In the Christian community, we are now in the 40-day period called Lent. This time of reflection and introspection begins with the observance of Ash Wednesday – a service of remembering our earthy humanness; our finiteness (“from dust you have come, and to dust you shall return”); and an invitation to settle in for the season to see how and where we are cutting ourselves off from G-d and from that which helps us come alive.

I was not able to get to Ash Wednesday worship this year, and wondered how I might find source and sustenance for my own ‘settling in’ for the Lenten journey. Thanks to a treasured spiritual friend, I received an Ash Wednesday reading from the pen of Ronald Rolheiser. And in it, I discovered a surprising vision for healing life within community – a way of holding one another in patience and freedom.

“Certain native communities used to live in what they called long-houses. A long-house was the communal building; in effect, the house for the whole community. A long-house was long, rectangular, with large sloping sides, and with the center of the roof open so that this could function as a natural chimney. Fires were kept burning, both for cooking and for warmth, all along the center of the long-house. People gathered there, near the fires, to cook, eat and socialize, but they slept away from the fires, under the roofs that sloped down either side of the open center.

Every so often, someone, a man or a woman, for reasons they didn’t have to explain, would cease adhering to the normal routine. Instead he or she would become silent, sit just off the fire in the ashes, eat very sparingly, not socialize, not go outside, not wash, not go to bed with the others, but simply sit in the cinders. Today we would probably diagnose this as clinical depression and rush that person off for professional help. They, for their part, didn’t panic. They saw this as perfectly normal, something everyone was called upon to do at one time or another, They simply let the person sit there, in the ashes, until one day he or she got up, washed the ashes off, and began again to live a regular live. The belief was that the ashes, that period of silent sitting, had done some important, unseen work inside of the person. You sat in the ashes for healing.”—from Ronald Rolheiser, OMI

This image has stayed with me since I first read it. What might we learn from this community’s open holding and acceptance of one another through dark times? How might we, ourselves, find the space and time for healing ashes? A space where we are held in the life and flow of community, and yet given the freedom to stop and simply sit until the interior work feels done?

I don’t know this place . . . yet. But I will be looking for it . . . and wondering how I can help create it . . . for myself and for my community.


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