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Charcoal and Ash – Br. Keith Nelson

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Br. Keith Nelson

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2 Cor. 5:20 b-6:10
Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21

In my first semester in college I took a drawing class. Though I had been drawing for most of my life, the course refined my ability to see the world afresh. Toward the end of the course, we did some intensive exercises and an assigned piece using charcoal – and in charcoal, I discovered my nemesis! Fine lines executed with slow precision or tiny details requiring the sharpest of pencils– these were the challenges I relished, because these were my skills. Faced with thick chunks or brittle wands of soft, smudgy, ill-behaved charcoal, I felt dismay and fear. During a timed charcoal drawing exercise, we were asked to draw a rapid series of abstract shapes without repeating the same shape twice. Each time my professor passed my drawing desk, his arm slowly reached across the entire width of my paper, and his thick hand obliterated my work. By the ninth or tenth time, my face now sweating and fingers black, I blurted, “Can you tell me what I’m doing that’s wrong or what I’m not doing that’s right?”  He replied, firmly but gently, “It’s not so much about wrong or right, Keith, but about seeing afresh. You’re not seeing.” In truth, I had been repeating minor variations on the same shapes and forms I had mastered previously using sharp, precise graphite. I was humbled to realize I had missed the point of the exercise. I began to learn that the habit of art requires the humility to create ugly work for the sake of clearer vision.

Humility – the humility of Ash Wednesday – is the gift of seeing ourselves clearly, as we really are. Humble people see afresh and see deeply. Humble people see the gifts God has given them. Humble people see the ways they have been broken, or have not yet been formed. The humble see how they have sinned, in what they have done and in what they have left undone. They seek forgiveness promptly and seek from God the grace necessary to forgive others.

Humility is self-knowledge, and the refusal to turn away when seeing ourselves as we are is difficult or painful. Author Brian Doyle describes his first experience of this humbling self-knowledge in his teenage years, in the midst of an argument with his parents. Doyle writes:

“It was as if for a second I saw who I actually was rather than who I thought I was, or wanted to be, or wanted other people to think I was. I understood dimly, for an instant, that I was being a fool. I kept right on being a fool, of course. You cannot escape yourself so quickly, it turns out. Often, you keep playing a bad hand even when you know it’s a terrible hand and you should laugh and thrown down your cards and say something self-deprecating and apologize and tip-toe into the next moment. Often you stay inside the prison of your confidence and ostensible dignity even as you peer through the bars, mortified.” [i]

Such clear-eyed vision of our fallings and failings, such moments of acknowledged incapacity to live or love as we long to in our best moments, are treasures beyond price in our life with God. They are treasures because they teach us to see our need.

We need God. Human creatures are very good, and capable of great good, being created in the image of a God who is Goodness itself. But we cannot live or love as we long to live or love without God’s help. God longs to help us infinitely more than we usually care to ask.

Our need of God is our greatest gift to God.

The moment we see and give God the gift of our need – raw, trembling, desperate need, exhausted of any illusion of our self-sufficiency – in that moment, I believe the heart of God bursts with joy. The season of Lent is about that joy – the swift and saving joy of God in the moment we give God the gift of our need. The joy of the Father “who sees in secret.”

This joy is not a joy we must earn. The penitence, the self-examination, the prayer, the fasting, the alms giving enjoined upon us in Lent are all for us, not for God. They are to bring us into a face to face encounter with our need and the hungry, human need of our brothers and sisters. They enable us to grasp it in our creaturely hands, to feel its weight, shape, and texture. Prayer, fasting, and alms giving are spiritual tools sharpened and refined by generations of saints and sinners and bequeathed to us for the sake of our growth in humility and the gift of larger vision.

In order to give God the gift of our need, we must first see it. We must take a good, long, panoramic inspection of it.The longer we look, the more God will reveal. Lent affords us the opportunity to cultivate this habitual seeing.While the joy of God is swift and saving the moment we turn to God, our sight is blurred by our patterns of sin and a chronic refusal to give God the depths of our need. We need help from one another to see the ways we have been blind or have refused God’s invitations to grow. As the language of our Rite I liturgy puts it, many of us will need to “bewail our manifold sins and wickedness,” our own and those of our world. Lent is an invitation to wail, to weep, to raise a full-throated lament if that is what the Spirit leads us to do. But all such lamentation is useless if it does not produce a clearer, more humble self-knowledge and a heart made ready for God’s saving joy.

The proud palm branches of last Holy Week are once again reduced to two handfuls of humble ash. A stick of smudgy charcoal waits poised over an empty sheet of paper. This day beckons us again to a lifetime’s work of seeing afresh, seeing clearly, and giving our need to the God who formed us from dust.  In that holy confidence and humility, let us begin.


[i] Doyle, Brian. “A Fool’s Awakening.” The Christian Century February 6, 2014.

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1 Comment

  1. Ruth West on February 13, 2016 at 16:22

    I like this message. Thanks for the vision of who we are, who we are to be, and with God’s help, recuperate from the smudges we make in our efforts to please Him, others and ourselves.

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