I love heating our house with wood. Particularly up here in Michigan (at least compared to the Illinois prairie where we just moved from), firewood is cheap and abundant. Several people up and down our road, including our next door neighbor (no, not the one with the killer dog), seem to spend their entire summers cutting and splitting mountains of trees. The result is a fairly inexpensive, plentiful, renewable source of American-made fuel.
The house we bought has an oil burning furnace, which is our first experience with home heating oil. Is this stuff expensive or what? Fortunately, the system of baseboards that the furnace pumps hot water up to is pretty intelligently set up. There are three zones: one for the whole downstairs, one for the two childrens’ bedrooms upstairs, and one for the master bedroom upstairs. In other words, during the day, we can use oil to heat just the two rooms where the kids do their schoolwork. The woodburner the previous owners left is one of those sealed fireplace units with a blower fan, and it easily puts out enough heat to keep the whole downstairs comfortable. No, it’s not as nice as the Amish-made wood cookstove we had in Illinois, and the blower won’t do us much good in a power outage, but for daily use it is wonderful. (And we may well replace it with a cookstove next winter.)
Anyway, the biggest problem with this woodburner is the ashes. Our cookstove had slats at the bottom of the firebox, so the ashes would fall through and collect in a long metal drawer underneath. When it got full, it was very simple to pull that drawer out, carefully take it outside, and dump the ashes in a metal can for later use in the garden. In our new woodburning unit, the ashes simply accumulate and pile up in the bottom of the fireplace. Each day, the fire must be built slightly higher than the previous day’s fire. Each day, there is slightly less room for firewood. This is a subtle and almost indiscernable process; you don’t realize how much fire space you’ve lost until you discover yourself struggling to cram pieces of wood into the box.
This weekend, I realized just how much ash had accumulated. We let the fire go all the way out, and then I started shoveling. And shoveling. And shoveling. Had to be careful not to spill ashes on the carpet as I knelt and gingerly emptied each shovelfull into a container. Finally, ten minutes later, the great bulk of the ashes had been removed and we could build another fire.
I’ve been thinking about that process since yesterday, when we had a somewhat different commemoration of ashes. We went to Mass in the morning, and the priest made a large cross of ashes on our foreheads, admonishing us to “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Ashes are a symbol of death; indeed, they are all that’s left over when all the wood’s fuel has been burned. So we put the ashes on to remind us of our own mortality, and that, as St. Paul says, tempus breve est (time is short).
But perhaps the ashes can mean even more than that. Don’t “ashes” also symbolize all the death that we’ve allowed to accumulate in our lives? All the bad habits and self-indulgences? All the creature comforts we allow ourselves? All the duties we procrastinate about fulfilling? All the little ways we waste time at work? Over the course of a year, all these things accumulate and fill the firebox so slowly, we don’t realize how much smaller our fire has gotten as a result. We need to shovel all those things out, and build the fire anew. And that’s what I love so much about Lent.
And you know what really surprised me? When I shoveled the ashes out this weekend, I’d thought the fire had completely cooled. But it hadn’t. Once I started digging deep, I discovered lots of coals that were still burning bright red. Somehow, under all those ashes, with no air or fuel, they had remained unextinguished. As I worked, I moved these coals to the side. When the ashes had been removed, I piled all the coals back up in the middle of the firebox. I then “framed” them on either side with large pieces of wood, and began piling fuel on top of the coals. Paper, twigs, cardboard, and then branches and larger pieces of wood. Soon, the fire was burning again — and bigger than ever.
Under all those ashes we’ve let accumulate since last Easter, I bet each of us still has plenty of nice red coals. Let’s get those ashes out and see what we can do to get our spiritual fires blazing again.