Why Ash Wednesday Brings Nine Inch Nails to Mind…

Ash Wednesday always reminds me of Nine Inch Nails, weird huh? More specifically, I think of Johnny Cash’s cover of their song “Hurt,” and the video that goes along with it. These lines are what I conjure up seemingly every Ash Wednesday:

What have I become
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end

And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt.

After all, what do we hear in Mass today but words recalling the verse of Ecclesiastes 3:20, “All are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.” Ecclesiastes is also where we hear, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” A nihilist reading of this could make us fret about life, “So, what’s the point?” And that’s just it; without God, there’s really no point to life because He is the point. In God we discover our origin and our aim. We could build empires like the Romans (or Johnny Cash), but it’s all turned to dust in the end. However, there is something that will endure the tests of time, and that is Christ’s Church. We are His Church, and we are eternal. Our bodies will be turned to ashes, but they will be raised on the last day. The wealth we accumulate, the pleasures we chase, the power we pine after—these are the ashes. Our work on Earth is meant to cultivate a “civilization of love” as Pope John Paul II called it. At the Final Judgment, what will Jesus say of the righteous? “For I was hungry and you gave me food…” (Mt 25:35-40). Life is about love; it’s about going beyond the ego and reaching out to other people. It’s never too late to start, as long as you have a beating heart within.

While this song may seem to be nothing but a nihilistic ode to despair, the final lines provoke that feeling we sinners have all felt before:

If I could start again
A million miles away
I will keep myself
I would find a way.

This is where Christians like Johnny Cash pick up the song and finish the story. Jesus offers us this chance to “start again,” to restore us to ourselves. This is what Lent is all about. We are not defined by the sins of our past; with Christ we can be born anew. Is there a sin you’ve been struggling to overcome? Well, here is your chance to get serious. Remember, some demons can only be expelled by prayer and fasting (Mt 17:21). So, challenge yourself this Lent. Go outside your comfort zone because that is where you will find growth. The way we care for our bodies is akin to how we care for our spirits (Christ gave us the Eucharist as bread for our souls). If you lift the same set of weights at the gym all year long, you’re not going to see progress. We can always take on more in our spiritual lives and cut out the spiritual junk food. Don’t be fooled by the “all or nothing” attitude either, and accept that failures are stepping stones to success. Even if you slip up during Lent, renew your efforts as soon as possible. You’re human, you will slip up, but you’re also a child of God, and with Him anything is possible.

I try to take a three-fold approach to Lent. (1) I give up one thing that is hindering (or simply not helping) my becoming the best version of myself. (2) I take on something new that will help me to be a better me. (3) I do a joint sacrifice with my family. I’ll join the chorus of other bloggers throwing out ideas; here are just a few of my favorites:

1. One random act of kindness a day/week (be realistic about your goals)

2. Write down a different thing you’re grateful for every day; so, on Easter you can read through the list you’ve made to see how blessed you truly are

3. Find a new Saint to learn about and find prayers to him/her to say each day (Don’t have time to research? Do this Saint generator.)

4. Read a Bible verse each day/week and make it your focus

5. Do daily mass/adoration/rosary however many times a week is reasonable (Mary and The Eucharist will change your life if you let them)

6. Start going to confession weekly/biweekly

7. You could start 33 Days to Morning Glory consecration to Mary, which has a start date coming up soon

8. My personal favorite, TV and/or movies (perhaps making exceptions for Christian stuff)

Whatever you decide to do, keep your goals manageable. Also, make them tangible, not something like “I’ll be more joyful, more thankful, etc.” If you want to work on being joyful or grateful, that’s wonderful, but figure out some concrete way to put it into practice so that you can track your progress.

It’s never too late to start again, so let’s take the opportunity we have in Lent to do so. The Devil would like us to believe there’s a point reached where we are beyond salvation, but it’s only by believing such nonsense that we effect the very thing we fear. Christ told Saint Faustina: “Tell souls not to place within their own hearts obstacles to My mercy, which so greatly wants to act within them. My mercy works in all those hearts which open their doors to it. Both the sinner and the righteous person have need of My mercy. Conversion, as well as perseverance, is a grace of My mercy.” We know something the writer of the song “Hurt” didn’t, so let’s take advantage and start anew each and every day. We have been given a treasury of armor and weapons to equip us for the daily battles; stop trying to go it alone and wondering why you’re failing. Let’s make Lent a time to refocus, putting all of our human effort into spreading His Kingdom rather than attempting to build our own fleeting “empires of dirt.”

Relinquishing Roses

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One rainy day in November, Siena (5) and I stopped by the grocery store to return some items. A wilting rose lay on the customer service desk, its long stem hanging over the edge of the counter. Not tall enough to see what it was, Siena reached up and grabbed it to happily discover a beautiful rose bud at the other end. I told her to leave it alone since it wasn’t hers, and she put it down; moments later, she grasped it again to briefly gaze upon the beauty of the rose. I shooed her hand away from it and sternly told her not to touch it. So, she grabbed onto the edge of the counter and started hopping up and down just to steal glimpses of the flower. I finally settled my business, and the kind clerk smiled at Siena and told her she could keep it. Siena’s eyes lit up as they glanced up at me for permission. I nodded and smiled as she hurriedly took possession of her new rose, lest the clerk or I change our minds.

We then headed out to the chapel of perpetual adoration. I peered in my rearview mirror at Siena who was simply twirling her rose, admiring its beauty. We pulled up to the chapel, and I explained to her the importance of what we were about to do: “God wants all people to be like a big family. We should love everyone and help one another reach heaven, even people who have died. Most souls go to purgatory after death, which is fire that cleans their souls so they can be with God forever. Our prayers can help them get cleaner faster so they can go to Heaven.” I briefly told her that the week after Halloween is special because we can request gifts from God called indulgences for the poor souls. We hopped out of the car and raced through the rain. Together we threw open the chapel’s heavy, solid oak door to see 5 elderly women inside. Siena proudly paraded her pretty rose in front of the kneeling ladies, sharing her joy over this wondrous blossom of God’s creation.

Siena plopped down in the front pew while I genuflected. It was such a cozy atmosphere with the warm lighting overhead as the rain streamed down the oversized stained-glass windows. We cozied up to each other, and in a hushed voice I told her that people often leave flowers at graves and statues to show their love for those who are in Heaven, since they can’t get our hugs anymore. Then, I asked if she would like to give her rose to Jesus to show her love. She nodded excitedly, and I took her hand to walk her up to the altar. I unlocked the guardrail, and I didn’t dare look at the faces of the women around me, for fear of looks of disapproval. I kept my eyes fixed on Jesus, hidden in the simplicity of the Eucharist, and I led Siena to the altar, where she placed her beloved rose at the foot of the monstrance. We smiled at each other and exited the altar, locking the guardrail behind us. She glanced over her shoulder as we walked back to the pew, and her smile faded into a fretful frown. Turning to me, she asked in a sweetly sorrowful voice, “Wait, do I have to leave it there forever?” I brushed her hair away from her big blue eyes and sat her on my lap and whispered near her ear: “Oh no, sweetie, you don’t have to leave it. Jesus only wants it if you want to give it to Him. But, you know what? You have a treasure chest up in heaven, and every time you show God or others love, He pours a treasure of graces into your chest. When you get to heaven, He will give you all the treasure you stored up in your life.” I didn’t want her to think Jesus would be disappointed if she didn’t give up the rose, so I told her she could take it back if she wanted; He would still be happy she let Him borrow it for a little while. Siena shook her head and insisted Jesus keep it. She smiled, but that light in her eyes from when she held her rose had clearly been extinguished.

f297734e9ae7178be7dd99e69007fdb1I started to feel guilty, thinking, “Uh oh, did I just guilt her into giving up her rose? Did I make a totally bad Catholic-mom move? Will she grow up and point to this moment as the single reason she will never raise her kids Catholic?” Before I was entirely consumed with worry, I put myself in her shoes, thinking back on my faith as a child. I remembered watching the ushers at mass bringing the baskets of money to the altar. When they returned, their baskets were empty as they placed them on the floor next to our pew. I would sit in awe at every mass, believing God to have magically taken up the money Himself to distribute to the poor. A peace washed over me as I felt confirmed I hadn’t done anything wrong. So, in an attempt to cheer her up, I beckoned the beliefs of my childhood: “Siena, how about we come back tomorrow, and if Jesus wants you to share your rose with someone else, we can take it back from the altar. But, if it isn’t there, it means Jesus took it to heaven to give to the souls who are entering heaven because of our prayers today.” The light beamed in Siena’s eyes once more as she pondered aloud, “I wonder if Jesus will give it to Mary for me.” Then, I told her He absolutely would because Mary loves roses, which is why we have the Rosary; when we pray it, we are offering a bouquet of flowers to Mary, who is our mother in heaven.

We stayed for the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and Siena’s voice was boisterous each time she prayed the responses, “Have mercy on us, and on the whole world.” She probably just liked hearing her voice echo off the walls of the chapel. Nevertheless, it was very moving hearing her little voice among the typical women’s voices at the 3 o’clock hour. I could feel how much Jesus loved this little child’s prayers: “Out of the mouth of babies and infants you have brought perfect praise” (Matthew 21:16). Despite any lack of understanding Siena may have had, there was certainly no lack of belief. To my surprise, when we were leaving the chapel, a woman with a wooden walking stick chased after us. She stopped us to tell Siena she felt so blessed to be there to witness her offering the pretty rose to Jesus. Siena just smiled, clinging to my leg. I was happy I wasn’t the only one to appreciate the beauty of a child’s faith in that moment.

We returned to the chapel the next day, and Siena was all aglow with wonder when she saw the rose was no longer on the altar, “God took it to heaven, mommy!” I told her He must have really loved her rose and wanted to share it with souls in heaven and with Mary. I explained that her love for the rose made the rose so much more valuable as a gift to God, more precious than gold. How often do we forget Christ’s command to be childlike? There’s so much we can learn from the simplicity of children, especially when it comes to the faith.

We are welcomed to stop and appreciate God’s beautiful creations, but we must always have our heart fixed on Christ: “Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”[1] We must be ready and willing to give up what we love most because sacrifice is inherent in love. Sometimes we don’t have a choice, and possessions or people are taken away from us too soon. So, it is best we develop the habit while we can, preparing for times when our only options are to accept the path God has called us down or to rebel against Him. Joachim and Ann offered their loveliest rose—the presentation of Mary in the temple. Mary offered her priceless rose—her Son’s presentation in the temple, where she was told a sword would pierce her own heart. The greatest rose of all, however, was God’s gift to man: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The fruit of this pure, sacrificial love has been our salvation. Are you prepared to relinquish your rose?

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[1] C.S. Lewis, Problem of Pain