By Cynthia Scherr

Because I am both spiritual AND religious, I went to the Ash Wednesday service at church this week, knowing it would bring me peace, grounding and a reminder of my own mortality. Simplicity is the theme for Lent this year. “How can you simplify your life to make more room for what is real?” A central question for me this year already, now to be shared with the whole congregation. The service was peaceful, in dim and candle light. We placed rocks upon the altar to metaphorically lay our burdens down for this season, and with them any sense of self-induced complexity. Kim played Taize music–stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray, watch and pray. Twice to the altar, once with our symbolic stones, the second time for ashes. Pastor Pam looked me in the eye and said, “my friend, dust you are and dust you will be.” The ultimate reminder of mortality. Christ has died, Christ will rise. We will sing Alleluia again.
I left feeling calm and humbled. Dust indeed. What must I simplify to spend my life on what is real?
I think of flippant responses first. I have already (unwittingly) killed all of the houseplants. The refrigerator is reduced to eggs, milk, yogurt and wilty lettuce. Check, check, on wasting time on home maintenance and spending too much time on the sensuous pleasures of food. What about reading addictions? Pitching magazines I read too little of but whose bulk dominates my office, my living room? Declining invitations to fundraisers where small talk over loud auctions builds social capital with some and deprives me of the company of others conversing at small dinner gatherings?
I reflected on this as I decided to go to the grocery store. Not the grotty Safeway nearby, but our upscale Market of Choice. From stone and ashes I wanted glossy oranges, curvaceous avocados, florescent lights, and obscenely frosted baked goods. I also wanted to experiment with public Christianity. I knew my forehead was marked. When I was in grade school I was secretly envious of my Catholic classmates who went to mass first thing in the morning and walked around all day with the smudge of this ancient ritual on their foreheads. It separated them as a tribe. They had laws about going to church, as if God took roll call on a weekly basis.
Market of Choice is being remodeled. End caps torn up, goods rearranged, contractors conferring with store managers in the pasta aisle. Self-consciously at first, I found my oranges, selected bananas, discovered where they hid the tortillas. I wondered if anyone noticed. Two high school girls tittered next to the soup cans after seeing me, but one can’t assume that was personal. It’s what they do.
Distracted, I went to the check-out line. The two women behind me fled quickly when a checker offered to take them at cashier 7. Accidentally, I landed in the Express Lane with at least 17 items. Embarrassed, I apologized to the nose-down clerk. My neighbor Mark appeared behind me in the line, “What happened to you?” What? “You have a giant smear of makeup on your forehead!” I explained I had been to Ash Wednesday service at church but that on any other day that would be very helpful information. People really don’t know how to respond when you admit you go to church. He looked embarrassed for me.
When I got back into my car, I realized I hadn’t even inspected my sign of the cross. There it was, black as coal, a full 2-inch cross taking up all the real estate on my forehead. Subtle, it was not. God’s little joke, with some assistance from Pam. If you’re going to be a public Christian, you might as well go big.