Last week I sat in a pew at a small Episcopal church down the street from my mom’s house. It was the 7pm Ash Wednesday service, much different than the pedestrian circus act we do on Sunday mornings at modern churches, with our mediocre rhymes on LCD display and virginal Abercrombie & Fitch-like warblers on stage. I longed to flee what Annie Dillard calls “the clanging of Protestant guitars” for something more liturgical, more rooted in history, something simpler. This chapel was a modest structure, built in the 1960s, with thirty or so pews, each equipped with hymnals and prayer books, and a lone crucifix was centered on the front wall edged by stained glass.
This was my second experience at an Episcopal church. The first was in Paris one December before Christmas, where I sat alone and watched the children reenact a Nativity scene with profligate parental camera flashes. Few noticed me. But that was a long time ago. This Wednesday, I was the only twenty-something, and there were about ten kids scattered throughout the chapel, the oldest no more than twelve. Their parents, disheveled and tired, seemed eager to receive the dust on their families’ foreheads only to wipe it off again before bedtime.
The rector stood at the front of the chapel, a man in his fifties with a mustache and wedding band. He spoke awkwardly, as someone aware they are on public display. He seemed aware he was talking, but uncomfortable that it was to people. His name was Bryan, and he wore a purple mantle over his white robes, which he will do for the entire Lenten season.
I sat behind a mother with two boys on either side, both wearing suits. I was wearing jeans. There is a special sort of absurdity induced when attempting to fake religious liturgy. I did my best to mimic them, but twice caught myself sitting when I should have been standing, and reciting prayers a half second off. We went to the front for the administration of ashes. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” Bryan said, as he smudged a black cross mark on our foreheads.
It was time for Communion. The boys bowed when they left the pews, the youngest proud of this athletic mastery, as if he had practiced in the mirror, and we walked up to the altar to receive the bread and the wine.
We knelt, and Bryan passed out wafers, which were the size of a quarter but weightless. The suit-clad boy kneeling earnestly next to me held his wafer in his hand. I looked at his mom. Her eyes were closed, her fingers folded together in solemnity. The lady next to me also had her hands folded. I decided they already ate the wafer when I wasn’t looking, and that I must eat it quickly. So I put the wafer in my mouth. It tasted like paper.
The vestry, an older woman with short gray hair, came by with a chalice. To my horror, I saw people dipping their wafers into the wine. The vestry went to the littlest boy, then his mother, who extricated her carefully concealed wafer from her folded hands and dipped it into the chalice. I almost laughed out loud. The other boy also had his wafer, and dipped it in. I looked up into the vestry’s amused eyes, my hands clearly unfolded, clearly empty, and shrugged my shoulders, hoping to maintain a look of sincere innocence. She condescended compassionately, and let me take a brief sip from the chalice before wiping it off and moving on to the lady beside me, who had her wafer ready.
I went back to my pew, thoroughly humbled. The dust on my forehead reminds me of my own mortality, which, I think, we eagerly dismiss in Southern California. We Angelenos are sufficiently insulated from death. We are protected by our iPhones, a college education, Botox, concrete, and the 8-5 grind. But we all left that night with dust on our foreheads. We left that night married, single, gay, with children, with student loans, with grocery lists. We left needing a drink, needing a diet, happy, sleepy, and solemn. We left with dust on our foreheads.