Since moving out of the Catholic charity world some nine years ago to work in the commercial sector, I think this years comments on my appearance in the office following Ash Wednesday Mass were the most astonishing. From 'mud' to 'photocopier carbon' to 'printer ink' or just plain dirt, I was genuinely surprised at the sheer number of mis-informed guesses among my office colleagues today as to why I had a black mark on my forehead. The finality of this complete disconnect was emphasised all the more when I explained that it was Ash Wednesday, waiting for the penny to drop. Well if it was dropping, it was into a well of deep ignorance, certainly I didn't see or hear it hitting the bottom. Yet these are intelligent, worldly, knowledgeable people, with senior director level roles and responsibilities. Once the reason for my apparent slip in personal hygiene was established, the conversation immediately vaulted the obvious into a discussion about Dawkin's 'The God Delusion'. It was as if I was watching the history and culture that had knitted the social fabric of the West together for so long simply turning to dust before my eyes - like a piece of cloth that had lain undisturbed for two thousand years that is suddenly picked up and mishandled by a junior archaeologist - disintegrating to dust. The day had begun badly enough, my eldest son who attends a Catholic school - and a very good one at that,- seemed to know nothing of 'fasting and abstinence'. Okay they are certainly not terms an eight-year-old would use (and when even my email spell checker couldn't correct the mis-spelling of 'abstinence' I guessed we were all in trouble!). But at the very least I thought I should take the time to deliver some half baked attempt at explaining what they meant. My son listened and genuinely seemed to get the idea that Lent, fasting and abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday were sound ideas connected to the life of Jesus - and in particular his time in the desert. My 'on the hoof' spiritual testimony tried to get across the idea that fasting reminds us that food feeds the body which dies and that God feeds the spirit, the person, the soul - that bit of us that lives for ever. My son nodded thoughtfully, but when I explained that this was why, as he had now made his First Holy Communion, he couldn't have two slices of toast for breakfast this morning - well he lost the plot! I think about the anxieties in the air about the greater and greater establishment of Islam in the UK, I think about the teenagers kicking fathers to death, I think about the government not taking a simple decision that alcohol can only be sold in off licences and not supermarkets (at low, low prices) , and I wonder can it all be so unconnected? I'm reminded of the scripture story about keeping a tidy house after demons have been driven out only to have even more aggressive ones move in and how I eventually realised the lesson was to believe strongly in something good was the best way for society - any society - to avoid being dragged along by those who believed very strongly in something evil. I reflected on the fact that for the first time, we are entering a period when perhaps not one World leader had a direct personal connection or knowledge of the horrors of World War II. And I realise we are on the edge of something new, with our backs to the Old World, facing the wide open expanse of the future, and like the US Land Grabs of the 19th century, the next 150 years will belong to those who believe strongly in something, have youth, energy and conviction on their side, and I can't help a growing sense of anxiety that that doesn't mean those attending the Pope's World Youth Day. By this same time next year, the White House will have a new resident, the US will have a new direction - and the world will have a new opportunity. How it goes on from there is unclear. In some ways, the unfolding of the most intense voting in a US primary since forever is one bright note as we head into the second decade of the 21st century. And I guess I will be back in the office once more discussing the lyrics of David Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes" in some half cocked attempt to explain my ashen brow to the CEO. God save us all! William Carson, originally from Derry, N Ireland, is a freelance marketing and sales consultant. For nine years he was Sales and Marketing Manager at the CTS and continues to contribute where he can to life in the Church. He is married with three children and lives in North London. As a musician and songwriter he continues to perform as Williem Vincent - www.myspace.com/williemvincent.
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