My family and I go camping a lot. The best part is at the end of the day when we have a fire and cook s’mores. My husband Chris taught our kids to hold their marshmallows just over the fire so they toast into warm, brown, sugary heaven. I prefer to burn mine. I like the whole marshmallow to be burned to a crisp. I blow it out, strip the marshmallow of its blackened skin and then burn it again. I get sticky, ash-y remains in the corners of my mouth. I love it.
Now that it’s Lent, we are reminded of ashes. Usually there is a more somber tone with Lenten ashes than marshmallow ones. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, and all that. Job in the Bible was a big fan of ashes; he liked to sit in them and lament his woes. Maybe ashes don’t have to be all about suffering and sadness, though. Ashes do have a hope about them…a soft sweetness.
Ashes are transformative. Whatever the thing was before is now changed. The thing isn’t what it was and cannot go back; it has a new reality. Ashes can be good. They nourish the soil. Sometimes fields are purposefully burned to bring new life to them. I know I prefer an ashen marshmallow way more than a fresh one. It has a deeper, sooty taste. Maybe the bitterness balances the sweet.
Ronald Rolheiser says some Aboriginal communities had a tradition where a person would need to spend time sitting in the ashes. It was healing. It was work for the soul. After taking this time in the ashes, the person would wash them off and return to the routine of their life, refreshed. Even if not refreshed, then changed in some way. Transformed.
It feels like a lot of people I know are struggling lately. Bad things happen – and just when you think you can’t take another thing – another bad thing happens. It’s like being covered in ashes. Sometimes, all we can do is just sit in them for a while. And when we are ready, with God’s help, we can wash them off and be changed by them. Transformed.
I’m not saying we should go looking for a pile of ashes to jump into. Ashes, like all suffering, seem to find us. I just wonder if it’s okay to be in them sometimes. And when we are, we could grow and be re-made from the experience. Like fire to a marshmallow, maybe we’ll be even better afterwards. What do you think?