keys – a Lenten meditation

IMG_3259Keys. I have a bunch; carrying them every day. Most of the time, I am mindful of their weight and that they wear holes in my pockets.

Keys also symbolically are weighty, representing my responsibilities, the daily load of my cares. The keys to our home remind me of mortgage payments and maintenance costs – and, as our domicile also is a bed and breakfast, keys open the door to guests, who, in exchange for our welcome, pay a fee, thus helping our business thrive (talk about the weight of worry!). The key to my car reminds me of the monthly note. The key to the gate, our need for security.

Sometimes I wish I didn’t have keys, for then I would be free of these responsibilities and cares.

Sometimes, yes, I wish, but only briefly. For having no keys would mean I had no home, no place of my own, and no transportation to take me where and when I wanted to go.

This came to mind whilst driving to church yesterday for the Ash Wednesday service. There was a chill in the air, abetted by a bracing wind; together, a bitter advent to the coldest temperatures in upstate South Carolina in 100 years. I passed a young man walking in the opposite direction. Wearing a pair of overlarge sweat pants, mismatched boots, a soiled hoodie topped by a worn coat with torn sleeves, he bore a large misshapen bag. I surmised that he was homeless.

Not always, but oftentimes, those who have no dwelling to call home have no keys. There is a freedom from responsibility in that, but, surely, no liberty from care or from fear. I wonder whether that young man, my young brother has keys. And if not, would he want them. And if so, what was I doing – in attending an Ash Wednesday service to be anointed with ashes as an outward sign of the luxury of my reflection, however brief, on my fleshly impermanence – to help him obtain them? Nothing.

As quickly as the question came to mind, I also knew that I need not answer. For what personal relationship did I have, do I have with him? None.

Nevertheless, he (I call him Adam, from the Hebrew ādhām, man) stays with me. The image of his slow-trudging, stoop-shouldered, heavy laden frame is an Ash Wednesday living commemoration of the universality of mortality, in the words of the Isaac Watts hymn, “for all that dwell below the skies.” In this, I am responsible for that young man, my young brother, Adam, who, doubtless, will appear again as he is or as another. In that, I will be given a key opportunity to do something.

4 thoughts on “keys – a Lenten meditation

  1. Sometimes I wonder, when what we see causes us to reflect, does that not also give us the opportunity to act? Sometimes, when I’ve been on my way somewhere and that person crosses my path, I take them with me, metaphorically, as I continue on my way. But there have been other times when I have stopped and done what I could in the moment. Sometimes it has made me late. Sometimes it has caused me not to show up where expected at all. It hasn’t yet gotten me in any trouble. My question, to myself of course, is shouldn’t I stop every time? I don’t know. I just don’t know.


  2. Ah yes, KEYS!!!! They represent so much for us! Keys represent all of the weight and responsibility, AND all of the security and gratitude too. At least 20 times during the current cold snap and snow I’ve given thanks that I have a house with heat and electricity and a car that saves me from walking or catching the bus. I’m beyond grateful for everything that I have.

    I’m sure many of us in this frigid weather have walked or driven past an “Adam” in our own towns. They stay in our minds too. Every day on the way home I drive past one of the largest homeless shelters in DC, right across the street from Police Headquarters and Superior Court. No matter the weather, there are always a huge group of folks outside. That was just as true today as the wind began to howl, though today they were much more hunched over, just as you described “Adam”. I wonder, why stand outside in single digit temps when you could be inside the shelter where I imagine it has to be warmer. Then it hits me, I’ve NEVER been to a homeless shelter other than to drop off food, so maybe it’s a horrible place to be even in the freezing cold. I have no relationship with these folks either, though I have come to recognize some of the “regulars” as I drive by. I’ve always thought as I’ve driven by that I need to do something… BUT WHAT??… there are far more people standing outside that shelter than I could ever help. BUT what you’ve given me this Lent is the opportunity to reflect on How I could help. Now the KEY is for me to put that opportunity into action. Thank you!


    • Loretta, you’ve raised the essential question always on the minds of the caring: how to help, especially when need always overwhelms capacity. Your wonderment about why folk stand outside in inclement weather when they could be inside leads me to reflect on an experience years ago… I took part in establishing the Charleston Interfaith Crisis Ministry in Charleston, SC, during my tenure there as a parish priest (1982-88) and I remember talking with some of our sisters and brothers who were homeless about their trepidations of entering the shelter – fearing theft and physical abuses of every sort imaginable (especially if they, adults, were accompanied by and caring for their children). I realized then that though they described a life I blessedly had not known (and never would want to know), I had to acknowledge and accept the reality of their experience if I had any intention and desire of remaining in honest conversation.

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  3. Yes, Sandy, I agree and believe that seeing (and I say this as a decidedly visual learner) causes me to reflect (which, sometimes, is the action I take). And, yes, I’ve had moments when noticing, arrested by another with whom our paths cross, I, as Jesus witht he blind man, stop; and, yes, I confess, at other times, as the priest and Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, I pass by on the other side. I am not at all sure why, in one case, I chose/choose the former, and, in another, chose/choose the latter. I suspect that my uncertainty – yet, at the same time, ever feeling, sensing the inner call to respond – makes this Ash Wednesday moment of seeing the young man remain alive, afresh in my consciousness.


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