What if incarnation is not just about Jesus? What if God imbues a bit of the divine self into everything that God touches, breathes, or creates? What if there are gifts in all of us, in all creation, waiting to be touched, seen, listened to, and received?

Changing Body

So much has changed since I stepped into dance class as an eighteen-year-old. Then my body was lean and well-muscled—a gift of genetics and a childhood on the farm. Now I grow soft and am well-acquainted with gravity. Then, if my body ached or did not respond to instruction, I reprimanded it and pushed harder, impatient and insistent. Now often I remember to lay hands on the place of resistance or injury and offer words of thanksgiving for how that piece of me has helped me live throughout the decades, for how that piece of me is part of my wholeness. What has guided me toward greater acceptance and compassion for my body, that I might gently touch it?

Wounds. Nothing extraordinary or of heroic proportions, just the wounds associated with living this life—little deaths that prepare us for a larger death, that sensitize us to what is meaningful.1

On two occasions my body stretched beyond belief and bled to allow a child to push into the world. The fact that it wasn’t easy, that flesh and heart broke open made me marvel. Somehow in the wonder, in being confronted with the fragility of a newborn, I included my miraculously powerful and vulnerable body/self in the loving care and awareness called forth at that time.

One learns by settling deeper into the wounds and the gifts of the changing body (and thus, the changing soul). The loving called forth by the acceptance and the tending diminishes the fear aroused by one’s own, and thus, another’s wounds. Since fear seems to be the enemy of love, diminishing the fear grows the opportunity to touch another’s world.

Brown Body, Human Body

For most of my growing up years I lived in a community where the brownness of my skin, the texture of my hair, my father’s accent, the history of my ancestry, rendered me foreign. Some of the things that were said and done to me made me want to shed my African-descent body. But I could forget all that whenever I rooted into the dance and the story and the faith of the people I came from.

But I learned that when you loathe your body or seek to escape it, a separation happens within you, and between you and the world. It becomes nearly impossible to love and care. So what happens in a world where certain bodies are valued less than others? What happens when certain bodies suffer more illness, more poverty, more abuse, more beatings, more crime than other bodies? What happens to those devalued bodies when the individuals internalize the messages? What happens when entire demographics—an entire body of people—carry historical traumas, generational wounds that fester and erupt? How does a body heal from atrocities etched into flesh and spirit over centuries? Survival for many has come by way of separation from their own bodies.

In the same way an individual physical body rallies defenses and fever to disarm an intruding illness or infection, so does a communal body respond to unhealed wounds and suffering.2 And some of those responses are deadly. Witness the symptoms in the communal Native American body, the communal African American body, and other marginalized and traumatized bodies.3

And what does such wounding mean for the entire human body? Witness the symptoms of a global communal body in struggle: war, terrorism, arms races, and more. There is a reason the Martin Luther King Center expanded the definition of nonviolence to include nonviolence to oneself.

Earth

During the Lenten season I begin sprouting seeds which will later green the gardens of the tiny farm I live on. I farm that I may set my hands into the body of the earth. And, yes, the body of creation groans (Rom. 8:22) when the body of humanity lives as if unembodied and separated from the earth, as if incarnation does not grant holiness and healing. Typically, the degradation of the environment goes hand in hand with the degradation of different members of the human body. Sallie McFague encourages us to view all of creation as God’s Body. This metaphor, she argues, allows us to give attention that invites the discovery of beauty and suffering, which calls forth our love and compassion.4 However, again if we do not treasure the embodied relationship within our own existence, if we are not compassionate and connected with our own bodies, we will be hard-pressed to see and touch the body of the earth with caring eyes, heart, and hand.

The Dance

She can barely move at times. Her disease fatigues and weakens her limbs, so she sits most of the time. She insists on taking my Dance as Prayer workshop. Sometimes she works from her chair; sometimes she pushes herself up into a stand. Always she is radiant as she moves to silence, to music, to word. And she is strong. So strong that I weep.
I am someone who worships with dance and guides others in the creative and healing possibilities of expressing and exploring their truths with their whole embodied selves. I witness the miracle of souls singing through bodies; of bonds built among strangers; of prayers deepened with the transparency, risk, joy, and pain of engaging the body.

Perhaps Lent becomes a season of invitation to dance in the ashes, touching God and self and neighbor in ways that heal the whole of creation.


Invitation to a Practice:

Rest a hand over the center of your chest, the other hand on your abdomen. Breathe deeply and fully in a way that allows your head and chest to bow on the exhale and rise toward the sky on the inhale. Now open your arms and hands and allow them to move through space as you continue to breathe deeply—intentionally touching air and light (or darkness). When your hands are ready, return them to your chest, allowing breath/Spirit to fall into your body and rise out of it. Give thanks. Say, “Amen.”


Reflection Question:

Try the practice described by the author. Afterward, journal about connecting with your own body and your surroundings in this way. Plan to do the practice over several days if possible and note your response each time.



Endnotes

1 See Judy Cannato, Radical Amazement: Contemplative Lessons from Black Holes, Supernovas, and Other
Wonders of the Universe (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2006) and Bruce Kramer, interview by Krista Tippett, “Forgiving the Body: Life with ALS,” for On Being, March 26, 2015; www.onbeing.org/program/bruce-kramer-forgiving-the-body-life-with-als/7420.

2 Flora Slosson Wuellner, Prayer and Our Bodies (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 1987), 102.

3 Michelle Sotero, “A Conceptual Model of Historical Trauma: Implications for Public Health Practice and Research,” Journal of Health Disparities Research and Practice (University of Nevada Las Vegas) 1, no. 1 (Fall 2006): 93, 96, 97.

4 Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 132.


From “The Touch of Ashes” by Regina M. Laroche. Published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, February/March/April 2016), Vol. 31, No. 2. Copyright © 2015 by The Upper Room.


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