We have forsaken the ash, but not the urges to confess and condemn

ASH WEDNESDAY was the day when foreheads were marked with ash and the words ‘Memento, homo, quia pulvis es’ were said (or, in English, ‘Remember, man, that thou art dust’). 

We have forsaken the ash, but not the urges to confess and condemn

This dust/ash shares its etymological root with ‘pulverise’. The Latin for dust being ‘pulvis’. Few people, far fewer than before, will wear ashes today, but the pulverising goes on. Apparently marked by astonishing change, our culture is marked far more by continuity. The thread that pulls it together is not what we purport to believe in, it is how we behave. In the end, however, the same dread threat hangs over us: ‘unto dust thou shalt return’.

It is questionable how deeply the Irish people ever believed in anything. Highly convivial and communal, at our best, our dark side is the urge to exorcise those who don’t fit in, nor play along. I say ‘play’ purposely. It is hard to take seriously now the practice of a faith that was so comprehensively abandoned so suddenly. It’s equally hard to take at face value the new norms.

The ashes that were blessed, incensed and marked on millions of Irish foreheads, to mark the 40 days of penitence that are Lent, were the burnt palms, left over from the previous Palm Sunday. Those palms were strewn at His feet by the crowd that, days later, shouted “Crucify him! Crucify him!”. And so it goes on. The strewing of palms, the singling-out of public penitents, the exorcism from the crowd of one or another as the scapegoat. Context and morals change, but behaviour is largely consistent.

Of course, it’s easy to be cynical, and that is not constructive. The ideal, even if the ideal is constantly changing, is impossible to arrive at. Look at the main street of our capital city, where, on Easter Monday, 2016, President Michael D Higgins will take the salute on the centenary of the rising. As the President stands on the podium, where, 50 years previously, President Eamon De Valera stood before him, he can look out at a litany of failure. Charles Stewart Parnell, James Larkin and Daniel O’Connell all knew what it was to have palms strewn before them and all died with the taste of dust in their mouth. They were re-erected as statues on the nation’s main thoroughfare only when dead. But their dreams were never realised and they all lived to hear the crowd shout “Crucify him!”, or at least desert them.

Ironically, the single monument that doesn’t represent failure is The Spire. It represents nothing except ambition. In an age too knowing to have heroes, it is the fittingly empty symbol of what everything has become. Looking out on it all is the GPO, the great stage of heroic failure. In a portent that wasn’t foreseen, but seems apt now, the Pro-Cathedral is hidden down an alleyway, behind our main thoroughfare. Ash Wednesday is a counterpoint to Saint Patrick’s day. One apparently full of bluster and drink, about the joys of being Irish; the other a symbol of the failure of all human ambition.

The truth, however, is maybe more complex, and certainly more interesting.

Another statue on Dublin’s O’Connell St is of Father Mathew, the Capuchin apostle of temperance. Also standing atop Patrick Street, in Cork, where he worked for years, Mathew, too, can be considered a failure. We haven’t given up the drink, or our other auld sins, either. Penance, the more public the better, is a recurring theme of Irish life.

The ancient Irish monks, in a world known for the severity of its moral judgement, were exemplars of strict penances. St Finian’s of Clonard is the earliest to survive. Before private confession became common, public penance was required. The penitentials set out the appropriate atonement for specific sins. Accepting public shame has its echo in modern Magdalen Laundries, where the inmates were purposely described as penitents. The wider community could only be morally quarantined from contagion if those caught sinning were shamed. If you weren’t caught, or didn’t suffer from scruples, then no matter.

Much of Irish Church history was a story of loucheness, not asceticism. But if failure of the ideal was commonplace, the idea persisted. The dominating modern religious influences here are Presbyterianism and a strain of Catholicism rooted in French Jansenism. They shared a common horror of the flesh; an institutionalised prudery supported by a formidable capacity for control and social organisation. For a minority periodically caught on the wrong side of those organisations, it was oppression. John Calvin, from different roots, has as much claim to being the apostle of this island as Saint Patrick. Inevitable failure to meet impossible standards is foundational here.

But that was then and this is now, and now is surely different. We are more liberal, gentler, more understanding — we say. I am not so sure.

The fashion in sins has certainly changed. Good that you can be gay; be unmarried and pregnant; be married but fail, and get divorced. There is certainly progress that can be measured. But, strangely, neither the appetite for confessing nor the urge, likely more vindictive than compassionate, to apply public penance have diminished. The arbiters of sin have changed. But fall out with the crowd and you can quickly pass from walking on strewn palms to tasting the dust of public condemnation.

You Tube, Facebook, and Twitter all accommodate the need to tell, and the need to condemn. What could always be found in common conversation is platformed for an inestimable audience. The new-fangled electronic means are incidental. What matters is a recurring, old need to alternatively unburden ourselves and then punish others. There are few old Irish penitentials to compare with the worst, flagellating modern confessors on social media. It’s not about social media, because that is only its context, not its cause. The blowing of wind, and crowd-sourcing of opinion, are, ultimately, a repetitive refusal to take responsibility, and that is what matters.

e think we are beyond Ash Wednesday, but we are steeped in it. The conclusion is not pessimism, nor cynicism. It is simply that because failure is inevitable, there must be a release for it. We once publicly covered our heads in dust, the pulvis of liturgy, to stave off being pulverised in this life, or the next. It was insurance against a judgement we could not bear, and hoped to avoid. This is a society marching from one shared certainty to another; without a backward glance at the rubble left behind.

Continuity is seemingly found only in our stridency. Public judgement changes rapidly, but the appetite to judge strangely does not diminish.

We are apparently unaware that every mountain climbed is transformed at its summit to dust beneath out feet. It is this comedy, when we see it, which makes us likable again. Happy Ash Wednesday.

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