In Search of a Smudge

It’s been a year since my husband and I moved to Los Angeles from New York City. I am flagrantly happy in our new home, but that doesn’t mean I’m not sometimes stricken with longing for a city where I could drop downstairs for a carton of half and half at any time of the day or night, walk around the corner for the best homemade pappardelle with sweet sausage and truffle oil known to man, and soldier on for another block and a half to have ashes applied on Ash Wednesday.

Gearing up for Lent in New York City is a pleasure you may not read about in Time-Out or New York Magazine, but when you need a church, you can find one with surprisingly flexible hours, no questions asked. My church was and is still Marble Collegiate on Fifth and 29th, so what’s a girl to do in LA, but wheel into the alley behind a Catholic church on Pico Boulevard when the burning desire for a black smudge on her forehead threatens to overwhelm?

The aunt of a close friend of mine once sent me a delicate strand of rosary beads she had strung herself. I keep them in my messy wallet as a reminder of how those coins and bills got there in the first place. My dad became a fervent Catholic at 81, and for 12 years I rarely missed a Tuesday with Sister Carol Perry, a brilliant and funny Catholic nun who has been running a dynamite Bible study in the basement of Marble for over 30 years. These facts provided the rationalization I needed to usurp the single parking space left behind St. Timothy’s, a spot that by any rights should have gone to a Catholic. Children poured out of a door beneath the church and fluttered past me. That was all the proof I needed that I’d made the right choice. A side door swung open with a heavy whoosh that pretty much sucked me inside.

Not a creature was stirring and I entered on tiptoe in case anyone was praying. I needn’t have tread so lightly. No service was in session and the two men talking near the altar weren’t using their church voices. Their casual stance (one leaning, one listening) emboldened me and I dared an approach. Maybe they were janitors? The younger of the two men had a dog on a leash and I switched from sunglasses to progressive lenses. The dog guy was young and, like his dog, he was wearing a collar.

“Excuse me.”

I clutched the shoulder strap of my purse. There was clearly no provision here for a ritual freak who needed her fix and needed it now. I was desperate. If I didn’t get my smudge, my soul would shrivel and Lent would be shot. Whatever hopes I had for some focused reflection over the next 40 days leading to a genuine Easter would be out of my reach now and forever. The only thing left would be a hollow chocolate bunny.

“Is there any way I can get some ashes applied?” I took a deep breath. “I should tell you I’m not Catholic.”

He didn’t seem to have the gravitas needed to become a priest, but what did I know? He studied me for a very long minute and shrugged.

“Why not? I guess everybody could use a blessing.”

The priest’s good-natured resignation reminded me of the day my bachelor husband-to-be and I first shopped for a ring in New York City. There were several obstacles to overcome, the first and foremost being that he didn’t want to buy one. They were either too expensive or too gaudy and when could we get some lunch? Our last stop was Harry Winston before I knew what Harry Winston was. The salesman, an affable father figure, didn’t blink when I told him we weren’t looking for a big diamond. What the hell, you’re here, he said, bringing out the biggest rock I’d ever seen on a slab of blue velvet.

The priest told me to pass through the doors to the office outside and ring the bell. While I waited, I admired California. The pretty iron gate, the vines, the promise of spring flowers. It was all so pleasant that I felt my urgency soften a little, as if the warmth of the sun on my back was making it melt. Was I here by the sheer force of habit or real desire? A woman came to the door shortly and I wondered whether there was a more Catholic way to frame my request.

“Hi. I’m here to receive the ashes.”

I thought that sounded better somehow, but not to her. She told me she was sorry, that it wasn’t possible.

“But the priest said I should ask.”

“Oh. Michelle will meet you in the church.”

“Is she a priest?” Proof positive that beggars can be choosers and that certain people snap under pressure. Did I think St. Timothy’s was home to a renegade female priest who had broken with Canon Law established in 1024?

“No. She’s a minister.”

I knelt while I waited and tried to quiet down inside, conscious of how much trouble I was putting everyone to. The complexities of Ash Wednesday in New York seemed far away. In an Episcopal church I attended until I found Marble, they wiped away the smudge before you left the church. Was a public demonstration of faith considered bad form? If you chose to leave the mark on, you saw lots of others like yourself on the street. People tumbled out of bars with their ashes on, in the middle of lives where the sign of faith was commonplace. But my errands had been done and I was about to get in my car for home. Should I have saved those errands for afterward and wasn’t all this just a little too easy? Norman Vincent Peale was the minister at Marble for years. How would the towering figure of positive thinking have sized things up? Michelle appeared, a kind-looking woman younger than me, but not too young. She smiled as I got up and passed her finger over my forehead.

“Repent and return to the Gospel.”

Forty days is a long time, especially when you’re already on a restricted diet for allergens, which consigns you to eating Justine’s Maple Almond Butter and rice crackers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Giving up something you’ve already given up for another reason doesn’t count, so maybe the key is adding something by way of repentance that should have been there all along.

But what would that something be? My husband was surprised when I got home, but he’s used to surprises by now. I played some music and danced on the landing where I work and watch hummingbirds dart in and out of the monster hedge by our driveway. We ate a risibly soy-free, non-dairy dinner, so I opened a box of Gluten-Free Matzo-Style Squares to pep things up.

“Hey, these are actually good,” my husband said, coming to life after the first bite.

I was too focused on the great crunch to think past the divine moment.

The folks at Yehuda make it clear that their Squares are not for sacramental purposes, but I wasn’t so sure. While Jesus’s Passover matzo probably didn’t contain toasted onion, he did eat unleavened bread at the Last Supper. Had I prepared a quasi-Lenten meal without realizing it? After dinner I read a tiny bit of Anne Lamott’s book on prayer to make it last longer. I thought about prosaic, everyday miracles, the kind that pop up in the GF aisle of Whole Foods and go largely unnoticed until you pause to think about them.

I wandered downstairs to put my arms around my husband, who was washing the dishes at the kitchen sink.

“Kiss me,” I say.

“Why would I want to kiss somebody with a dirty forehead?” he asks before doing just that.