On Wednesday, I wore ashes on my forehead in the Catholic Lenten tradition. I received countless looks of bewilderment on the Upper West Side that day, some of which resolved into expressions of relieved comprehension, but most of which seemed to be suppressing an urgent: “Um, m’am, you have a big black smudge on your forehead.”
I live in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, so this reception did not startle me. Nor was I surprised by the fact that I did not encounter a single other Catholic wearing ashes on that day (outside of our Church)–and I did find myself searching.
But what left me puzzled on this particular Ash Wednesday was the Gospel, which I have heard every year for my thirty-five years on this Earth, but which had never jumped out at me in quite the same way. The Ash Wednesday Gospel implores us to pray in secret: “do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.” The message is clear: do good in order to do good. Do not sound the trumpet before you.
Such an odd message for the single day of the Catholic year in which I bear an outward sign of my Catholicism. Most of the time, it is easy, in fact, to be discreet about my faith. I do not have to wear a yarmulke or a hijab to conform with the conventions of my religion. There are no dietary restrictions to observe and explain over Brunch with friends (“I can’t eat pork…”) Mass is early on Sundays and has never conflicted with any other activity in my life: I cannot recall a time where I have had to forgo a social event, for example, because I needed to go to Mass. (Who does anything at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday?) In short, to the casual observer, I could just as easily be a devout Christian as I could be a fervent atheist.
The exception is Ash Wednesday.
I found this tension for the first time in my life both fascinating and surprisingly uncomfortable. In years past, I have never minded the looks of bafflement on Ash Wednesday because inwardly (let me speak candidly, and shame on me) I have been patting myself on the back: “Good for you, Jen, you rearranged your day to get to Ash Wednesday Mass” and because I also assumed that most people understood what Ash Wednesday was and did not pay much attention to odd glances in my direction. For my first two decades on this earth, I lived a life densely populated by Catholics and, as a result, continuously overestimate the number of people I encounter that share my faith. This year, perhaps because we have moved into a neighborhood where it is commonplace to see boys wearing peyot and men wearing yarmulkes, things felt different. I felt more like an outsider than I usually do.
But there was something else. This year, I have grown increasingly turned off by the prevalence of virtue signaling in my life — usually on social media, but occasionally in real life as well, too. By this I mean: small ways that people toot their own horn and backhandedly compliment themselves for their goodness and virtuosity. I am just as guilty of this as the next Tom, Dick, or Harry. I’m sure I could be read the riot act based on this blog alone — “remember when you said…?! UGH!” But I am working to correct this distastefulness and highly conscious of its ubiquity online.
Of course, the wearing of ashes is not the same thing as virtue signaling. As a practicing Catholic, Ash Wednesday is a holy day of obligation. But it felt to me as though I was putting my faith on display in a way that made me more self-aware than in years past.
What to make of this, I wonder? How to untangle this unwieldy nest of mixed messages, wherein I am told to wear ashes and then reminded to pray in private? Where I observe others wearing the outward signs of their faiths and think nothing of it beyond “I admire their commitment” and yet worry that my own might be distastefully conspicuous?
+Note that in the picture at the head, the chic pea is wearing a Bottega pouch…JUST SAYING.
+Lent is now underway and Easter is in sight. A few additions to my earlier roundup of Easter goodies:
++Cute and inexpensive baskets for little ones. (Fold flat! Highly convenient for my fellow urbanites.)
++Found the cutest spring decor at Target — will be using them first at mini’s Peter Rabbit themed birthday party and then repurposing for Easter! I got this gingham table throw, these melamine bunny plates, and these melamine gingham plates. How darling?! Wish I’d seen these $2 melamine cups before ordering. The CUTEST print for mini.
+This $119 Zara dress is A MUST.
+I feel like this gel face mask is having a MOMENT. I keep seeing everyone rave about it! Dying to try…
+Chic nesting baskets, on sale.
+Loft has some super cute rompers/jumpsuits for spring that are selling really quickly — this has an Ulla vibe to it, this plaid style is chic and beachy (love the bow in the back), and does this not remind you of our beloved SZ Blockprints caftans?! Two of these have already sold out in my size, but I’m ordering #1 now!
+These flats look like they are Aquazzura (under $100!)
+My spirit, in dress form. No really. I have this D&G bustier dress in sky blue I bought for my honeymoon that has that exact shape and the handful of times I’ve worn it, my sister has said it’s the most me thing she’s ever seen. Which is odd because I don’t see myself as a bustier type gal, but something about the fit and color and simplicity and vague 90s-ness of it all feels like home.