It was taking so long, I fumed, as I stood over a flat pan filled with pieces of burning palm, from last year’s celebration of Palm Sunday. Only straggly bits of ash broke free from the snapping flames, not nearly enough for tomorrow’s Ash Wednesday Mass in the convent chapel. It was 1968, New Orleans. Little did I grasp the significance of what I was doing—just one more responsibility as sacristan.

Only as years of ashen life experiences frittered into insubstantiality did I begin to wake up to my flawed humanness—a humanness I denied, disguised, expunged from awareness. I trusted no one with my inner world, not even God to whom I paid lip service as a nun, and later as a single woman.

But my spiritless world began to lift with my 1991 admission that I was an alcoholic, in need of the 12 Steps and daily meetings in the brownstone across the street. There, others interfaced their foibles with 12 Steps practice, often drawing guffaws from around the tables. Such stories chipped away my denial until I could identify with them. No longer was my humanness to be deplored, but I had amends to make, especially to myself.

12 Steps still burn the dross from the ongoing exploration of my humanness, crippled by decades of ill-placed thoughts and behaviors. Although I appreciate the ritual of ashes that opens the forty days of Lent, I’ve learned to live among my own ashes, in union with Higher Power. In Him alone do I find wholeness.

How I resonate with Joel, the prophet of penance: Return to me with your whole heart. Joel 2:12.