Ash Wednesday Ritual

There are very, very few things I have kept in my practice from my Methodist upbringing, but one of them is a strong appreciation for the observance of Ash Wednesday.  It is a day to release those things that weigh on you, to give up that which is not healthy, to let go of guilt, and prepare for the promise of the coming year.

I developed a ritual of my own for this day over the last few years, and I thought perhaps I’d share it here in case others might find some inspiration in it.

Ash Wednesday/Ash Moon Ritual

I typically perform this ritual at night, when the sky is dark except for the stars.  It is not necessary to do this on the exact day designated by the Christians as Ash Wednesday, unless that day has particular significance to you.  I prefer to time this with a waning or dark/new moon near but usually before Ostara.  All elements are mostly improvised, so if the idea appeals to you, there is certainly no need to follow the description below to the letter.  As in all things, be creative, and do what feels right to you.

Morning of: Rinse hair in tincture prepared the night before of sage, walnut and rosemary.

Late evening: Ground and center, reflect and meditate on the cleansing energy of the waning or new moon.  Think of preparing yourself for the fresh start that will come with the waxing of this moon cycle and the advancing spring.  I like to have a small glass of water with a few drops of walnut essence for courage, independence, and relief of tension.  Prepare for the ritual by washing your face and hands, brushing your teeth.  Ready your physical body with cleansing in the spirit of renewal.  As you wash your face, visualize yourself at the bank of a moonlit river, covering your face with mud.  Visualize the mud seeping up all residual negativity from the last year, and as you rinse your face, picture your shedding past dissolving away in the current, running toward the sea-source, being purified and re-purposed.

Run a warm bath and set aside a chosen combination of oils to add to the water later.  You can arrange the timing how it works best for you, but if you run the bath hot, you can complete the next steps while allowing the bath to cool.

Much of this ritual involves allusions to the statement, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”  If this smacks too much of Christian doctrine for you, a similar quote with a more pagan feel from Matthew Arnold’s Empedocles on Etna expresses similar sentiments:

“To the elements it came from\Everything will return.\
Our bodies to earth,\Our blood to water,\Heat to fire,\Breath to air.”

A text that would work equally well is the song “We come from the Goddess, and to Her we shall return\Like a drop of rain flowing to the ocean.”  I have pleasant associations with this song, so I will often chant this as I center prior to beginning the ritual.

When you are relaxed and focused and have raised any protective power you feel necessary, go to a secluded place outside where you can see the sky, and invite your chosen spirits to witness by the ringing of chimes or by an invocation.

Sit and contemplate the significance of the day, this time to acknowledge those experiences that have built on your shoulders over time, and the opportunity to liberate yourself from these bonds.  As you ponder, list those things you wish to dispel on a narrow strip of paper.  Between each affirmation, write repetitions of the phrase “I am dust, and to dust I shall return,” or variations on that phrase, like a refrain between each verse.


I am dust and to dust I shall return.
I will release my burdens and fears.
I am of dust and to dust I shall return.
I will let heal my aged wounds.
I am the daughter of dust and to dust I shall return.

I will uncover my shame and doubt.
I am the dust and to dust I shall return.
Blanket me, oh sacred, loving, all-embracing, creating, destroying dust.

When your list is complete, or as you are writing, light some dried sage in a small cauldron so that it burns slowly but steadily.  Tear each verse from your paper and read it aloud — proclaim and declare it to your spirit witnesses, then burn it in the sage fire to seal your promise and banish that which you are releasing.  Gaze into the fire and measure your breathing.  Reflect on each declaration as it burns; watch the variations in the flame, the smoke, the smell.  Continue, repeating a variation on your refrain after each verse until each and all are consumed by the purifying flames.  When this is done, all of the dried sage should also be burnt.

Dampen and extinguish any remaining embers with old soil from withered plants or neglected corners, and mix in the ashes with the soil using your hands.  Feel the residual heat from your fire warming the soil, picture it as gestating life stirring in the earth as you add nutrients to renew the soil.  Ensure that the fire is completely out, then sprinkle the ash-enriched soil at entryways and sacred places around your home, saying as you do so, “Protect my home and all within.”

Smudge some of the ashes on your forehead or body before returning inside and entering the bath to meditate on the energy of release and purify your body with a hyssop and sea salt scrub.

Ring the chimes again and ground your energy to close.  Drink the remainder of the walnut essence water.

I like to complete the closing of the ritual with a long-term divination reading to look ahead to the coming year.

As a footnote, one of the more common Psalms to be read at Ash Wednesday services is the Miserere (Psalm 51), and it has been compared interestingly to the ancient Egyptian Opening of the Mouth ceremony, which has some textual parallels.  The Opening of the Mouth was a ritual performed on the mummies of the recently deceased and also on religious statuary to imbue them with the life and spirit of the deceased or of the deity they represented, and to allow that deity or spirit to breathe, speak, and experience all offerings provided to their physical image on the material plane.  In the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, the presiding priest holds a ritual tool (usually an adze, a kind of carving tool) to the mouth of the image to “open” it.  This process has been compared to the practice of swiping a finger along the mouth of a newborn to clear its airways and allow it to breathe — awakening its spirit.  Although Psalm 51 is a song of repentance, it is also one of renewal, and although Ash Wednesday has historically been associated with confession of sins, it is also a moment for rebirth, and I feel this is an important quality to invite at this time of year.

In peace (em hotep),



I recently visited an art museum exhibit on the mourning statues from the court of the Duke of Burgundy, and I was moved by their visual representation of the leveling power of grief.  At the funeral for the Duke in 1419, black robes were handed out among the attendees to be worn over their clothes, concealing all symbols of rank and status, and uniting clergy, nobility, and the poor into one class for a fleeting moment.  All were equally powerless under death.

A local choir ensemble prepared a special concert of medieval music in conjunction with the Mourners exhibition, and you can listen to or download the songs by clicking on the picture above and scrolling to the bottom of the page.  The recordings are haunting and beautiful.

I also recently made an emotional discovery while rifling through an old file of family history archives.  My immediate family uses the nickname “Addie” for me.  I had known since I was younger that this was the name of an ancestor who had died at a young age of typhoid during the family’s westward movement in a covered wagon from Ohio.  By chance last week, I stumbled across her obituary, which I had never before read or even known to exist.  Although written in an age where infant mortality rates were over 20% in America, and death on the plains was an everyday occurrence that could not interrupt the daily necessities of hard labor required to survive, this passage is written with more depth and eloquence than I have ever seen in an obituary in my time.

Friday, September 16, 1892
Gray County Kansas

Miss Addie M_, aged 15 years and three months, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. D. M_, died at the family residence last Monday after a very brief illness, and was buried in the Cimarron Cemetery Tuesday afternoon.  It is said that “the remorseless past stands ever near, breathing through the broken cords of life its never-ending dirge.”  Death invades every home, and “life after life flowers out from the darkness but to sink back into it again.”  And so Death’s silent and remorseless step trod the precincts of David M_’s home and with his icy fingers sundered the cord that bound their darling to earth and set her spirit wending its way into eternity, shocking friends and making desolate the hearts of relatives – the more cruel, apparently, because of her youth, as she had just fairly started up life’s incline, at the summit seemingly such beautiful consummations awaiting her grasp.  Death met and claimed her, but remorseless as death is, and possessing power to kill, he cannot extinguish the light of  a correct life left behind.  The sympathy of the entire community is extended to the bereaved parents.

To this article was appended the following:

October 14, 1892

As we go to press, it is reported that David M_, who has been sick for several days past, is dying.  A daughter was buried a short time ago, and two other children are sick.

October 21, 1892

David M_, of whom mention was made in these columns last week died about 3 o’clock Monday morning of typhoid fever.


My great-great grandfather died at age 38, only one month after the death of his daughter Addie, leaving his grieving wife Mary alone in a sod house on 160 acres of plains, a widow with six surviving children, including one 18-month old baby (born en route as they crossed Illinois) and a seventh child on the way — my great-great aunt Clara, who would be born six months after her father’s death.

Addie and her father David were buried at a fork in the Santa Fe Trail in Kansas in an unmarked grave for 98 years, until 1990, when my relatives pooled their money to erect a gravestone at the site.  Mary left Kansas shortly after the death of her child and husband, moving her brood of seven another 500 miles alone.


Although the typical season for this is autumn, I am taking some time this week to honor the memory of all those who have gone before, buried in plains and forests and along mountains and rivers, in this country and overseas.

Rest in peace, beloved family.  Your final resting place may not be known, but you have not been forgotten.



One of my favorite winter activities is making pomanders: clove-studded, spiced, cured fruit that smells heavenly for years.  Really, years.  They are lovely for decorating and also make nice gifts for the holidays, and also make nice talismans for health to have around your home.

The word “pomander” comes from the French “pomme d’ambre,” or “amber apple.”  In the middle ages, the royalty and nobility carried elaborately constructed metal pomanders which they filled with scented resins (such as ambergris) and spices.  These helped cover up the smell of the ages, but also were believed to ward off the smell of death and protect the wearer from the plague.


The pauper’s version, and the one of which I am fond, is made by taking a citrus fruit (orange, lemon, lime, etc.), studding it with whole cloves, rolling it in spices and powdered orris root (a natural preservative derived from the root of the iris plant), and then drying it — either over time in a dark, dry place, or in an oven on low heat.  *TIP* — if your pomander is losing its potency, try tossing it in the oven to warm for a while.  The heat will revive the fragrance, and waft it merrily through your house.

I once wrote a Shakespearean-style sonnet based on the concept of the pomander, but it was terrible!  So instead of plaguing you with my shoddy poetry, here is a video of the first steps of the pomander-making process, made slightly less boring (hopefully) with a little help from Mademoiselle Françoise Hardy.


After the studding process is complete, I like to roll my pomanders in some combination of cinnamon, powdered clove, nutmeg, pumpkin pie spice and orris root before curing.  Smells DE-Licious, and it smells like the holiday season!