Dust and Ashes

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On this Ash Wednesday, I share with you an excerpt from my book, Shaking the Gates of Hell:

It’s this radical humility that is absolutely essential to our time.Brian Swimme

As we consider the destruction of the earth and the suffering of our fellow creatures, both human and nonhuman, two primary responses seem appropriate: repentance and humble acceptance of our own mortality. In Christianity ashes are used to symbolize these two themes on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. In Ash Wednesday services the imposition of ashes is a way of showing our repentance, our intention to turn away from harmful actions and to turn back toward God. As we consider the damage to the earth we are called to repent of our own violence, greed, and over-consumption, our participation in ecological destruction and human misery. We are called to repent of our complicity in the harm caused by the institutions and systems of which we are a part.

We are also called to a humble acceptance of our place in the universe: “Remember, O mortal, that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” Ashes symbolize our mortality, reminding us of who we are: human beings, made up of the dust of the earth. Humus, human, humility—these words all have the same root. Our bodies are made up of the same elements that make up the earth’s crust. For that matter, we are made up of the same elements that make up the stars. We are, quite literally, star dust (as Joni Mitchell wrote in her song “Woodstock”). We participate in the great unfolding journey of the universe, and our role is to celebrate in mystery and awe. And yet we are mortal. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

T.S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday” brilliantly portrays the dual Lenten focus on repentance and acceptance of our mortality. It expresses a sense of dust and ashes, of hopelessness, of powerlessness to change. These feelings resonate with many people facing the pain and challenges of the world today. But then, in the poem, surprisingly:

The lost heart quickens and rejoices

for the lost lilac and the lost sea voices

and the weak spirit quickens to rebel

for the bent goldenrod and the lost sea smell

quickens to recover the cry of quail

and the whirling plover.

The earth has the power to call us back to life, through the divine Spirit that moves through creation. In some mysterious way, the earth can provide us with an antidote to despair and can renew our spiritual connection with what is deepest within our souls. It is our context, our “ground of being,” through which the Spirit touches us, reminding us of what is real and important, who we are, and with whom we are connected.

Teach us to sit still,

even among these rocks,

our peace in His will.

And even among these rocks,

Sister, Mother, and spirit of the river, spirit of the sea

Suffer me not to be separated,

And let my cry come unto Thee.

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