It’s Lent at last. I’m going to St. Mary Mags at 12.15 for the imposition of the ashes. There’s something so fantastically solemn about the rite. I’ve always loved it, even when I was in my first few years of primary school with very little experience of liturgical ritual. I went to a Catholic school and all the Catholic boys and girls would be led to the chapel – the oldest RC in South Africa, I think; it was pretty in a purple, gaudy Italianate way – and the non-Catholics would be taken to the stone Anglican church around the corner. After we returned, we’d line up in the bathroom and compare our foreheads, who had the biggest cross and whose grandparents having died that year had been subsequently recycled to make the ashes.
I think the comfort of the rite is partly the reminder of mortality, partly the beauty of penitential language (how often do we welcome imposition?), and partly the feeling of being touched lightly, officially, publicly on the forehead.
This is the time between death and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.
- T.S. Eliot ‘Ash Wednesday’