For about 80 Roman Catholics who gather today in Timonium, the Ash Wednesday service starts with the opening of a gift-wrapped box.
Inside, a calendar showing the 40 days of Lenten prayer and fasting has been marked in purple, the color for the liturgical season.
Like many other Christians around the world, the worshipers begin their observation of Lent by wearing ashes on their forehead. Rather than waiting for the imposition of the ashes by a priest, however, the people are smudging the cross on each other's foreheads.
The unusual worship is the idea of Sister Ellen Carr, a Franciscan nun trying to reach the mentally retarded people who come to Francis X. Gallagher Services in Timonium.
To convey a religious mystery to people who range from moderately to profoundly retarded and incapable of speech, Sister Carr says she tries to be "as concrete and tactile as possible."
She thought about Lent as a gift of time set aside for preparing to receive the gift of salvation. "Most of our folks can respond to the concept of a gift," she said.
Sister Carr is in charge of spiritual development for 184 retardedadults who live in homes in the metropolitan area sponsored by Gallagher Services, an Associated Catholic Charities agency. Some live at the main residence on Pot Springs Road in Timonium or commute there by day for training in job skills and physical exercise.
Sister Carr often relies on the American Indian gestural code. One sign she makes frequently is the rubbing of the thumb against the tips of the fingers, a gesture that gives the sense of something being special or precious.
"Have you ever had the experience of understanding something that you can't put into words?" Sister Carr asked. That's how she imagines that spiritual recognition comes to the most severely retarded.
"One doesn't always know what's getting through," Sister Carr said, but she is confident that "God is not hampered by our intellect."
She has come by this assurance through experience. She cites her extensive efforts to prepare a profoundly retarded, non-verbal woman for first communion. As the priest consecrated the bread, the woman made the Indian gestural sign with her thumb and fingertips.
"That, for me, was an incredible affirmation," she said.
Another time, a chaplain overlooked a severely retarded, physically handicapped man who remained in the pews during communion. The man thumped his chest and kicked his legs until the priest noticed him.