by Fr. Pat McNulty.
One Ash Wednesday, the ashes on Fr. Pat’s forehead began a change in a young woman’s heart.
"No thanks, I only smoke filters," she said as I offered her a cigarette. She was smoking filtered Kools. Yuck! I was smoking a real cigarette—Camels.
We found ourselves on the same train. She had boarded in Chicago and I in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. I took one of the few remaining seats in that car, the one next to her.
As I sat down, she politely whispered, "Excuse me, but you’ve got something all over your forehead."
That "something" was ashes from the Ash Wednesday Mass I had just come from. They became the stimulus for a very nice ride together on Amtrack.
We eventually ended up in the dining car for coffee and a cigarette, and we talked about the weather, politics, the latest movies, the Chicago Bears, and finally, ashes and God.
My "Kool friend" was in her late twenties, a beautiful and intelligent young lady. She had the job of her dreams and the man of her dreams too—though, as I found out later, he was already married and had a family.
"I used to be a Christian," she said, "but it never really took, I guess."
"Oh, it always takes," I said. "We just have to catch up to it."
"I guess so. I don’t know much about your Catholic faith, but I have always been intrigued by your Ash Wednesday thing. How does it go?"
"Remember, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return."
"Yes. That. Don’t you think it is a bit of bad news to be talking about God and dust? Isn’t religion supposed to be good news?"
"Well, if we don’t begin with the truth, if we filter it all out to suit our own purposes, then it’s not real news anymore, is it, let alone "good news?’"
"Many people don’t believe in the extent of their own mortality until they see it with their own eyes. They do not believe they are totally involved with and dependant on a God who could return them all to dust forever in a flash and leave them there if he wanted to."
"That doesn’t sound like good news to me."
"The extent of our own mortality—dust thou art—and God’s loving presence mixed in with all the ashes, through Jesus Christ, is the Good News!"
I think we were both surprised when the conductor called her Ohio stop, because the time had passed so rapidly. We returned to our primary seats and, as she gathered her things together, I quickly wrote out my phone number and address on a book of matches I had taken from the dining car and gave it to her in case she wanted to talk more.
The train stopped. I helped her with some small luggage. She thanked me. I smiled and said to her, "Excuse me, but you’ve got something all over your forehead." She quickly brushed it, looked at her hand, then at me. She was still laughing as she made her way up the aisle.
I’m sure people in the car wondered why the man with the Roman collar and the smudge mark on his forehead was waving to the young lady through the window as the train pulled away from the station. But I knew her repentance had begun.
It was almost two years later when I heard from her again, though I had not forgotten the incident. In fact, she had come to mind on the Ash Wednesday after that.
Her father had died since we had met, and because his long battle with cancer had left his body in such an appalling physical state, her mother had had him cremated. This had deprived her and her siblings of that final closure with their dad, which body-funerals can provide.
When they gathered for the scattering of the ashes into the winds over the Atlantic Ocean, she was devastated. He had been her best friend, and now he was just ashes thrown to the wind. "Why would God do that?" she asked.
We wrote to each other a few times off and on over the next year or so. She eventually returned to the Christian faith, met a young man at church, and they had set the wedding date. (Now why did that not surprise me?)
I was unable to be present for the wedding, but I sent her a special gift, my favorite crucifix, and I attached a piece of palm to it. I wanted her to have them.
And I reminded her that from such a simple Palm Sunday "thing" comes that powerful Ash Wednesday "thing" that had pointed her ever so gently toward repentance. "Excuse me, but you’ve got something all over your forehead."
To this day when I receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, I cannot help but wonder how our chat would have turned out if I had taken my cue from the more cool, filtered Ash Wednesday blessing, "Repent," etc. etc. vs. the real one, "Remember, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return."
I don’t think the filtered version would have done it for this young lady. What she needed was the shock of real ashes leading to repentance.
And I believed it then as I believe it now: if you don’t get the "unto dust" part of Ash Wednesday first, you’ll never really get the "repent" part either.
P.S. She stopped smoking because her father had died from smoking-related causes. I asked her to pray that I could stop too. And if I knew where my "Kool" friend was today, I could let her know that this old "Camel" finally made it.
After frolicking with death by smoking for about forty years, I was finally able to stop about ten years ago. Till then I guess I imagined I was ready to return to dust anytime God wanted. But on second thought, I think I realized I needed more time to repent. Actually a lot more time!
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