Ash Wednesday

I have a problem with Ash Wednesday.

Well, you might say, “Don’t go, then!” I mean, I’m not even a believer. But I am a chorister, which means that I’ve got to be there.

It also means not only that I know about the festivals of the Church – and have had plenty of time to think about them – but also that the ecclesiastical calendar, with all its markers in terms of ceremony, dress and, particularly, music, colours every part of the year for me. Christmas is Greatest Hits, of course. We all know the tunes and sometimes even some of the words. It is candles and holly and little glasses of sherry, and the contrast between the dark and cold outside and the cosy fug within. Holy Week, which the Choir, believing ourselves to be aficionados, prefer, is B-sides and rarities. It is a shared experience of emotional intensity, several consecutive nights of singing some of the gloomiest music that the best of Europe’s composers could produce within five centuries or so. We emerge from it slightly hysterical and elated and with an unwonted degree of affection for one another – as runners at the end of a marathon beam at, and embrace, one another.

Ash Wednesday is ninety minutes of contrition slipped rather incongruously into a midweek evening. It is dark and slow and flowerless, like the time of year at which it occurs. The music slides mournfully around the general themes of remorse and the fear of loss. Hide not thou thy face from us, O God, we sing. Have mercy upon me. I have sinned. The ashes they place on your forehead, you are supposed to wear as a visible sign of your contrition: a less specific, collective version of the Scarlet Letter.

Now contrition, like all negative emotions, is part of the human condition, just as joy and love and triumph are. Anyone who never felt remorse would either be a person with no conscience, or one fortunate, deluded or disciplined enough never to have done anything which piqued it. I wouldn’t like to associate with the former, and I’ve never met the latter. It is an important part of music’s value and its healing power that it has the capacity to articulate the full range of emotions for us, and in the Western tradition the church has got a stronger tradition of dealing with remorse – as it has for grief – and therefore has got very good at it.

Secular song is very strong on regret, of course, especially when it comes to lost love. “I wish, I wish, I wish in vain/ I wish I was a maid again,” mourns the forsaken girl in God knows how many ballads. “I’ve been crazy since you left me, I’m sorry for what I’ve done,” sang Primal Scream in (goodness me, was it really?) 1994. But generally speaking, secular song regrets the consequences rather than the actions themselves. “I played and I got stung,” Richard Thompson put it. (There is also a less extensive, but honourable, tradition of regretting ecological damage, which supports the point.) Church music articulates the feeling of knowing that what one has done is wrong, irrespective of whether it led to any negative consequences for oneself. We feel like that from time to time, and it is good to have the tools to explain it to oneself.

(Not, of course, that secular song couldn’t do the same. It probably does – just not as much. I have thought before that society could really do with a corpus of secular hymns which we could bring out at funerals and naming ceremonies and other events, which expressed the right sentiments without referencing God. I suspect that many of the efforts to write this would be cringe-makingly awful; but then, some hymns are, too.)

So what’s wrong with Ash Wednesday? If articulating remorse is healthy, what is wrong with doing it collectively? I think it depends on the way you take it. There are many optimistic, sanguine people for whom it probably does no harm at all. These are the people who can go into a public act of contrition simply to, as gospel singers might put it, lay their burdens down. People were supposed to make confession and be absolved, or shriven, on the previous day – hence, “Shrove Tuesday” and this fits – though presumably it could be stymied if you did something bad on Tuesday night. “I’ve been to get shriven,” one might say, beaming with cleanliness like a person stepping out of a sauna. Wash me throughly from my wickedness, we sing.

Then there are the people who enjoy a touch of guilt with their music in the same way as, when we are not especially troubled, we can relish a book or film about lost love, or enjoy publicly bemoaning the death of a celebrity whom we have never met. These things are the chilli in the stew of life. Too much of them, too acutely felt, would be painful, but in moderation or diluted by the rest of our existence, they help us to feel more alive.

Again, that’s fine, although you could argue that, if there is an actual function of remorse at all, it is to put you off making the same mistake again; and that’s lost if at some level you enjoy feeling sorry. Thackeray refers to “a man in Vanity Fair” who commits small offences on purpose, so that he can apologise for them, and the result is that everyone thinks that he is a little impetuous, but generally well-intentioned. Still. Again, no harm done.

The problem I have with Ash Wednesday is that, if truly taken seriously, it would be intensely damaging. If we genuinely feel that, at any arbitrarily-chosen point in our lives (such as a midweek evening in February) we are likely to be wretchedly sinful, such that a wallow in contrition is appropriate, that globalises and makes permanent the feeling of our own badness.

“Guilt,” someone once said to me, “is a waste of time. Think of it: when you’ve hurt someone, and you feel guilty, you aren’t doing them any good. All you’re doing is making yourself feel bad.” Our consciousness of our own conscience might be consoling because at least we can reassure ourselves that we are not hard-hearted. But it is useless to anyone else. In fact it might actually make us worse people: if we truly believe that, as the General Confession puts it, “there is no health in us,” then there may seem little point in trying to change. You don’t put effort into a cause you believe to be hopeless.

Worse, a sense of general badness indicates a horribly dysfunctional sense of self-esteem. And that is destructive. People who believe themselves to be worthless are cruel and neglectful to themselves, and, because they are miserable, sometimes they extend that negativity onto the world at large and treat it badly, too. There are jealous lovers who hate to leave their partners out of their sight because they can’t believe that anyone would want to be faithful to them. There are lonely people who spend their days ranting on Twitter about the iniquities in the news, and concluding that mankind is lost.

But, worst of all, there is the wanton squandering of human potential for achievement and happiness, which is the consequence of our inability to see ourselves as lovable. When talented women spend decades shifting bits of paper around in dead-end jobs and go home and weep for sheer boredom, or, more dramatically, when fine young men throw themselves from bridges, we are all losers. Ash Wednesday is not to blame, and, to be fair, in a mostly secular society, probably only a relatively small proportion of people even know it exists. But – much as I love the many settings of the Miserere – I would rather it were not as it is.