A “lapsed Catholic”. yearly I make note of Ash Wednesday, and think back on an annual ritual from my childhood, being anointed with ash on that day. I may no longer kneel to have my forehead marked with ash, but I do remember well how it felt to kneel in church, where the priest, passing along a row of genuflecting believers, murmured Latin words, dipped his finger in a little silver bowl and gently pressed the grey ash to foreheads. As I solemnly filed back to my pew I witnessed how parishioners bore expressions of a meditative calm on their faces.
From the time I was five years old and she six, Ildiko and I went to church on our own, without our parents. Anyu was embarrassed by our energetic tactics in church which included: dancing in the aisle during high mass; taking a forint from the offertory plate for every filler we were handed to put in; lying on the floor under the pews throwing and rolling our ill-gotten coin loot about on the marble floor; and singing in high-pitched Latin along with the priest during the Mass. Whenever our behavior degenerated to any of these low levels, Anyu projected a glare at Apu. This was the signal for him to remove us from the church and entertain us in the outer precincts. He didn’t seem to mind getting out from the Mass, either. He was Greek Orthodox and made disparaging comments about the “mysterioso lingua” used during the Roman Catholic services at that time. He was positivey jolly as he lit a cigarette outside the heavy wooden doors and watched us skipping up and down the basalt steps as we burned off excess energy.
It was when I was seven years old and Ildiko, eight, that I conceived an idea of where the priest obtained the ashes for Ash Wednesday. The previous summer we had gone for an outing with the family maid and had explored the precincts of the hill where the church, rectory and other ecclesiastical buildings were situated. Through one open doorway we observed nuns making the communion wafers on little pocked griddles over a fire. We lingered and watched, and as we did so, I began to have serious doubts that the Eucharist was really Christ’s body. I never managed to get past this doubt about communion and taking wafers made by nuns which were supposed to be somehow sanctified.
Then, a short while later, as we walked about on Bishop’s Hill we came upon a sight of several priests taking their leisure out-doors, lounging on chairs, drinking wine and smoking cigarettes. The maid hurried us from this scene with a promise to show us the well many townfolk had been thrown into by the triumphant Turks as a form of punishment. However, as she pulled me by hand from the sight of the drinking, smoking priests, I craned my head back for one more good, indelible, look.
The following year, on Ash Wednesday, Ildiko and I attended church service and were marked by ash. As I was receiving my spot of cinder, I lowered my eyes, craned my neck and through my eyelashes, took a good look at the ash in the silver bowl carried by the priest. It looked remarkably like a fancy version of Apu’s ashtray, minus the cigarette butts. My memory flashed to the sight of priests smoking and drinking in the rectory yard, and I was suddenly convinced that the priest obtained the ashes by collecting them from a year’s worth of ashtray contents. Suddenly, I felt cheated. It was not holy ash, sanctified residue, that marked me as a believer; it was only cigarette ash. Were all these churchgoers fooled into thinking this was a sacred ritual, special, laden with meaning, when it was ash-tray contents that were used to single us out as penitents? I thought I was onto something that needed discussion with Apu and Anyu, once we were home from church.
On the walk home I internally debated telling Ildiko about my conclusion. I decided not to reveal my idea to her, for certain she’s lecture me all the way home about having evil thoughts, ones unworthy of a good Catholic girl, and which thoughts surely well-paved my way to Hell where I would be justifiably and amply punished. I picked up a bit of the ash from my forehead with a saliva-wetted finger and surreptitiously tasted it to see if it tasted like cigarette ash. Ildiko sent me disgusted side-long glances and chastised me for wiping off my ash spot.
As we entered the vestibule of our apartment building, Mr. Weiss, our neighbour, was just going out for his constitutional. He smiled at us and noted that only Ildiko was marked. “Did you not get an ash mark, Gabi?” he asked.
I smiled at him and shrugged. Ildiko announced to him, “Like you, Mr. Weiss, Gabi is an unbeliever. She will pay for that later.” She ran ahead upstairs to tattle on me to Anyu. Mr. Weiss patted me on the shoulder and went out the door.
Upstairs, at home, I could hear Ildiko telling Anyu what a bad Catholic I was being in smearing and licking off my ash mark. I didn’t linger to hear Anyu’s reply to her; instead I sought out Apu in the salon . He was lounging by the radio, listening to Radio Free Europe and taking long drags from a lit cigarette. He waved me over and ruffled my hair when I came near. I leaned against the arm of the green chair where he sat, looked about for his ashtray. I put my fore-finger into the ashes, leaned over and put a spot of ash on Apu’s forehead.
“See, Apu, you really didn’t need to come to church today. I put the ash mark on you. It’s just as good as the ones Ildiko and I got this morning, because the priest probably got his ashes from his ashtray in the rectory.” I said with complete seriousness. ” Like you, he smokes cigarettes.”
Apu opened his eyes wide and looked at me; shook his head in disbelief and took a drag off his cigarette. He rose from the chair, went to the salon door, opened it and yelled to Anyu. “Rozsa, come here quick and listen to what Gabi has to say about Ash Wednesday!”