Faith

Marks in all shades

I’ve been reading a few things online about those multiple shades of grey (but not many things, because as a child I learned about “be careful, little eyes, what you see,” and, even though I wasn’t aware of the internet then, I’m aware of it now, and the truth of the phrase still remains.)

I read a few quotes from the book online, though, gasped, and decided that that was enough. (Come on, feminists, why aren’t we all waving the “No means no” flag??)

Anyway, Happy belated Valentine’s Day, by the way.

I was in the airport this weekend. I was flying to colorful, warm places (NOLA, hollah!) with good people but, alas, all good things must come to an end, so there I stood in the overpriced airport shop, looking at the individual packs of almonds, wondering if they were a good purchase or not. They were seven dollars for a snack pack. I thought that that seemed high, so I put them back on the rack. Next to the almonds were the books, and there was a softly-lit Ana-plus-Christian making out on the cover of numerous paperbacks for the low-low price of marked-up ninety-nine. Sigh.

Happy Valentine’s Day. Happy Mardi Gras.


Valentine is a saint, and I know that, and I tap dance on the inside when the culture at large decides it’s a good idea to join the Catholic-party, and so yay and hooray.

But, earlier in the week was the feast of St. Josephine Bahkita, and she’s more obscure, isn’t she? I knew of her story, but actually learned something new, that she’s an incorruptible, her body has never decomposed (for real, though. Google it). This phenomenon of composed-dead isn’t exactly unheard of in the Catholic canonization experience, but it’s not ultra-common, either, it’s kind of a weird, special miracle that’s kind of cool, kind of intense, kind of haunting.

I figured that since I didn’t know she was incorrupt, there might be other things I didn’t know as well, so I turned to the most reliable source of information (cough): Wikipedia.

Her story is actually a horrible one, which I knew. She was abducted from Africa as a small girl, an experience so traumatic that she forgot the name given to her by her people, her language, her loving parents. Still a child, growing into womanhood, she was bought and sold several times, with various levels of abuse from each captor (obviously, even if they were “kind”…slavery, you know?) Somehow, in the midst of this, she heard about Jesus, about God, and decided that Christianity was what she desired. Later, a court determined that she was actually a free woman, and she joined an order of religious sisters. They say she was a beacon of light for her community, which is beautiful. In her final days, though, as she drifted towards death, she would recall the years of slavery, crying out, “the chains are too tight, loosen them a little, please!”

Sigh. The depth of hurt that can be caused from one human to another is truly hideous.

The thing that’s been sticking with me the most is this: she was forcibly tattooed and scarred as a young woman, her slave owner standing by with a whip. A woman came, with a knife and salt, to permanently scar Bakhita’s body. The woman cut 114 intricate patterns into Bakhita’s breasts, belly, right arm; all forcibly, filling them with salt for a month so that the body would react and remember the patterns forever. In Bakhita’s own words, “I felt like I was going to die any moment.”

Before cutting, they traced the designs they wanted to carve on her skin with flour.

That image sticks in my mind—fine white powder traced on dark, young skin.

My skin is light, the stuff of crisp-sunburns and visible-veins, so maybe I can’t exactly relate. But, I can remember being young and so aware of myself, so sensitive to my shape and the curves of my flesh. So this invasion of violence against Bakhita sticks in my mind, the white flour traced on her dark, young skin.

I guess I don’t know why I’m sharing these things.

Somehow they’ve linked in my mind, though, these two women being hurt in different ways.

In Catholicism we believe that the body and the soul are linked, and that both are good, and even go so far to say that our physical bodies will be resurrected one day. We have the Theology of the Body, the great art of the Western Church, the Virgin Mary herself; so, really, we should just be this beacon of feminine light and beauty, the most aware of the beauty of our bodies, the most reverent about their strength, the most adamant about fighting that they be loved and treated as they ought.

Or something.

And maybe we are.

But, it’s a tough battle, even for me. For every rosary I pray, there are five times as many glossy magazines in the airport checkout, reminding me how inadequately my hair lies, how dull my skin compared to theirs. My chest is too flat, my stomach too round (thanks, gluten), my legs not long enough.

I went to mass yesterday, Ash Wednesday. The church was packed, but they were short on staff, so I had the opportunity to share by both reading some scripture (I love doing this) and some songs (I’m not so good at this, but I believe in pushing myself).

Because I was in the choir, I didn’t really face the Archbishop (wut wut!) throughout the mass, I was more focused on the choir director.

Once, though, when I turned, I saw that part where they mix the ashes with the holy water, making the muddy mixture they’ll then trace across our foreheads, where it will be further mixed with skin-oil and sweat, again and again, ashy crosses for the whole church.

The holy (blessed water…life-giving and sacred) mixed with the super basic form of life—burnt earth. Is that what this is all about? The holy colliding with the dirty, transforming it?

That night I left my office and walked to the bus stop with this sign on my head.

I find Catholicism equal parts deeply intense and humorously endearing. Here I come, bus stop, with my face smeared black from burnt leaves falling into my eyelashes. Note my weird, please.

But, this is my sign, this sign of the cross. This is how I mark myself every day. This is the mission I believe in. This is the message I would die telling.

I thought about marks on my way home, then. I created a graph in my mind.

We have, any one of us, marks across our bodies, both internally and externally. Some of them are good, and some of them are bad. Some are healthful, some are harmful.

Also, though, some we allow and some are given to us without our permission.

I would count abusive marks as “harmful,” whether they were forced like knives into young skin or even if they were done in the false name of love.

And some marks are invisible, aren’t they? Carried about like shadows: memories, words exchanged, those kinds of things.

We’re all a mixture of marks.

And Jesus joins us here, doesn’t he? That one guy bearing the perma-punctures of nails and spears and thorns…those are all violent additions to his person. But, he accepted them, too; he said those final words of forgiveness, too.

Here I am, I guess, this mixture of marks and wounds and memories. And I’m starting Lent, and here I am with a smudge of dirt marking me as one of those who takes all of these things and, somehow, gets chosen by God anyway.

“Remember,” the priest said, his thumb on my forehead, “you are dust. And to dust you shall return.”

I know.

I made some great Lenten promises. Like to fast from gossiping, for instance.

And then I gossiped tonight anyway.

(WHY. DO. I. LIVE. THIS. WAY????)

I’m just dust.

But, that’s what Jesus decided to become, too.
That mixture of the holy with the simple.
Divinity and humanity.
Holy water and ashes.

I guess that’s my goal, then. To take all of these other marks and slowly mold them so they mimic this profound but simple mark: the grey sign of the cross on my forehead.

It’s not all perfect, is it? Ashes mean that things burned, things hurt, things will never be the same. We’re not given clean, plastic crosses in bright colors and told, “Yay! Life is peachy and grand!” We’re given ashes and water and reminded of our mortality.

Dang.

But, that’s just life. And this Lent I want to know all of these things. I want to be more human. That means more suffering, which means more understanding. I want more simplicity. I want more healing.

And I want all of the marks I bear to mix with the holy water of life so I can emerge like, “You know what’s going to be glorified with these problems? The cross, ya’ll. And I’ll wear that boldly.”

Happy Lent.

Remind me, Jesus, that I am only dust.
But remind me of your love, too.
Remind me of my worth in Your eyes.
And I may bear this sign forever on my forehead.

Take my marks, and I’ll take yours.

K, thanks.

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5 thoughts on “Marks in all shades

  1. This is beautiful. I vowed to not read another post about that book, but your thoughts are very gently and compassionately given. I love seeing even the babies get ashes this time of year. To me it seems like a very holy thing that even these small ones are included in this liturgy. They are so very far from the end of life, but still fully part of the human race and just as much a part of salvation.

  2. ok so I googled St. Josephine too after reading this because her story seemed super interesting. And my thought was how fitting she took the feminine form of Joseph. Because her story reminded me a lot of Joseph in the Bible, amazing technicolor dream coat Joseph. Because he was sold into slavery by family and then became closer to God while there.
    It’s also interesting because when we think of slavery we tend to think Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln, it doesn’t exist anymore. But it did, not just in America, and it still does in many forms. The “romance” in 50 shades amounts to a kind of slavery I think. And it’s just another way for our culture to tell women what we should want: a stalker. Because The Notebook and Twilight taught us that too. We were talking about this at my work and decided what women really want is this guy in the movie Bridesmaids: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-mPpja7jZY
    Ok I’m done saying all the things.

    • 1. St. Josephine/ Joseph from the Bible = a super great connection I didn’t even realize.
      2. I’m so frustrated by human slavery, you have no idea.
      3. That guy seems awesome. Ha! I always say, “I don’t need someone who will treat me like a princess, just someone who treats me like a person,” and that dude falls in that camp of coolness. Plus: summer night hang outs with junk food? Count me in.

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