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Lyrics and Life

 

By Caitlin Ward

02/25/2015
If it be Your Will
Leonard Cohen

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will
If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well

And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will

If it be your will.

Writer: Leonard Cohen; Copyright: Bad Monk Publishing, Sony/ATV Songs LLC

It was very early in the morning, and I didn’t think I was going to make it. I had crawled out of bed with far too little time to spare, as I am wont to do. I always have these grand plans of becoming one of those people — you know the type. The morning people.

But for all my good intentions, no matter how I try or what I do, I’m not great at getting up before I’m good and ready. After a decade of adulthood trying to get myself out of bed, I have come to the conclusion that I am never actually good and ready.

And because I am never actually good and ready, that morning I had crawled out of bed not only with far too little time to spare, but a degree of self-loathing that was probably not warranted and likely brought on by sleep deprivation. Honestly, Caitlin. Why can’t you get out of bed earlier? You knew Ash Wednesday mass was at 7 a.m. It’s like you’re not even trying.

I made it, though. I skidded into the chapel, taking my seat just as the presiding priest made it to the altar during the processional. It was a particularly long opening hymn that morning, so I don’t think I missed too much. I left some 40 minutes later, hopefully a bit holier and with ashes poured on my head. Or, well, sprinkled lightly on my forehead.

After I’d left the company of penitent Catholics and went out to a more secular environment, the random double takes and the usual Ash Wednesday questions and comments started. It starts with some variant of, “I’m sorry, but did you know you have something on your forehead?” And goes on from there. Some people don’t say anything more after you explain. Others have questions. This morning, an older friend who greatly relishes harassing me demanded to know where the ashes came from, then where the palms came from when I explained, and then finally why I hadn’t rolled around in ashes, because that seemed more appropriate than this paltry bit on my forehead.

At the time I just laughed. I didn’t think he’d want to engage in a conversation about spiritual practice over breakfast. Starting with ashes, it’s something I think about a lot throughout Lent, though. On the one hand, the Gospel of the day tells us to give alms, to pray, and to fast in secret. This is good sense. On the other hand, almost immediately after hearing this Gospel, we have ashes put on our forehead to mark the beginning of a season of almsgiving, prayer, and fast. As a symbolic ritual and act of humility, this is also good sense.

The question comes, though, when I leave Ash Wednesday mass. Should I wipe the ashes off my forehead so that no one knows I have entered a period of fasting? Or should I leave them on as a testament to faith in a secular world? Today’s Gospel, from Matthew, tells us to fast in secret. Later on in that same Gospel, though, Jesus says if we are ashamed of him, he will be ashamed of us. If we deny him, he will deny us. So I hover, incredibly confused, until I forget I have ashes on my forehead and someone points it out to me.

This confusion continues for the rest of Lent. Do I tell people how I am fasting? What if it affects them somehow? Should I abstain from something else on Fridays since I already don’t eat meat? To whom do I give these alms? Just how much extra prayer am I supposed to be doing, here? Am I allowed to eat cookies? What if I manage to fast, give alms, and pray really well through all of Lent, and then become way too proud of myself? If I’m abstaining from something that’s bad for me, anyway, is it really a proper fast? If I’m abstaining from something that’s good for me, how precisely is that glorifying God?

Piety is a confusing business, folks. There is loads written on the subject, from both practical and theological perspectives, but I find the more I read about it, the more confusing it gets.
I think it goes back to how I got up that morning, though: late and irritated with myself. And it’s true: I did get up with too little time to spare. I was nearly late for mass. In an ideal world, that would not happen. But I did get there, and I heard the readings and the homily. I received ashes and the eucharist. I didn’t do it “right,” per se, but I sat with God for a while and was better for it.

Throughout Lent, and hopefully throughout our lives, as well, our personal piety is defined not by how we practise it or how it looks to others, but by how it makes space in our lives to hear God. We all know we ought not to judge other people’s paths, but equally important and perhaps less obvious is the fact that we ought not to judge our own, either. After all, it is not about our will. It is about God’s.

Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings