Anyone can utilize the power of ash rituals to mark a transition in their lives.
Once a year, as they have for over a thousand years, millions of people around the globe enter a sanctuary, walk to the altar, kneel down, have ashes imposed on their forehead, and hear the words, “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.”
Although this ancient Ash Wednesday tradition may seem morbid, vividly and honestly facing our mortality is one of the most life-affirming practices a person can engage in. We are able to ask the crucial question, “How can I make the most of my limited lifespan?”
Thankfully, you don’t need to be religious, make a pilgrimage to a church, or wait until Ash Wednesday to benefit from a deeply meaningful ash ritual.
How I Made My Own Ash Wednesday Ritual
Two years ago, after four decades of vocational ministry, I retired. As I thought about the next chapter of my life, I decided to put together a simple ritual for myself to aid in the transition of one phase of life to the next, loosely based on the Ash Wednesday tradition.
I created some ashes by burning a piece of paper, and then rubbed the ashes into my fingers, reciting the words, “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” For the next few minutes, I quietly reflected on my mortality. I then asked myself, “What do I want to do with the next two or three years of my life?”
The question was not difficult to answer. First, I wanted to prioritize my relationships with family and friends. Second, I wanted to continue my decades-long passion of writing, but in a new and unique way.
I wrote those two aspirations down in my journal, and I began brainstorming ways to make them happen. In the weeks and months that followed, I worked hard to turn these two general goals into specific, actionable results.
Supporting Ritual With Action
To help meet my writing goal, I created a (non-monetized) website called DoubtersParish.com. The purpose of Doubter’s Parish is to help curious people navigate faith in the twenty-first century—a life-affirming opportunity for me. The website includes monthly posts, articles and stories, and a digital copy of my novel An Inconvenient Loss of Faith. The site has attracted thousands of followers, many of whom I often interact with, which brings me exceptional joy.
To help reach my goal of building stronger relationships, I helped create a support group of seven progressive retired clergy. We gather every month to support one another on our mutual journey of retirement, aging, and faith. We call ourselves the AOP, or the Agnostic Old Preachers.
The title is tongue-in-cheek. All of us still believe in God. However, we harbor serious doubts about traditional doctrines and institutional religion. Our faith, which is often unorthodox, embraces a huge amount of ambiguity.
It’s not too much to say that the AOP group has become my church. It’s a safe and sacred place to be honest, transparent, authentic, and vulnerable. Each one of us deeply values the friendships we’ve made with one another.
The website and the AOP group have significantly enriched my early retirement years. And the genesis of both of these efforts came out of that simple ash ceremony on my back porch a few weeks after I retired.
How to Craft Your Own Ash Ritual
If you would like to experience this kind of ritual, regardless of your spiritual affiliation, you can follow these simple steps:
Create some ashes by burning a piece of paper in a bowl. You may choose to have an intention statement written on the paper.
Rub the ashes in your hand once they’ve cooled.
Repeat the words, “From dust I came, and to dust I will return.”
Reflect on your mortality. This may be done in the form of meditation or simple contemplation.
Ask yourself, “How can I best use the limited amount of time I have been given?”
Jot down one or two things you can do to enrich your life over the next year. Keep these in a place where you will remember them.
Develop specific, actionable strategies for carrying out your goals.
Pick an annual date to repeat this ritual (perhaps your birthday or New Year’s Day).
Remember: The point of this ancient practice is not to overly dwell on death. Instead, the point is to occasionally remember your mortality in order to live a more full and vibrant life.
Read more on how to give a blessing.