(Why does the Church ask us to wear ashes on our foreheads or fast on certain days? Doesn’t it make us unnecessarily different than everybody else?)
Is it always bad to be awkward? Without falling into pride I could say that I’m somewhat of an expert in the area of awkwardness. My particular sense of humor aside, what do you think the most frequent reaction to my Dominican garb is when I show up places? AWKWARD. If wearing a long, medieval robe in public for 17 years doesn’t make one an expert in how to handle awkward reactions, I don’t know what does. I also know that being different that way has something powerful to offer.
“You have a speck of something on your forehead, sir!” – have you gotten that comment from people on Ash Wednesday? Or, “are you experimenting with your diet?”, when your coworker noticed your simple lunch on Good Friday? If you have, you know what being awkward feels like. And if it’s connected with those rich symbolic rituals reminding us of the truths that should organize our day-to-day, like God and our need for him, well, I would say it’s a good awkward. “The whole rationale of symbolic gestures requires that they disrupt and disturb the secular order”, writes Eamon Duffy, professor of history of Christianity at Cambridge. He describes in his essay the practice of fasting and how it sometimes is perceived by the secular society as odd. “Their power to witness – not only to others but to ourselves – comes precisely from their awkwardness. The abolition of such observances strikes at the heart of tradition, the distinctive language of belief. Catholic value cannot be expressed without its proper symbolic expression.”
That sign of the cross you make before your meal, that medal or scapular you wear, that abstinence from meat or a work of mercy you take on a Friday – those are the symbols that witness both to you and to others. They mark your experience of time and space with the touch of God’s grace and broaden your openness to his active presence in your life. We are symbolic, sacramental creatures, and the sooner we reclaim the proper language of expressing deep spiritual truths through proper tangible signs, the faster we will grow our mature personality.
Fear not this Catholic awkwardness and particularity. Try some rich “physical” Catholic traditions and practices in this season of Lent and see how they spiritually ground you in the presence of the Holy One. Don’t just have thoughts on how Jesus’ passion gave you new life, but come and walk with us – yes, literally walk! – the Stations of the Cross every Friday at 6 PM. Don’t just feel compassion for the homeless in our city, but go and help distribute meals at a downtown soup kitchen. Don’t just mention vaguely in your personal prayer how much you sometimes reject God’s love through sin, but come kneel in the reconciliation room, and say it out loud in the sacrament of confession. Incarnation means that our God became man, a physical human being, and it is through our bodies and their physical actions within his Body – the Church – that the new life is being so generously distributed.
Blessed Lent to you all!