Matthew Walther: An Ash Wednesday I’ll never forget

A man prays during an Ash Wednesday Mass in New York (CNS)

Chesterton did not actually say that those of us who don’t believe in God will believe in anything, but he ought to have because it’s true. Between the ages of 12 and 20, before I began my return to the Church on February 17, 2010, I believed in, among other things, Buddhism, vegetarianism, pacifism, gay marriage, Marxism, libertarianism, literary criticism and – most shamefully, I think – the literary merits of Finnegans Wake.

Priests looking for youth evangelisation strategies should note that was only the penultimate item on this list that did me any good, for had I not one day found myself writing a rather dull and pointless essay on Yeats and TS Eliot, I might never have returned to the faith. Perhaps the Catholic Truth Society should do up a neat little pamphlet on FR Leavis. But let me back up.

I was a very pious child who grew up fearing hell with an almost physical intensity. Even the sight of shoulder devils in cartoons could fill me with dread. Yet I also struggled from an early age with very grave doubts. I distinctly remember lying in bed aged seven and thinking to myself: “When you die, there is nothing.”

Fast forward half a decade and I had become one of those obnoxious 12-year-olds who should not be allowed to read books. When my catechism teacher told us that skipping Mass was a mortal sin, I decided that there probably wasn’t a hell or a heaven, much less a God who cared what any of us did with his time on Sundays or any other day of the week.

At some point towards the end of my teenage years I ceased to be a thoroughgoing materialist. (How I unclasped myself from Feuerbach’s dank tendrils and came to believe in Something rather than nothing is difficult to say, but I chalk it up to falling seriously in love for the first time and listening to Van Morrison.)

I then became, or so I like fondly to think, America’s last earnest pagan. I do not mean that I worshipped Zeus or Diana – the closest I ever came was burning lavender-scented incense while reciting from Keats, a practice I would heartily recommend to all students reading English. But I did pay homage, almost literally, to things like grey waves, thunderstorms, autumnal leaves, the faces of beautiful women, the smell of lilacs and the first snow. Whatever was out there, the quaint little story about a Nazarene seemed to me too small for it.

Is it strange to say that I cannot remember anything else about that day in February? I have no idea what I ate for breakfast or how cold it was or whether that afternoon was one of those rare occasions on which I did anything at my Gogolian make-work job in the Office of Financial Aid. All I know is that at some point in the course of working on a literary essay I consulted Eliot’s Collected Poems and happened upon “Ash Wednesday”, which I had never much cared for.

But that day in the library I found myself utterly transfixed by this desperate plea for the intercession of our Mother written by an agnostic. (One of my fondest discoveries of recent years has been to learn how much of the poem is a pastiche of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin.) I was especially by these lines from the third stanza:

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain

A few hours later I was at work sitting in front of the computer and found myself looking at a calendar. As the reader will have surely guessed by now, it was, in fact, Ash Wednesday. From there it was only a moment’s work of Googling to figure out what time I needed to be at the cathedral down the street.

Of that Mass, the first one save my great-grandmother’s Requiem that I had attended in nearly a decade, I recall almost nothing. I did notice that, unlike at all the churches I had attended as a child, the holy water founts at the cathedral had not been emptied for Lent. The music, too, was something altogether different from what I was used to: most of it was in Latin, and there was no woman interrupting us to walk up to the lectern and announce that “Our gathering song is number 57 in the missalette.”

While it would be an exaggeration to say that my reversion was afterwards a straightforward matter, it is the case that from that day on I have never for a moment doubted the existence of God or the Incarnation of His Son. It was also, though I did not realise it then, the beginning of my devotion to our Mother. That such an extraordinary gift was given to one as unworthy as I, and in so bizarre and wayward a manner, is one of those small jokes of providence best glossed by St Paul’s words in 1 Timothy about our Father “who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth”.

Perhaps it will not come as a surprise to learn that I rarely revisit Eliot’s poem. Even now I cannot read certain lines – “Rose of memory”; “Who walked between the violet and the violet”; “In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary’s colour” – without weeping. Once a year, however, I make an exception and begin my morning by taking Eliot down from the shelf and read once more how “the lost heart stiffens and rejoices / In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices” before the weak spirit quickens to rebel / For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell”. I leave the reader to guess which day.

Matthew Walther is associate editor of the Washington Free Beacon and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow