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An Ash Wednesday Mystery, and Lent in the desert

Hey everybody

Today is Tuesday of the sixth week in Ordinary Time, and here’s what we’ve been working on at The Pillar:

First, an Ash Wednesday Mystery™ you will enjoy.

Here’s the deal: Lent starts tomorrow.

In most U.S. dioceses, because of the pandemic, ashes will be sprinkled atop the head instead of traced on the forehead. For the U.S., this is unusual. But priests in some countries always sprinkle ashes, while in others they usually trace a cross on the forehead. I’ve always wanted to find out why ashes are done differently in different countries.

So this year, I asked some experts. And here’s what I found out about the mystery of Ash Wednesday “tracers” and “sprinklers.”


One a more serious note: Intellectually disabled people in the UK have faced appalling healthcare discrimination during the coronavirus pandemic, which seems certain to have contributed to their disproportionately high fatality rates from the virus. 

Policy proposals in the U.S. might have led to similar outcomes, if not for the intervention of the civil rights office at HHS. Yesterday, Ed and I wrote about whether the Biden administration will keep active an investigation from that office into healthcare discrimination of the intellectually disabled — and what’s at stake.

Will the Biden administration oppose healthcare policies that discriminate against intellectually disabled people? Read here.

Rumors in Rome have circulated for months that three Vatican offices, called dicasteries, could soon see new leadership. On Friday, we put together an overview of what each of those offices actually does. If an appointment is made to one or more of them soon, I hope this proves helpful.


Finally, on Friday we broke the news that the U.S. bishops’ conference has cancelled its in-person meeting scheduled for June, which was to take place in Denver. 

The last time the U.S. bishops met in person was November 2019, which, for context, was before most people had ever heard of the coronavirus, Tiger King, or that dude who did the halftime show in the Super Bowl. 

The bishops are now voting on whether to hold a virtual meeting in place of their June meeting. They will likely vote overwhelmingly to hold a virtual meeting, but there is not yet indication of what will be on the schedule.

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Lent in a year of suffering

It has been nearly a year since the Archdiocese of Seattle became the first U.S. diocese to suspend Masses amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

When the archdiocese announced its move in early March, fewer than 40 U.S. deaths were attributed to the virus; we are now at nearly 500,000. Fewer than 2,000 Americans had been diagnosed with the virus then; we are now at nearly 29 million.

Unemployment spiked, and even with some recovery, remains at almost twice the level it was before the pandemic began. Mental health crises skyrocketed. Family crises mounted. Social crises that seemed unimaginable gripped, and reshaped, our country.

The problems that emerged and were uncovered in this year will take time to be fully understood; their effects will be felt for a generation. 2020 will shape aspects of American public life and culture for decades.

Set against that annus horribilis, it seems to me surreal to begin Lent again, as we will do tomorrow.

It seems insufficient to give up a few material comforts and call it a Lent, as I often do, or add a few devotions to my routine and try to keep them.

Preparing for Lent, for me, has become a kind of meditation on suffering, and especially on the particular kinds of suffering that many of us have experienced in this difficult year: The suffering of isolation, the suffering of uncertainty, the suffering that comes from a loss of trust in institutions and ideas we hoped were stable and dependable. 

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Some experienced the acute suffering of joblessness, or grieving, or sickness. Others experienced that suffering in a proximate way, watching through screens, unable to do much to help, as friends in far-flung places grieved ordinary losses in extraordinary times, or tried to articulate personal wounds and social sins, and to effect social change. 

The events of this year were a cascade of trials that seemed to stratify us into ever smaller pockets of solidarity: the lockdowns, the killing of George Floyd, the election, the violence at the Capitol.

Each of those events fomented division and conflict, and before we had a chance to catch our breath, the next one came around the corner. Looming over all of that was the specter of a growing death count, which ticked up silently each day, while cable news pundits gave hot takes on our disintegration. 

By now, our disunity is concrete and palpable. Neighbors and family members are living in parallel constructions of reality, with divergent sets of norms, and social taboos, and expectations. We are fragmented in ways that go well beyond our habits of masking, or our opinions on vaccines.

Made clear in everything that has happened is that we are a people — inasmuch as we are one people — with no unified metaphysics, nor epistemology, nor teleology.

We are a nation bound mostly by proximity. And that hardly seems enough to hold.


This reflection may evidence how I have responded to the challenges of 2020. I have allowed the last year to fortify my cynicism and to coarsen my sense of empathy. I have responded to isolation, perhaps, by leaning in: by cultivating a kind of functional reclusiveness — walling off more people than I let in, putting up more barriers than I take down.

But that is how I enter Lent. And I do not think I am alone in that regard. My conversations and observations suggest that other people have had similar kinds of experiences, and similar responses.

So, as I am, I enter the desert with the Lord. Or, rather, he finds me already in the desert.

And it seems to me in this Lent, that rather than just giving up whiskey or breakfast burritos without reflection, I ought to ask the Lord to redeem the suffering of the last year. To make more of it than I otherwise could, by giving it to Christ on the Cross.

It seems I ought to ask him to help me distinguish between disaffectedness and real detachment. To help me renew friendships with greater depth and intimacy. To cultivate in me an awareness that every kind of isolation is also an invitation for greater unity with him.

I ought to ask the Holy Spirit to help me find —  in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving —  real Christian solidarity, and real hope, and real intimacy with the Lord. 

I have been blind, too often, to the truth: The desert of this year is also a kind of cathedral of divine intimacy — stripped down as we are, our suffering can conform us to the Suffering One, who hung on the cross for our salvation. It can make us to see the world as he does. To love as he does.

It is time, for me at least, to invite the Lord into the suffering of this moment.

“Lord, I am already suffering. Help me to suffer as you did, in your presence, and by your grace. Make beautiful this desert of suffering by the flow of living water. Prepare me, Lord, for resurrection and new life.”

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A few more links

The philosopher Charles Taylor’s work on the notion of secularity, on institutions and identity, and on the philosophy of religion has had influence on a number of Catholics, myself included. Taylor was honored with the 2019 Ratzinger Prize for his contributions.

On Saturday, Taylor talked about humanity, 2020, and faith, in a discussion with my friend Paolo Carozzo. I’ll be chewing on their conversation for a while.

Also, here’s Maytree, a Korean a capella ensemble, doing a delightful version of the Super Mario Bros. theme, and an excellent medley of movie intros. You should watch them.

Finally, if you like this newsletter, and want to support The Pillar’s work, remember to forward it to a few friends. Thank you for doing that. We appreciate it.


Have a blessed Lent.

Please be assured of our prayers, and please continue to pray for us.

Yours in Christ,

JD Flynn
The Pillar

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