Each year on Ash Wednesday, I have to consciously resist the urge to tell someone that they have something on their face. It’s a yearly moment of feeling like an idiot that quickly passes and is accompanied with a reminder that the Lenten season has begun. While I grew up in a predominantly Catholic community, most people went to church after school and received the ashes on their foreheads in private. However, during college, time schedules were not as fixed to public and private spheres. One year, I had a chemistry lab on Wednesday nights and when my chemistry professor came into the classroom with ashes on her forehead, I breathed a silent prayer as a classmate commented on Ash Wednesday before I made a fool out of myself. (Rachel Stacy, 2011)
Last year I began a blog post entitled "Emblems of Identity" with the quote above. The post examined ways that Quakers display identity to the world. While I don't have ashes on my forhead marking me as a Catholic, I do wear other symbols that remind me of my own journey into faithfulness.
This year was different in many ways. While I still wear my small symbols of faith, Ash Wednesday came and went with much more anticipation and observance than last, for 2012 marks my first year working for a Catholic institution. Contrary to other years when I have almost let Ash Wednesday go unnoticed, this year, as the Interreligious Program Manager at Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry, I was prepared.
Not that Seattle University in any way lets one forget the observance. I received invitations to join Lenten prayer groups, bookmarks reminding me of Lenten prayer services, and the crosses marking many of my colleagues foreheads were dark and unmistakable.
As a Quaker, I have proceeded through my annual contemplation of the season of Lent. In light of the current blogsphere debate sparked by Maggie Harrison's post "You are NOT a Quaker (so please stop calling yourself one)" the question of how I as a Quaker relate to the Lenten ritual is particularly interesting. I appreciate Maggie's challenge and her courage to provoke the wide range of emotions and responses that have resulted from her writing. However, when asked by a friend of mine how I felt about the post, I had to respond "I don't care; I don't go around telling people they aren't Christian or they aren't Muslim. Why should I go around telling people they aren't Quaker?" If I did that, not only would I be out of a job, but I would be unfaithful.
Last Wednesday, I asked my Catholic co-worker (with whom I share an office) if she was fasting from anything particular this year. Her reply surprised me: "No, my family and I aren't fasting. We don't. I don't think its a good model for my daughter. Once a year, if you give up candy it means that your faithful? No, living your faith is more than that." In one sense my co-worker agrees with Maggie: Its the way you live your life and constantly seek out faithfulness, union, and relationship with the divine- that defines your faith. Parker Palmer would say "Let your life speak," and in the interreligious dialogue movement the integrity with which you live your faith defines your relationship with others.
In another sense, My co-worker disagrees with Maggie. She's not telling anyone that they are wrong for fasting; she's not telling her daughter that by not observing their faith in these particular ways she's more Catholic; she's not telling people to leave Catholicism because they find truth and value in a heritage of ritual that she does not. The decision not to fast for Lent is a family discernment of what faith means to them. Not a condemnation of others.
In the end, I'm simply tired of the condemnations. The inter-religious conversations are often easier than the intra-religious conversations:
I've heard Sunni Muslims say that the Nation of Islam isn't Muslim
I've heard Sh'ai Muslims say that the Amadiayya community are heretics
I've heard Protestants say that Catholics aren't Christian
I've heard Evangelicals say that Mormans aren't Christian
I've heard Orthodox Jews denounce Reform Jews
I've heard Reform Jews dismiss Orthodox Jews
I have told that I am outrunning my guide by some.
I have been called a Quaker by others
Who am I?
When I graduated from Earlham College in 2007, our keynote address was given by Professor Carol Higgins. I still have the printed version folded up in my journal; I've carried it around with me now for almost five years. Carol spoke a simple message that day as she talked about the riddles and monsters that each of us would encounter in our lives. She wrote "There is one question each of you will ask; over and over again: "Am I?" or alternately "Are we?""
The sense of identity is profound. As we define ourselves in relation to others we consequently define ourselves by what we are not. However, I have experienced again and again as I have engaged with interreligious dialogue that the more I learn about others-the more I learn about myself; and this revelation of self and identity does not divide me or cast me away from others but instead brings me closer to the difference, closer to the other, and consequently closer to God.
As someone who is not Catholic, I see Lent as an opportunity to witness the beautiful struggle of faithfulness in my colleagues and friends. In their exploration of an intricate part of tradition, I discover the questions that help me go deeper into my Quaker faith. I become a stronger Quaker; I become a more faithful person; I become closer to the Divine.