Clean Slate

asperges me and crescent

Liber Usualis, Tournai: Desclee, 1959; forged iron crescent by Cody Dickerson

It is coming on the hollow of the year here in the Northern hemisphere. New resolutions, a clean slate. For some, the chance to experience pure snow (however fleeting the unbroken white blanket once it touches down). A good time to clean out, clean up inside and out. To reboot the mind and the spirit. To wash oneself.

There are many traditions of cleansing.

I can’t say that I, as a small Catholic girl, felt new and clean after our weekly confession ritual. More like guilty, since I did not really understand the process of sinning and reporting on same. After all, this was long before habit-tracking and bullet journaling, and who knows exactly how many times I disobeyed my parents in a given week? I made up a number that seemed reasonable, without the recursive self-awareness to report that I’d just lied, having no idea of how many times I did anything, good or bad. Well, the bad anyway. (There was no place to report on being good, so no need to keep track.)

Since then, I’ve alternated haphazardly, being sensitive/oblivious to the whole notion of cleaning. But sometimes I sensed that a certain place or atmosphere helped me feel clearer, like some dark internal programs had powered themselves down, leaving the airwaves open.

“Who were you before they told you who to be?” spray-painted on an abandoned sheet of corrugated metal, was a challenge that haunts me still. A lot of layers to scrape and wash off, if I want to get back there. Cleansing seems as much a part of our nature as getting dirty in the first place. Maybe you know already what you need to do to wash down your spirit so you can start afresh. Perhaps meditating is what you need. Or sleep, or a good tare with a good pal. All of these can (temporarily!) disconnect the overloaded circuitry that causes your inner hard drive to under-perform.

Lately, the intentional outer gesture that amplifies the inner one has acquired urgency for me. I finally get that I am a being in brief time, in materia. I’m not just a swirl of half-formed thoughts after all.  So I see the value–necessity, even–in making an act, sounding a word. Making ritual, in other words. Engaging in a way that speaks my silent intention in outer actions. It’s the stick in the stream that changes the coursing water ever-so-slightly. Water–seemingly without memory, constantly adapting and metamorphosing–water does remember. And eventually the course of the river is changed.

I’m fortunate enough to have learned some practices that make sense to my body and the landscape of my life, from real people rather than from some anonymous internet page. You and your own conduit to “the self you were before they told you who to be” can find what lets your intention speak most clearly.

Maybe you have noticed the sticky feeling of some people’s energy entangling you or weighing you down (or maybe you think that’s just crazy talk, which is fine too). Like ear wax, the stuff seems to coat our receptive organs, reducing clarity of perception. I do notice, and I’m glad that I learned (from Aidan Wachter) a practice of cutting those web-like strands that cling. I used to use a butter knife for the purpose–which actually worked fine, until recently I decided to pizazz it up with the hand-forged crescent in the opening picture. Which hopefully will not have me slicing parts I actually want to keep. It’s hard to be a drama queen, but you gotta live dangerously sometimes. It’s a tool that means business and I feel safe in its embrace.

The same things that can naturally clean your home will probably cleanse you–lemons and vinegar, lavender and thyme, rosemary and baking soda and holy water (anything from whiskey to water blessed by the moon or the saints might qualify there).  It’s good to find something that resonates and stick to it, rather than being perennially off-center trying to follow an over-abundance of advice. (If you are really flailing, you might check out Brianna Saussy’s suggestions on cleansing baths.) As you live into what you are doing, changes will suggest themselves. Follow them.

For a while now I’ve engaged in a practice of spiritual baths, in a form I learned from Fabeku Fatunmise. Doing something intentional, for a specific period of time, is a discipline that in itself can knock a bit of the cobwebs off. I did some chanting, some praying in these baths, per instructions. But little by little, as I settled into the form, I discovered myself recollecting bits of a different chant, one I used to know long ago. Something in me wanted to bring this Gregorian chant into what I was doing. It felt more organic, and it seemed to bubble up (sorry) from a deep place. Eventually I remembered the whole thing (okay, actually I looked it up in my Liber Usualis because I couldn’t recall a word or two). It’s an antiphon, a short musical message. Appropriately enough, one of cleansing: Asperges me.

Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor.

Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.

(Thou shalt sprinkle me, O Lord, with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed;

Thou shalt wash me, and I shall become whiter than snow. )

Simple words that voice my wish for a clean slate, for those silent white flakes to fall gently on me, washing me.

Hyssop. I got reintroduced to it fairly recently when I became a fan of za’atar, a Middle Eastern mix of herbs that gets spooned onto, well, pretty much everything on my plate nowadays. It has a perhaps acquired taste, acrid and spare. I ran out of my  initial supply and, living far from any cosmopolitan place, scoured the internet for more. I found that the ambiguous principal ingredient in my now-emptied jar of za’atar –“an herb similar to thyme”–was actually hyssop.

So I have a rather personal relationship with hyssop, and we go farther back than I’d realized. Per the helpful folks at Wikipedia, it’s a biblical herb with a long history of cleansing. The exact species is thought to be Origanum syriacum, though I can’t say my za’atar label is that specific. Thyme, the more familiar herb, is a powerful cleanser and anti-microbial, as even the makers of the original Listerine knew. Hyssop tastes like its more exotic, complicated, seriously passionate cousin.  So yes, by all means sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall surely be cleansed inside and out.

The Asperges me was sung before Mass. The priest sang it during a rite of sprinkling the congregation as he entered the church. It was sung all year round, except during Easter time when bigger things were presumably happening–the whole blessing of a risen Christ being an automatic cleanse, one might say. Since I’m not very up-to-date on current Catholic practices I don’t know if some modernized form is now used, but for me it hardly matters. Asperges me, in all its Latin glory, resonates with my particular time warp, and that is what does matter. To me, anyway.

The Asperges me antiphon is not the whole of what was chanted before the Mass. The antiphon itself is kind of like the chorus, or maybe more accurately the bread of a prayer sandwich. After the Asperges me is sung, there’s another part: Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy. (Miserére mei, Deus, secúndum magnam misericórdiam tuam.) Followed by the ubiquitous formulation of three: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. (Glória Patri, et Fílio, et Spirítui Sancto. Sicut erat in princípio, et nunc, et semper, et in sæcula sæculórum. Amen.) And then the Asperges me is sung again.

Gregorian chant isn’t like chanting a mantra, repeating a phrase over and over again. It can get pretty elaborate, and repetition is rare. But the two halves of Asperges me are musically similar, and end in rhyme (mundabor and dealbabor). So on the Gregorian spectrum, it leans slightly Eastward, one might say. You could make the Asperges me into a kind of mantra if you wanted to. That’s what I’ve been doing lately, in the shower. I like the feeling of old with new, repurposing the antiphon by finding its original purpose in my own fashion. The fashion, perhaps, of who I was or am…before. A single act, that threads early memories with recent stirrings, brings unity and a wonderful inward economy of line. Getting rid of the tottering piles that clutter my internal living space, so there’s a line-of-sight inside.

Here’s the chant. It did not turn out much like my shower version (the harp’s a tight squeeze, after all) but then, it’s not just water that can wash over us. Smoke, sound, the solstice, vibrations of all kinds…

I’m wishing your seeds of light a righteous nourishment in the darkness of this time. May you become whiter than snow, or whatever color best suits your cleansed self.

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