Ashes at the train station
Yesterday I offered â€śashes to goâ€ť at the White Plains train station. Itâ€™s apparently controversial, but Iâ€™m letting others do the heavy theological lifting. I wanted to experience it before I reflected.
It was cold. Below freezing. We still havenâ€™t gotten out of the polar vortex, which I think has decided that itâ€™s very comfortable in its new digs and it will never leave. Besides, spring has gone fishing. Ice fishing.
At first, I stood outside the train station in my cassock and surplice for a bit, but once I found myself unable to move my hands, I entered the lobby across from the newspaper kiosk. It was also cold. The doors kept opening as commuters rushed in. To keep my hands warm, Iâ€™d rub them against each other as I held my little glass bowl full of burned palms. I would have rubbed them between my surplice and cossack, but I worried it would look vaguely illegal. So I kept my hands visible.
I stood still, as I didnâ€™t want to be pushy, merely present. Available to the seeker, but conveniently ignored by the apathetic, distracted, and irreligious. I didnâ€™t want to raise anyoneâ€™s anxieties or hurt anyoneâ€™s feelings by being so enthusiastically a priest.
People said, â€śI heard about this.â€ť Apparently the radio and papers found this fascinating. Press might be good. Look at those quirky Episcopalians, standing in the cold, offering dirt and telling people theyâ€™re all going to die.
â€śI didnâ€™t know this was happening,â€ť said another. This?
â€śCan you do this?â€ť Am I allowed? Well, I wonâ€™t tell anyone if you wonâ€™t, I didnâ€™t say. I have a license.
A German woman in a Landâ€™s End Coat passed me, paused, turned back, paused, began to approach, paused, and then came up to me and asked, â€śDo I need to do anything for this?â€ť Iâ€™m guessing it seemed like a weird American peculiarity to offer â€śashes on the go.â€ť Everythingâ€™s on the go in America. Yes, I could tell she was from Germany. Bavaria, probably the upper Palatinate.
I said, â€śNo.â€ť Absolution can happen another time. Like last night, after I used a blowtorch to burn the ashes. And a fire extinguisher for the unexpected part that followed. It felt like baptism by fire. Pretty close, Iâ€™d say. We avoided needing to call the fire department. Note to self, donâ€™t borrow a 20-year-old blow torch.
A young professional woman in a camel-colored overcoat, plaid skirt, and black stockings said, â€śNow do I need to confess my sins first, or later?â€ť I was curious about her sins, but didnâ€™t ask in case I began to think of sins myself.
â€śLater,â€ť I said. Iâ€™m just offering ashes. I left my oil of reconciliation in the sacristy. I didnâ€™t give her my number.
An unshaven guy in a NY giants hoodie and jeans that hadnâ€™t been washed for about a year said, â€śFadduh. You Catlik?â€ť
I sometimes want to say â€śyesâ€ť when people ask me, but that would have not answered his specific question. â€śEpiscopalian,â€ť I said.
â€śOh. Well, itâ€™s nice to meet you.â€ť He didnâ€™t approach. He turned around and lit a cigarette.
A hefty guy in a T-shirt, suspenders, and a canvas-looking overcoat, waddled over to me and said, â€śFathuh, Iâ€™m so glad you're doing this,â€ť and he became very reverent. I administered. The unshaven guy asked him how he was doing. They engaged in the conversations that people have when they recognize each other, the order of the familiar.
Several said, â€śI just wasnâ€™t going to get to church today. Thanks.â€ť Glad they think I can offer that relief, but that was not my intention.
One sighed, â€śAh, now Iâ€™m relieved. I donâ€™t have to go.â€ť Jesus mocks me.
I was asked where I was from. One said, â€śSt. Barts? Never heard of it. In White Plains? I thought it was in Yonkers.â€ť I donâ€™t take this personally. He was Catholic, so the church wouldnâ€™t be on his radar. There is a St. Barts in Yonkers. He left confused, perhaps thinking he might have gotten inauthentic ashes.
A former member of my youth group saw me; we hugged. Sheâ€™s now a corporate lawyer. â€śNot exactly Godâ€™s work,â€ť she said. I said she could pay someone else to do that now. â€śFirst, I pay off the loans.â€ť We laughed. Sallie Mae first, then Jesus. She likes the people in her job: theyâ€™re bright and sharp, she tells me. Iâ€™m glad to have seen her. When someone apologizes for her work, I feel like I should offer some absolution. But I forgot the holy water, and she had to go. â€śGood to see you,â€ť we each said.
Another guy asked, â€śDo you take donations?â€ť I wasnâ€™t ready for donations. Getting paid for dust, however, could be a very profitable business venture. It may be unethical, but Goldman Sachs was doing when it sold Mortgage Backed Securities, and nobodyâ€™s incriminated them. At least buyers would know itâ€™s dust in my case. And Iâ€™d charge way less. Actually the entire endowment of my church at its peak would have been a bzillionth of the capital that the great banks crushed into nothingness.
That should be funny, but that happens to be what they actually did to our endowment.
Next year Iâ€™ll take donations. Iâ€™ll have a little sign saying, Iâ€™m Episcopalian. I gladly welcome Benjamins.
A Franciscan Catholic Priest once told me about a Catholic bishop whoâ€™d go to Wall Street and distribute the ashes. â€śHeâ€™d clean up!â€ť he said. â€śHundred dollar bills. Then they told him to stop. So then the Wall Street guys just went to Trinity across the street.â€ť Iâ€™m not sure if I should be proud of that. I love Trinity, but Iâ€™m not sure if they need the cash. They have more money than God. God asks Trinity for loans.
A woman I recognize greets me. â€śHeyâ€”you werenâ€™t in class last night. You missed a really good one.â€ť Iâ€™m studying to be certified by the French Wine Institute. I missed drinking Pinot Noirs from the CĂ´te-dâ€™Or to eat pancakes and bacon. At least we used real maple syrup.
â€śI was working my day job,â€ť I explained. â€śMardi Gras is important in the church.â€ť I wasnâ€™t sure if that was a suitable explanation, given that the class is really important to her. And to me, but priorities.
She furrowed her eyebrow, in with the confused look of the unchurched. â€śWell, it was a really good time. We had a great guest speaker, a master sommelier.â€ť
â€śIâ€™ll make up for it later.â€ť Actually, I had opened up a bottle of burgundy the previous evening. â€śIâ€™ll see you in a couple weeks!â€ť Although wine is a vocation as well, Iâ€™m not compensated for it, and God remains prior to the vine, although certainly thatâ€™s one place I experience his grace.
A new parishioner saw me: â€śHey Gawain,â€ť he said. â€śFunny seeing you here. Giving out ashes, eh?â€ť He smiled widely, with the grin made when clashing worlds is a pleasant, rather than an inconvenient, surprise.
â€śYes,â€ť I confirmed.
â€śWell, Iâ€™ve never received ashes, and I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ll start now, but it was good to see you.â€ť He grew up low-church. My own church was once low-church at one time, but now weâ€™re even now singing Allegri on Good Friday and the Missa De Angelisâ€™ version of the kyrie.
Iâ€™ve been around the neighborhood for a long time, so a couple of acquaintances stopped by when they saw me. â€śOh my,â€ť said one. â€śI canâ€™t go to mass, so its great to see you.â€ť Sheâ€™d partied with my congregation a few times, being good friends with a couple of my parishioners. Another: â€śHi Father, Iâ€™m from St. Andrewâ€™s.â€ť Just in case I didnâ€™t recognize her, her tone indicated I should have.
Iâ€™ve been in this city for 15 years.
Iâ€™ve been commuting from this train station for 15 years.
Some were rushing past me before stopping, so I rushed to administer. â€śrâ€™mber dust, dust yâ€™ll râ€™turn.â€ť Others I guessed spoke in mispronounced Spanish. â€śTu ers polvo, polvo volvras.â€ť
There were a few, â€śMan, itâ€™s Ash Wednesday? Already? Wow!â€ť These are people who donâ€™t follow the liturgical year. For them, Easter is always a surprise. They might have given something up for Lent if they had remembered when it began. The set of sincere, undisciplined, Catholics.
I distributed ashes to cops, sanitation workers, financial managers, administrators, and students. Iâ€™m not sure if I promoted piety, reflection, or transformation. I doubt that this was effective â€śevangelismâ€ťâ€”but it was pleasant to recognize piety where it is. Iâ€™m sure I annoyed a few who hate seeing priests out and about, who would prefer that we stay in churches, who looked at me, turned their heads, and ran.
I did learn more about a particular place. I rarely experience a station except as a commuter. Yet I observed the system, the relationships, between the workers who are cleaning, the guy at the newsstand; the travelers with suitcases; those waiting for people to take the train with them; others seeing familiar faces; the ones who rush; the ones who donâ€™t; the fashionable and the utilitarian. The station is a hub from which humanity circulates.
Iâ€™m not sure if I will do it again, but I did learn one useful practice for all ministers and theologians: remember the hand warmer.
Originally posted at The Divine Latitude