Ash Wednesday

photo by Bob Thayer for The Providence Journal

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent and seventh Wednesday before Easter: so called from the practice of putting ashes on the forehead as a sign of penitence.

Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return.

The words were a litany about life, about death, and about sins that need forgiving.

I took these words to heart, with the seriousness and face value only possible from a small child. And as the years went by and the words were repeated, I learned not only that I was going to die but that because of this death, I better repent from my sins. Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee.

What are the sins of a five-year-old, seven-year-old, eleven-year-old? Breaking a glass? Saying a bad word? Talking back to a parent?

Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return.

The occupation of chimneysweep is (debatedly) one of the oldest in the world. The act of collecting soot, of piling dust, of preparing the hearth for a new fire.


The ash felt dirty on my forehead. Oftentimes, I would look in the mirror and forget, wondering how the smudge got on my forehead, going to wipe it before remembering that today is a day for penitence, a Holy Day of Obligation.

Remember, you are dust.

*How often should my chimney be cleaned?

All chimneys should be inspected yearly by a certified professional and cleaned as required. The inspection is necessary to ensure that the chimney has adequate draft, is free of debris and cracks, has no loose or missing mortar joints and is otherwise free of damage.

Remember, you are dust.

I knew that the ashes came from the palms that were folded into pretty crosses for Palm Sunday. I knew this because my father told me so. One time, when we missed Ash Wednesday services (what kind of sin is it to miss a Holy Day of Obligation meant for repenting one’s sins?), my dad took the folded palms from the previous year and burned them in a small ceramic bowl. Then he pressed his thumb into the dark gray specks and moved his finger from left to right, then up and down on my forehead. He did this because I was worried. I thought God would be irreparably mad at me for not going to mass.

Remember, you are dust.

*Will the chimney sweep cause a mess in my home?

No. By cleaning the chimney from inside your home we maintain control over the dust. All our equipment is laid out on clean drop cloths in front of your fireplace. The hose of our chimney vacuum collects the debris as we brush the chimney.

We can only brush the chimney as fast as our vacuum collects the dust.

The dirtier the chimney flue, the slower we brush.

Remember, you are dust.

When I was twenty, I spent a semester in Rome. While in Ireland on spring break, a friend and I went to Dublin. The only day the Guinness Brewery was open during our time there was on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. She was Episcopalian and I Catholic. We found a church. I remember the urgency of finding somewhere to receive ashes. Then, we went to the Guinness Brewery. We took pictures with our heads inserted in ridiculous old advertisements with parrots holding pint glasses. At the end of the tour, we drank our free pints with the marks on our foreheads, marking a day of penitence and abstinence and fasting. Later, I joked about this time to friends. Wasn’t that funny? But at the time, I remember sipping my pint slowly, aware of each swallow as it sank down my throat.

You are dust.

*Does a chimney sweep remove the black from the wall of the fireplace?

No. We can only clean off the soot on the surface of the brick. Each time you burn a fire, this black changes according to how hot you burn your fire.

Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return.

I don’t remember the last time I went to Ash Wednesday mass. I still observe Mardi Gras, as any good New Orleanian should. But I don’t feel the desire to have ashes on my head to remind me of my mortality or of the need to be a good person. Sometimes though, when I remember, I fast. And the absence of food in my belly, that gnawing feeling, reminds me of what it means to be cleared out, cleaned out, purified and also, of my need for sustenance.

Note:   FAQ on chimney-sweeping taken from Clements Chimney Sweep and Repair in Feasterville-Trevose, Pennsylvania.


Filed under weekly words

6 responses to “Ash Wednesday

  1. Amanda

    You went with me a little more than a year ago. St. Phillip’s Church, Tucson.

  2. the dictionary project

    you are right.

  3. sarah

    i loved this piece. beautifully woven.

  4. heidi

    I think about you every Ash Wednesday – what an unusual but unique and special experience we shared. Even if it involved beer 🙂 Keep writing – I love this blog.

    • the dictionary project

      🙂 I think of you every Ash Wednesday, too. And I often laugh about us attempting to cover our reekingness with that free Febreeze we got in the subway in Rome 🙂

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