Every Wednesday at an obscenely early hour of the morning, I attend a weekly breakfast business networking group that happens to meet a block from St. Patrick's Cathedral. This past week was Ash Wednesday, and so en route to the the meeting I passed dozens of people who had just received black smudges on their foreheads.
Years ago I remember seeing observers of Ash Wednesday and imagining how awful they must have felt while everyone stared as they tried to shoulder through the crowd. I was almost afraid to look, lest I be lumped in with the inconsiderate starers. But I really wanted to. How could anyone appear so willingly weird in public? The key to navigating New York City was ingrained in me since childhood: be quick and invisible. I've always been an artist and individualist, and never wanted to look or act like anyone else--but didn't want to be all that different, either. To engage in a public display of personal belief seemed embarrassing.
But now I want to high-five the forehead-smudged faithful as they walk past. They remind me of me on Yom Kippur, as I make my way through busy intersections dressed in white from head to toe, or the silent bond I feel whenever I notice a man in the the subway who's wearing a kippah , even if he's black-hat Orthodox and might not want to give me the time of day. I am momentarily jealous that the whole world can't see how much I appreciate the rituals of my tradition, as well. Believing in God, whatever that means, has changed me in a way that's a little like leaving adolescence. It's no longer just about what the world thinks of me, but that I am obligated to be and give of myself to this world--and am never alone in the process.