I hadn’t lived in St. Louis very long when I was called to St. John’s Mercy Hospital to minister to a family who had just lost a loved one to death. The person who had died was not a member of our church so I wasn’t exactly sure of his name. I went to the information desk to see if I could figure out where the family might be gathered. I told the elderly nun at the desk the man’s last name and that I thought his first name was Clyde. As she did a search on her computer I noticed she had a nasty-looking bruise on her forehead. We had had some ice earlier that week so I wondered if she had slipped and fallen. In no time she found the information and directed me to where the family was.
As I left the information desk, a Priest walked up. I noticed he had a hospital badge identifying him as a hospital chaplain. But what really caught my attention was the nasty-looking bruise he had on his forehead too.
Now remember, I hadn’t lived in St. Louis for very long and was totally unfamiliar with the Catholic Church culture of our city. So when I saw his matching bruise, my very first thought was, “That poor nun and priest must have butted heads with one another! How embarrassing!” It wasn’t until I got halfway down the corridor when it hit me, “It’s Ash Wednesday, idiot!” I felt like such a goober, but at least I hadn’t made a comment to either of them. Thankfully God and I were the only witnesses to my stupidity.
I eventually found the grieving family who had gathered in one of the waiting rooms. I recognized my secretary who was a member of the family and went to her and asked if I could gather the family for prayer. She gathered everyone and we held hands in a circle as I prayed for Clyde, their brother, husband, and father who had just passed. I heard the sniffs of some of the family members who were crying during the prayer. When I said “Amen” I opened my eyes and shared my condolences and goodbyes. I noticed the collective countenance of their faces had brightened. I was pleased that my prayer had ministered to them in their grief. I told my secretary that I would talk to her later in the day and said goodbye. Later that day, she came by the church office to pick up some things and she thanked me for coming to the hospital. But as she turned to leave the office, she said, “Just one thing, my brother’s name was Carl, not Clyde,” she smiled and left me in my office convulsing in humiliation.
I’ve reflected on that story every Ash Wednesday since then. I guess it’s God’s way of keeping me humble. And isn’t that the whole reason for Ash Wednesday? We are but dust and ash. We are totally dependent on God. Yet we do our best to keep an image of being independent, self-made adults who have our lives together. But in reality we’re all just butting our heads with God and we have nasty-looking bruises on our foreheads to prove it.