Burning Palms

Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. You are dust and to dust you shall return

~ Ash Wednesday Blessing


This post is from Ash Wednesday 2014. I've been absent from writing for the last couple of months...knowing the ashes are chasing me. I'm trying to slow down, stand still and allow them to wash over me. Rgt
The memory flooded me this morning. I hadn’t given the experience attention in at least 20 years. It was the Monday before Ash Wednesday - 1990. Google tells me that would have been February 26th.

I was a freshman at a Catholic college, working for the Campus Minister, a nun.
In my persistent character flaw of “running a few minutes late,” I rushed into her office, reporting for duty. I may or may not have felt a little ill from a weekend of socializing.
She had an industrial sized blue Maxwell House coffee can on the side of her desk with a mammoth amount of palms flowing out.

Interesting, I thought. Not what I would necessarily use to decorate...but, I had realized many years ago that nuns were a unique - and talented - breed.

Since my childhood of attending a Catholic school, with occasional field trips to the convent, I always found nuns to be... resourceful...decorating with things in the late 70‘s and 80‘s which are now the rage on Pintrest.

So, I didn’t say anything, pretending I didn’t see her attempt to channel her inner Martha (Stewart, that is).

But, Sister immediately picked up the ‘arrangement’ and thrust it into my arms. She reached into the top drawer of her desk and handed me a book of matches.
I was confused. And then, she began to speak.

“Take this out to the Quad and burn these palms in the can...they are for Ash Wednesday service.”

What?! Maybe I’m more hungover than I thought...there is no way I heard her correctly...
I thought the ashes for Ash Wednesday came from some place sacred...like, some monastery with monks surrounded by a haze of incense, praying as they lit each blessed palm.

I’d been duped - for almost 2 decades.

Come on...were times at this small college so tough they couldn’t afford the real ashes from some holy spot in Jerusalem?

Wait...why weren’t all the nuns doing this over the weekend? They probably know how this really works...and they would be saying prayers of repentance through the ‘ceremony.’
But, I heard her right...because she said it again since she saw my eyes glaze over in pure confusion.

“Go out to the Quad and burn these blessed palms for ashes. This is for Ash Wednesday service.”

Now, I’m just mortified.

I’m a freshman. The Quad is the center of our small campus. The gathering spot. Even though it was a Catholic college, it was still college.

I walked, slowly...cradling the abstract arrangement into my chest to cover my face...I saw a spot I assessed as the most remote part of a very open space.

I wasn’t clear on how to do this. I’m not an outdoorsy person and I really don’t have the depth of common sense expected of me.

So, in my rush to just be done, I threw a lighted match into the blue can.
The wind was fierce on that February morning...but there was no rage of flames...there was no great bonfire...

No, what happened was so symbolic it has taken me another two decades to see...
The wind began to pick up the fine particles of palm ashes...they blew on me and I moved...

As I moved, the wind changed course and the ashes followed me, covering me...
I scurried away...but not far, just far enough to not be hit by the black specks. I could still see the fire and there were a few pieces finding me as if I were a magnet.

He was chasing me then...just as He chases me today...

Who better to burn blessed palms from Palm Sunday than a broken, confused, lost and searching heart?

Those ashes running after me illustrate God’s continual pursuit of my heart...reminding me things of this earth will never satisfy my soul...only repentance and renewal in Him will convert my heart...

So, I will stand still today. I will strive to stand quietly and humbly every day to receive those ashes...knowing, I cannot run from Love.

Believe. Create. Live.

© 2015 Rebecca G. Townsend

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