Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

I’ve had a nursery rhyme in my head for the past few weeks.

I’d been browsing Pinterest (while I’ll probably never craft anything I pin, some of the other images there are lovely enough to feed my soul), and up popped an image of a woman having tea in the middle of bombed out London, WWII. I’m a fan of tea, being British, and the image haunted me enough to stay with me for a few days. While the “keep calm and carry on” pamphlets weren’t actually widely used during the war, that soldier-on spirit is part of both my history and my family system.

The woman having tea raised questions in my heart.

Was this an act of life in the midst of death? Or was she simply resigned, finding the nearest flat space for a cuppa without regard to her circumstances? Brave persistence and resigned numbness exist along a spectrum, as any victim of trauma can tell you.

What did I see in her? What was she showing me about myself?

As I sat with those questions, letting them rattle around in my soul, they seemed to coalesce into the tinny rhythm of that children’s rhyme, Ring Around the Roses (or Rosies, depending on how you learned it.) I could hear the high voices of children singing and laughing, but superimposed on my woman with a tea cup, they were eery, rather than inspiring.

Children’s songs, verses and rhymes are laden with meaning and embedded with memory. I admire those who write children’s stories, because they must be both deeply plausible and accessibly simple. To convey the complex without condescending is horribly hard, and those authors who have done so live in the halls of literary ingenuity (think L’Engle, Lewis, Williams or Potter).

Thus, the origins of our children’s stories have fascinated me for some time. Where do these simple, poignant things come from? Why do they stay with us for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, informing and forming the world views of children throughout the ages. I’d been told that Ring Around The Roses originated during the first Great Plague, a children’s way of making sense of the pain and death around them:

Ring-a-round a rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down

I can be forgiven this interpretation, I suppose, because the explanation was so straightforward. The first line referred to symptoms of the plague—red rashes that were round in shape. The second signified the bunches of herbs carried by those who hope to ward off the illness, and the third and forth made references to the ubiquity of death from the disease in those times. A woman drinking tea in the midst of devastation. Children making games out of the horrors around them. Hope and despair. Bravery and resignation.

In truth, ring-a-round a rosie has more to do with play than plague. The first print version of the rhyme appeared in 1881, well after the black death decimated Europe in 1665. While we adults shifted it’s meaning over time to make sense of it, the rhyme is more a rehearsal for life than a warding off of death. The skipping, dancing and falling are all ways that children make sense of their world in play.

This year, I feel like I could pack all of the meanings, nuances, struggles and hopes of Lent into those two lines.

Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down.

Lent, with its sometimes elaborate, sometimes simple acts of contrition. Lent, with its imposed remembrance of death, our dusty dimensions marked in the sign of the Cross. Lent, with its recognition of our common humanity, fragility, ephemerality.

By this time in the season, most of us have tripped up in our discipline in one way or another. My commitment to the Daily Office wiggled itself loose during the second week, when I missed a day, then two more, and then a week went by without matins, lauds or vespers. Dislocated, I held that intention in my hands like a lost tooth. I knew I couldn’t put it back in, but I wasn’t really sure what to do with it now.

We all fall down.

What’s the difference between persistence and resignation? Is she drinking tea because she’s insisting on life or because it’s all that’s left to do?

It would be easy to beat myself up for my failure in prayer. It’s so very tempting to believe that I’m a Lent loser, a drop out who just didn’t try hard enough.

And it would be easy to take pride in the part that I have persisted in—my fast from contact lenses—which has been, by far, the most effortless fast I’ve ever participated in. Effortless, yes, but not fruitless.

My glasses remind me, day by day, almost minute by minute, how weak I really am. In the mornings, I can’t see my face as I dry my hair. I lean into the mirror to brush my teeth (though what I’m looking at or for I don’t know.) Looking up or down requires intentionality, a turn of my head rather than a simple flick of my eyes. I’m confronted by my limits, confounded by them.

Ashes! Ashes!

It’s here, though, that it all takes a turn. Because, in the same way I can’t take pride in the discipline of not putting my contacts in, I can’t indulge in self-loathing around my inability to recite the Office. I can’t insist on clarity without my glasses—it just won’t happen. And I can’t insiste on muscular prayer without the help and empowerment of God.

I can, though, embrace my limits. I can laugh at them, amused by my insistence on my own power in the face of my obvious deficiency. Because Lent isn’t about somehow making amends, as if a few missed meals, a few extra prayers, could add up to our own private stairway to Heaven. I can confuse it with that, impressed or despondent by how “successfully” I’ve been fasting. Or I can embrace with joy my own limitations, knowing that the God of the Universe came for me as I am, not as I want to be. The Passover didn’t happen because the people of Israel were somehow more holy, more together, more deserving than those around them. They were passed over because they were marked as God’s, marked by a sacrifice.

And that’s the same Passover Lamb whose mark I bore on Ash Wednesday when this journey toward Easter began. Whose mark I bear even now. I am His fumbling, fitful, falling disciple. I can laugh at the days ahead, because it’s not by my power and might that the Kingdom will come. And I can drink tea in what feels like impossible rubble, not because the act is somehow redemptive, but because the one who rebuilds ruined gates is able.

If I fall prey to resignation, He will still come for my heart. If I dance in circles in the face of death, laughing at its lack of power, He will still be with those who are dying.

And that’s the Mystery, the paradox, of our great God, isn’t it? He suffers with us, and He is still triumphant. He seeks us in our failure, and runs to us even as the excuses are still on our lips. Lent reminds me that when I’m weak, I’m strong. And weak is what I am 100% of the time.

Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.