My first Lent, I wandered around campus wondering if anyone would notice the smudge on my forehead. I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia and had recently stumbled across the Catholic Church, her teachings, and her seemingly outrageous claims to truth. Encountering both the man who would become my husband and then the Church Fathers had led me to the troubling realization that maybe everything was not relative: that perhaps man’s darkness was real and that there was a real salvation, that perhaps God did exist and that truth, goodness, and beauty were more than romantic ideals.
My roommates had taken to debating how irrational faith was. I found myself defending belief in God while attending no church. So I started attending the one from which I had read about St. Augustine, as well as St. Thomas Aquinas and his five proofs for God’s existence. I was tumbling down the rabbit hole and landed in RCIA.
Ash Wednesday and Lent were two of the few uniquely Catholic traditions that I knew about already. My sixth-grade gym teacher had calmly explained about his ashes on that day so long ago in public school, and I also knew that Catholics “gave things up.” It felt foreign to try this tradition on for myself. I felt exposed, bodily displaying the result of my inner thought processes and unsure of the reaction it would garner. My discomfort makes sense in a culture that tends to affirm the life of mind alone.
The Only Modern Heresy
A disinterested rationalism ruled the day on campus, the idea that all traditions and practices are something the educated person stands apart from, that she observes from a distance and perhaps with curiosity. This was well-known to any “critical thinker” and to the newly, ardently atheistic coeds in my residence hall. Actually to take part in a tradition, to claim it for oneself, is the only modern-day heresy there is.
And that is what I was doing in wearing the ashes on that early spring day. I was worried about losing intellectual credibility in the classroom and among my peers.
And a few people did gawk awkwardly at me, but I outdid them in awkwardness with my fumbling explanations and furtive turn aways. Yet no one actually challenged me or said anything rude. In fact, I was astonished at the number of fellow ash-wearers all around. At a secular university, a noticeable portion of the student body showed up smudgy too. One professor later told me that a quarter of the students were Catholic, which surprised me, though it syncs with the national percentage of citizens who identify themselves as Catholic, even though not all practice fully.
Though intellectual commitments are often frowned upon by universities, they are inescapably human. All of us are born into complex networks of family, national, ethnic, religious, political, and other relationships that modern man tends to dismiss, viewing humans only as atomized, disconnected units. It turns out that claiming a tradition is not so radical after all.