I was in Panera one night last week—which is where I am a lot of nights these days—writing on my laptop and listening to music in my headphones. Panera is not the hippest place to be writing a book about hipsters, but I like it because 1) it has free wifi, 2) it is about a block from my house, and 3) there are no pretentious people there. Just a lot of soccer moms, knitting groups, retirees and college students.
Anyway, as I was sitting there this night, I had this moment where all I could think about was the end of “The Weight of Glory,” when C.S. Lewis is talking about the “glory” of our neighbor, and how we should feel the burden of the fact that all people are either going to be glory-filled in heaven or gloriously hideous in hell, and that “all day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”
I was looking around Panera, listening to The Books / Jose Gonzalez’ cover of “Cello Song,” and I had one of those moments where something sort of obvious just hits you.
“There are no ordinary people,” Lewis says. “You have never talked to a mere mortal.”
The stakes are high. We cannot look flippantly on a human life—even strangers or enemies or the annoying people who sing too loudly and demonstratively in church. Whether we like it or not, all of these people are holy beings. As Lewis reminds us, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
Why is it so hard for us to remember this? It made me sad in Panera, looking around at all these people, recognizing that each one is a miracle, someone God created, and yet I so often live my life in the opposite way—caring little about strangers and actively avoiding the burden of my neighbor’s immortality. It’s certainly easier to find reasons to be annoyed by people, to avoid contact with those who are not like us. It’s definitely not the easiest thing in the world to look past the failings of people and love them in spite of it all.
But that’s exactly what we must do. We have to realize that we are all frail, hurting humans, in need of the same grace.
It’s a thought that seems especially appropriate today, on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the 40-day Lenten period in which we quiet ourselves in repentance, renewal and reflection in advance of Easter.
I love Ash Wednesday, because it is a day that is so much about the universal frailty and fallen-ness of man. We are all in this together, all in need of the humbling salvation of the cross. At my church and at many churches worldwide today, Christians will come together for worship, prayer, and the imposition of ashes. This part I love. An ash-marked cross on one’s forehead is a very strange thing to see (especially in a town as vain and airbrushed as L.A.), but it is beautiful. What a fantastic symbol of what Lent is all about: our coming into a focused, reverential meditation upon and solidarity with the suffering of Christ.
Ash Wednesday is a day that reminds us that while we all are physically finite, deteriorating creatures, we are also beautiful, immortal beings created for a greatness and glory we can hardly even fathom. All humans have this in common. We all fall down; We all fall sort. We are all in need of God’s grace. Every single one of us.