Forgiveness Among the Ashes

The bell rings, and I deliver my standard line: “Anything to pray for this morning?” There are sisters, friends, neighbors, and the ubiquitous “this weekend,” even though it’s only Wednesday.

When they have spoken and the air is empty of hands, I take a deep breath. “I have something to say.  Today you begin Lent.  In my church it begins this Sunday, and on that day it’s traditional to ask forgiveness of everyone in the community.  So I want to ask your forgiveness.  It’s my job, first, to love you with the love of Christ, and second, to support and educate you.  I know I have fallen short, and I am sorry if I have neglected you, hurt your feelings or failed you in any way.  And if there is something specific I have done to offend you, please let me know so that I can apologize for that, too.  I want to begin the Fast with a clean slate.  Please forgive me.”

It is eerily quiet, and I am surprised to feel my own heart pounding.  A few shy smiles from the back of the room. A lot of shocked expressions.  Before awkwardness descends, I bow my head and stretch out my hands: “Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name … “

The next class is after Mass, and their foreheads bear the ashy crosses of the day.  I repeat my speech, a little less nervously.  There is a quiet chorus of muffled, sympathetic whimpers, and one student cannot keep silent, whispering “That is SO sweet!”  I am a little taken aback by these expressions of emotion, and I repeat an adamant summary: “I really mean it.  Please let me know if I need to apologize to you.”  My cheeks burn through the prayer: “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

My last group is after lunch and a little wild: their teenage brains are finally awake and alert, and their questions reflect it.  As the bell rings, they’re wanting to know whether Shakespeare told his friends about the plays he was writing.  “Like, did he give them sneak previews or anything?”  

I settle them and hear their requests for prayer: traveling, tryouts and one very sweet “for anyone who needs a prayer.”  That includes me, I realize: she is praying for me.

Again, I ask forgiveness, and this time their surprise is much more vocal. Squeals, murmurs of assent.  “Mrs. Lowe, I have a problem: you are WAY too nice.”  Another is moved to agree with me: “Me too — forgive me if I did anything to you.”  She extends her arms out.  “To any of you guys!”

The chatter ends as we say the Lord’s prayer again, and finally it occurs to me that the framework for this moment has been laid at every single class of the year, when we pray together: “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our tresspasses as we forgive those who tresspass against us.”  Together, we take a step toward unity, toward true understanding of each other.  Toward the Cross and eternity.