The transition from Mardi Gras to Lent is always a tough one.
Yet, I see it as a microcosm of life in New Orleans — and life in general, but everything in New Orleans seems to be distilled. Someone once described New Orleans to me as a city of Saturday nights and Sunday mornings. It’s a city full of intense loud living, over-indulgence and binges of all sort. But its also a reverent city, a holy city, where every sacrifice is sacred. Anyone who thinks New Orleans is only Bourbon Street doesn’t realize that it’s smack in the middle of the Bible Belt, and there are nearly as many as churches per capita as there are bars. (I said nearly).
Even for the die hards, after six weeks of nonstop celebration, party, and indulgence, we are exhausted. We need a break. Most of us are secretly happy when we can stop eating king cake, and meat on Fridays, and anything else we can think to give up. Few of us are really Catholic. We’re secular Catholics who claim the ritual and routine and cycles of the year for their own.
The ashes of Ash Wednesday represent the fleeting nature of life — the insignificance of each of us. If nothing else, it gives us pause. After being totally externally focused, building costumes, partying, living without rules — we now withdraw into an inner life.
Ash Wednesday mass reminds us to turn our attention inwards. We are encouraged to fast, to give alms, to spend time in quiet contemplation. Perhaps the most important part: we do not let people know we are doing this. “Anoint your head with oil,” and “let your right hand not know what the left is doing.” Do all the right things, and don’t just not seek praise or attention — hide any outward sign of those things. Don’t just act without expectation of the outcome, act to avoid that outcome.
Because Lent is the opposite of Carnival in every way.
I hope in these 40 days you can find a balance to the last 40. I hope you are able to cultivate your inner life, and discover that sense of stillness that you have been craving. And when you find it, I encourage you not to announce it – but rest in the knowledge of your own inner quiet.
“For Equilibrium, a Blessing:
Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore,
May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.
As the wind loves to call things to dance,
May your gravity by lightened by grace.
Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth,
May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect.
As water takes whatever shape it is in,
So free may you be about who you become.
As silence smiles on the other side of what’s said,
May your sense of irony bring perspective.
As time remains free of all that it frames,
May your mind stay clear of all it names.
May your prayer of listening deepen enough
to hear in the depths the laughter of god.”
― John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings
And the playlist: