On Ash Wednesday, of course, many of my employees come in with ashes on their foreheads. But I've never known where exactly they come from. One reason I've hesitated to ask is that a friend of mine says they have something to do with cremation. Is that right? My background is Hindu and we honor ashes.

We are about to save you from making a big social and religious gaffe. While one could imagine that the smudge on the forehead of Mike the receptionist could have been Uncle Charlie, such is not the case. Palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday are burned to provide the ashes, which are smeared on Christians' foreheads during Ash Wednesday church services as a symbol of repentance. Depending on the denomination, a priest or minister applies the ashes, saying "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return," "Turn from sin and be faithful to the gospel," or other phrases. Why use ash from burned palms? Just as Palm Sunday inaugurates Holy Week in the Christian year, Ash Wednesday begins the 40-day period of Lent. While most Catholics and many Episcopalians receive ashes, not all branches of Christianity mark Ash Wednesday the same way. Most Protestants don't receive ashes, though many seem plenty willing enough to wolf down pancakes on Fat Tuesday the day before.

How should a liberal who believes in tolerance and pluralism relate to a fundamentalist who thinks tolerance and pluralism are heresy? If liberalism tolerates fundamentalism, but the reverse isn't true, isn't the deck stacked for the fundamentalists?

As you realize, fundamentalism is a state of mind, not just a religious way of thinking. If we define a fundamentalist as one who has a fixed, unshakable set of assumptions, then the term applies far beyond religious conservatives. There are fundamentalist investors, fundamentalist architects, fundamentalist politicians, fundamentalist coaches, and so on.

An otherwise liberal-leaning health fanatic may hold very fixed beliefs about diet and exercise, admitting no possibility of error. Environmentalists, feminists and civil libertarians, though not usually lumped in with the fundamentalist crowd, often exhibit the very same reluctance to compromise basic suppositions. Rigidity and absolutism, therefore, by no means belong solely to religious fundamentalists. Fundamentalism does tend to see the truth as a narrow path, whereas liberalism sees many paths to the same end. But each is in its own way a dogma.

Now to the crux of the issue. It's obvious that fundamentalists don't agree with the idea that many paths lead to salvation; they want you to subscribe to their way. But that doesn't mean they all deserve to be branded as intolerant. A fundamentalist--on the right or on the left of the religious spectrum--may reject the content of your faith but be quite loving toward you. We all, it seems, want to save everybody else from something we regard as evil, be it the latest diet fad or cigarettes or day-trading.

It would be as unjust to assume that fundamentalists, the religious kind that is, cannot be as tolerant as it would be to assume that liberals eked the milk of human kindness. We're talking about all that space above and beyond our deepest convictions--fundamentalist or liberal--where we meet as human beings.

Seems like only yesterday I used to see those St. Christopher statues on the dashboards of cars. Now I hardly ever do. What happened?

Though it may be hard to believe at a time when saints are being installed at what seems breakneck speed, there was a period of serious downsizing that coincided with the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The Vatican, in effect, decided that dozens of figures who had been trusted with processing prayers of the faithful either never lived or had found their way on the honor role in dubious fashion. Without proof, many a saint was expunged without benefit of a generous buyout.

Sadly for many motorists, St. Christopher was among the exiled. As you will remember, legend said that he had carried the child Jesus across the raging river and, for that heroism, became the patron of travelers. But the records check produced a resume that was far too skimpy for the Vatican, so, as befits a patron saint of traveling, perhaps, he was sent packing.

Not forgotten, however. There remains a diminished St. Christopher following and at least a cottage industry still purveying the medals and statues that may have done more good than seatbelts ever will.

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