Broken Bodies: The Consolation of Ash Wednesday

I Felt My Body Betray Me — through Injury or Illness. I was Supposed to be in Control.

I was a swimmer in high school. Not a great one but a dedicated one. I swam for two hours, six days a week, sometimes after school, sometimes waking up at 5:00am so I could swim before school. I felt a freedom and a purpose when I swam. I loved being part of a team but also enjoyed the hours spent underwater, alone with my thoughts, repeating the same motions over and over. The rhythm and the silence are calming.

Then one day, my body gave up. Or more accurately, my rotator cuff did. In the middle of a butterfly stroke, I felt an intense pain and then a swelling in my right shoulder. Eventually it went away and I kept swimming but something was not right. Workouts that I had done with minimal pain were now noticeably uncomfortable. I went to see doctors and had scans and eventually had to stop swimming.

I had surgery a few months before my 17th birthday. When my friends were all a part of at least one if not two sports teams, I was in physical therapy. You don’t meet a lot of high school peers in a physical therapy office. You do meet a lot of middle-aged men who tried to play too much golf or who thought “I can lift that piece of furniture for my wife who is insisting she help” and threw out their backs. You meet a lot of older women who remind you to take your calcium supplements and love to flirt with the younger therapists. Dutifully, I would go and do seemingly tiny exercises, try lots of stretches, and read a lot of old magazines. I was reminded to continue my rehabilitation program so I could regain most function in my shoulder, and to prevent arthritis, though I would most likely have limitations anyway. Not what you want to hear your junior year of high school.

A few months later, my brain gave out. I had always been an anxious child, but after my shoulder surgery, my anxiety grew. Without the hours underwater (and let’s be honest, the incredibly high levels of endorphins from hours of exercise), my brain didn’t know how to function. I had intrusive thoughts, thoughts that other people might not have and thoughts that I could not stop obsessing over. I worried I was going to hurt someone; I had daily panic attacks thinking I was going to hurt myself; I lost hours of sleep and thought I was going crazy.

Eventually, after a major depressive episode, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I remember asking my psychiatrist, after several months of counseling, if I would ever get over OCD. He was an incredibly patient man, gentle and kind. Despite that, I’ve never been more disappointed than when he leaned forward in his chair, put his elbows on his knees, and told me “No, there is no cure. You will have OCD for the rest of your life and will need to learn to manage it.” He told me that he would help me do that and that I was not alone. But nobody wants to hear they have a lifelong illness at 17.

Many times in the twenty years since, I have felt my body betray me, through injury or illness. It was supposed to function on auto-pilot, and I was supposed to be its master. I was supposed to be in control. I was young, and with youth should come ease and the luxury of ignorance. My counselor reminds me that how I feel about my body often directly correlates to how I feel in my body. But, as I berated my shoulder and brain for failing, for breaking, for limiting me, I also knew deep down that my frame was doing what it was going to do. My body is slowly breaking down, just earlier than those of my peers, and like all bodies, eventually it will die. If my body could talk, I imagine it would ask me to lay off the shaming, lay off the disdain, and recognize the truth of Ash Wednesday, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The consolation of Ash Wednesday is that I am not alone. Last year, I was in the middle of a diagnostic journey. For four or five months, I had undergone all kinds of scans and appointments, and as I sat in the pew, I had two dates marked in my calendar: biopsies that would complete the next, and I hoped last, steps in this process. As I waited in the back of the church, I was keenly aware that these masses inside me could be nothing or they could be something. They could be benign or they could be cancer. (I should note, they ended up being benign.) But the same feelings of anxiety, unpreparedness, and ultimately betrayal by my body played out again. Our church is in the looming shadow of the Texas Medical Center, which sometimes feels hopeful but on this day felt menacing, as if the hospital were waiting for me.

At the beginning of the service, the priest prayed the collect for Ash Wednesday which starts with the reminder, “God, you hate nothing you have made.” As he continued, everyone in the church, from the oldest senior to the youngest baby, was marked with a cross made of ash and told by the priest that they would die. Even the beautiful, capable, limitless teenagers in this church were going to die. I took comfort that I was not the only one whose body was broken. As Ted Lasso says in a deeply moving locker room speech, “There is something worse than being sad, and that’s being sad and alone.” Ash Wednesday tells us that each of us is not the only one to walk this road.

And it’s not just a reminder that everyone is going to die. If that were it, we would be a sad people indeed. There is something deeply comforting in the psalms of Ash Wednesday:

For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust. As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him.

God knows us; he knows our broken bodies. He is intimately familiar with the failings of my DNA. And unlike this earthly body, his love is everlasting.

The true beauty of Ash Wednesday doesn’t actually occur in the service. As my friend Jacob Smith says, the glory of Ash Wednesday comes when we get home, when we get ready for bed and wash the ashen cross from our forehead. When we rinse it away, we remember that yes, we are marked for death but Christ has washed us, we have been cleansed and raised to life in our baptisms. The road is not walked alone, and in the end, we can entrust to our Lord not just our broken selves but all of our disappointment, frustration, and anger, knowing that his body was broken for our sins and resurrected, making the same possible for our bodies, broken and weary though they may be.


3 responses to “Broken Bodies: The Consolation of Ash Wednesday”

  1. Bill says:

    Fantastic!! Thank you on many levels for this.

  2. Anne says:

    Gritty and real like the ashes on my forehead. Hopeful and nourishing like the communion bread I savored today. Thanks for a great Ash Wednesday reflection!

  3. Sarah says:

    Thanks, Jane. I need this in a moment when I feel like my body is also falling apart.

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