Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Lenten Voices: I remember sky

by Ellen Hill

I remember sky
It was blue as ink
Or at least I think
I remember sky.

I remember snow,
Soft as feathers.
Sharp as thumbtacks,
Coming down like lint,
And it made you squint
When the wind would blow

I remember seven. I loved the entire world. I loved the crunch of snow. I loved building snow forts with my Dad. I welcomed the lilacs in spring and homemade ice cream in July filled with fat blueberries. I loved my parents I loved second grade with Sister Margaret Agnes. Sister Margaret Agnes had soft blue eyes and a warm hug for everyone her class. She told me I was the best reader in the class. I think she probably told that to everyone in the class because everyone looked forward to school. I loved reading, school, and Sister Margaret Agnes. I especially loved church.

In Catholic school, we were encouraged to go to morning Mass. I was a sponge for all of it – the music, the incense, the statues – everything. Life was indeed very good.

Until we started preparation for Holy Communion. Then the world darkened to sin (original, mortal & venial), confession, penance, and Lent. The Lenten journey was Stations of the Cross, giving something up, and receiving the innate knowledge that you were a sinner. My seven-year-old self still loved it all. Starting with the ashes on Ash Wednesday, I wore my ashes proudly. I knew that had I lived in the Roman times I would easily face the lions, surrounded by my fellow Christians. And, since the time was Boston in the fifties, I didn't really understand that I was in the middle of a truly homogeneous community. Everyone wore ashes, everyone crossed them selves passing a church and every man placed hat over heart even on a train when passing a church.

The transition is quite clear in my school pictures. Grade 1: sunny smile, face to the camera. Grade 2: less smile, face positioned downward. Grade 3: trying to smile, head down, wearing the worried expression that I still carry, and so on and so on.

Yes, we were taught we all were sinners, really bad sinners. Why, even the Pope went to confession every morning. Why should my seven-year-old self feel anything but being covered in sin. Somehow, that overwhelming sense of sin and guilt eradicated everything else. And as the years passed, the school walls seemed to grow higher and higher until finally I began to question, to read and seek answers outside those walls.

At seventeen, after my father’s death, I discovered Thomas Merton. His writing opened both mind and heart. Here is his description of Ash Wednesday.

“And yet Ash Wednesday is full of joy. …the great sorrow of mankind is turned to joy by the love of Christ, and the secret of happiness is no longer to see any sorrow but in the light of Christ’s victory over sorrow. And then all sorrow contributes somehow to our happiness. Thus I sit here and look out the window at the bare trees and the grey guest house wall and at my own happy corner of the sky.”

I remember days, or at least I try.
But as years go by, they’re a sort of haze
And the bluest ink isn’t really sky.
And at times think I would gladly die
For a day of sky.

-----Stephen Sondheim

Ellen Hill is a longtime member of St. Paul's.

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