Three by five cards, each of which has upon it a prayer, written by hand, in pencil or in pen.
We gather them in worship, where they become part of that Sunday's public prayer. I take them afterwards and send them to our congregation's prayer circle, which lifts up those joys and sorrows to our Creator.
It's a soft sort of magic, as a small gathering of souls opens themselves to the needs of others. It is, I think, a vital part of any Christian gathering. We have to pray, but not because we feel it gives us power. Instead, because it is a vessel for compassionate remembrance, and a place for us to humbly hope for the best possible future for those whose lives are part of our own. It's an essential exercise in trust and compassion, a fundamental component of turning ourselves towards God and neighbor.
So on my desk, those prayers gathered this last year, until the stack was as thick as my fist.
I couldn't bring myself to recycle them. It felt wrong. These weren't pieces of junk mail, or old newspapers. But neither were they just another piece of clutter on my slightly disheveled desk.
And it occurred to me: these prayers will be the ashes for Ash Wednesday.
I know, I know, it's supposed to be the palms from Palm Sunday. I'd kept them around the office for a whole year for that very purpose, a great thick sheaf of light brown fronds.
But ash is ash, and carbon is carbon, and this felt...better. More right.
So I found a good fireproof steel bowl, and gathered that thick stack of prayers. I lit a match. Then one by one, I gave them to the flames.
As I fed them to the fire, I prayed over them, each and every one of them, one last time. Prayers for healing that came...and did not. Prayers hoping for a new thing to come to pass, and the prayers celebrating its arrival. Prayers for lives passed into God's care, friends and family, their names familiar. Prayers written in the hands of friends, and in the hands of children.
Hundreds of prayers, one by one remembered.
And then gone, the smell of their burning a rich smoke on my fingers. As we, ourselves, pass.
Those ashes, I will mix with a little oil.
And tonight, as we remember that we are dust and ashes, those sweet, mortal prayers will mark the cross on our foreheads.