03/09/2011 12:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Smudge of Ashes

It was Ash Wednesday, 1980. I remember the day very well. I had just left my job as a newspaper reporter so that I could work on a congressional campaign, and I was also starting a new job at the local Episcopal Church where we were creating a new interfaith organization for nuclear disarmament. That Wednesday was busy at the campaign office: a big fundraiser was coming up, and we were sorting through donor files and addressing envelopes. We were in a frenzy of working the 3x5 card files, the phones, the mail, fueled by bad coffee and keen hope.

As evening rolled around, I decided to duck out of the campaign office and sneak down the street to the church. I knew it was Ash Wednesday, and I was curious about the ashes business. I wasn't a real regular at the church in those days. But I was intrigued by a church that cared about social justice and would take a public stand on something like nuclear disarmament, and so I had just started attending. And I liked the sermons.

But I wasn't interested that Ash Wednesday in anything "too religious." In my 20s, I was proud to declare that my religion was politics. But something drew me to that church that night. Something pulled me inside that door.

I don't remember much about that service. I remember being embarrassed to participate in something that didn't seem to have relevance in the world I knew. I remember thinking my buddies in the newspaper office would never believe this.

And then, I remember the smudge of ashes on my forehead. I remember feeling clean, as if that smudge on my forehead scoured my soul.

And something shifted, a huge seismic shift deep down inside. I didn't know then what the shift was. All of that would begin to come clear in the months and years ahead; it's still coming clear. But that smudge of ashes stopped me in my tracks and turned me in a new direction.

That was the first time I knew that Lent had something to do with direction: a time to take a good look at the direction we've been traveling in and see maybe if it's time to change direction, time to see what in our lives may have turned to ash, what may be leading us to the fire, the spark, of new life.

Perhaps that night I heard those words from Joel: "Return to the Lord, your God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing." Somehow, I knew that I was beginning again, that what had turned to ashes, the things I thought might keep me from God, in fact drew me closer to God. It was a beginning, a meeting of a God I hadn't yet found, yet had always yearned for, a God to whom I could return, a God who would accept me as I am, a God "abounding in steadfast love."

Something began with that smudge of ashes that continues still, although not in a steady, linear progression of improvement. It's been more like a dance, and not always a graceful one. The intricacies of the dance with God cannot be contained in some sort of linear movement from bad to good or tempest to serenity or fear to faith. The dance weaves through this life with twists and turns and surprises and collapses and tragedies and triumphs, all caught up in the complexity of human and divine relationship.

It was the smudge of ashes that invited me into that dance. That smudge of ashes reminded me of things I had learned in my earliest days of Sunday School, and at the same time told me that now I was in startling new territory. I believe now that that mix of the bone-deep familiar and the terror of the untried are the hallmarks of the spiritual journey.

I believe that smudge of ashes introduced me to the power of symbol, the power of a symbolic act to point beyond itself to the truth it represents. I knew that smudge of ash would look silly when I went back to the campaign office. I knew I couldn't rationally explain it. I could not do so today. But something in the combination of inner impulses and intuitions and outer ritual gives us a hint of the divine in our world.

So I could say that God "spoke" through that smudge, through the words and symbols of that liturgy and the actions of that community ritual, right in the middle of that odd Wednesday night gathering. God spoke, not with a clap of thunder, but in the touch of some burnt and crumbled palm leaves. God spoke, and invited me into a life that was brand new and at the same time as ancient as the creation itself.

You never know what will happen when you enter into a community's ritual, its sacred dance. You never know what a smudge of ash, a touch of a hand, an exchange of the peace, a sip of wine or morsel of bread will convey. But it is always an invitation into "another intensity," as T. S. Eliot said, "a further union, a deeper communion." Ash Wednesday is one of those invitations to dance.