Dust You Are

I like Lent. It is one of my favorite parts of the liturgical year. I drape our altar with purple cloth and I light candles under my icons of John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. I look at John the Baptist with his head on that platter, and I smile to him (as Thich Nhat Hanh would say, I smile “to” him, not “at” him). I smile because I know that some day I, too, will be transfigured, my godly, righteous wings billowing behind me and the symbol of my mortality and my willingness to suffer, offered up, robust and nourishing, like a Thanksgiving fowl. As that southern preacher, Dwight Thompson, used to like to holler, “HA HA, DEVIL! HA HA DEVIL!”

This icon of St. John the Baptist always makes me want to shout like a Pentecostal. So I smile to Dwight Thompson, too.

On Ash Wednesday, we went to mass first thing in the morning. That mass is the one for our local Catholic school, so the sanctuary is full of children. When I receive the ashes on my forehead, the lady placing them with the sign of the cross smiles into my eyes. She smiles and says, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

I love that part. I love it. It’s so true. It’s just real. It’s what’s been bothering me for years. It’s what’s bothering me now.

Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.

Why does it take so long to return to dust? Why must we suffer and struggle in this life? I’m tired all the time. I sleep about six hours a night, or less, because my husband snores and thrashes, and my house is full of children and young adults who haven’t launched yet because I have so many children so close in age that I don’t have a quiet room of my own. I didn’t think about it; nobody told me when I built my house that my husband would turn 50 and he would begin to snore like a bear, and that his sleep habits and patterns would change as he aged–as mine have, too–and I would soon begin to feel like a mother with a nursing baby. Only there’s no baby. I’m just as tired as I was when I had one, though.

Then, add to the exhaustion the fact that I have elderly parents and my attitude about them has changed. My brother and I now say to one another, “We won’t tell them thus-and-so, because they’re old now; they deserve their peace.” We don’t confide our worries or concerns or problems with our kids to them any more, we confide in one another. This is a good thing, but it’s also strange. Our parents are more like beloved, octogenarian children to us. We caretake them. And yet, we are still caretaking children.

Our teenagers are nearly adults, but not quite yet. They’re full of energy and new selves and they’re high maintenance. When they learn to drive, we learn to drive with them. All over again.

That’s exhausting and nerve-wracking too.

Eight years ago, when my daughter died, I had a lot of pain. But it was a different sort of emotional pain than the one I’m having now. One of my daughters told me that a lot of energy has gone out of me over the past decade and perhaps not enough has gone back in. I think she’s right. Yet I don’t know how to get the energy back in.

I do know one thing, though: I love God. I have never loved God as much as I love God now. I tear up when I think of God and I run to them/him/it/her in my heart. He/she/they is/are everything to me.

This is why I love Ash Wednesday. I know I am ashes. To ashes I will return. When I think about my daughter’s remains, which are ashes, I think about how they are not her. She is still alive, not just “somewhere” in some unknown place, but in Him. She is in Him and He in her, they in us and the whole universe is contained in those ashes.

Today, I’m not ashes. I suffer as we all do under the curse of toil, labor, and always longing for rest. St. Symeon the New Theologian, whose work we’ve been reading in our book group, said that we err when we don’t recall to mind always that we are under a sentence of hard work, that life is all about work and toil and difficulty and we want repose for our souls. I know that we’ll even sell our souls to get that rest; but we’re never going to find it here.

All year I’ve said “I need a vacation.” What I mean by that, I’ve realized (thank you, St. Symeon) is repose. I want rest in this world. I know this is not heaven; it’s not here. But I’ve been confused, thinking I can find rest here. When this happens; when that happens; when I can get eight hours sleep; when my college kids move out; when I clean this up; when that is remodeled; when that is paid off; when this person does that; when I do such-a-thing.

I become very determined in my earthiness and, true to my Capricorn goat, I lower my head and butt circumstances and people out of the way, making room for repose, only to realize it’s not where I thought it was. The whole time, “the kingdom of God is within you.” The remodeling and moving and changing I need to do is here, inside me.

Oh, how I hate that and resist that. It makes me 100% accountable and responsible, through attitude and thought alone, the only things others cannot dictate, for my own repose and peace. My aging body will betray me. My family and friends, too. But my own attitude; my own thoughts, of these I’m in control. Until and unless my mental faculties degenerate, I’m responsible.

Dust you are, and to dust you shall return. And the kingdom of God is within you.

9 responses

  1. A…. you, out of *my* league? How could that be? I don’t even have a league. I wish I had one, though. I don’t even feel like I belong within myself these days. So I’m glad you commented!

    Living Buddha, Living Christ is also one of my favorite books. I’d just read it for the first time a few years ago. Buddhist thought has changed my life for the better, and I’m so grateful for the tools of Buddhism. They helped me to understand my Western faith better and to see that it has Eastern roots!

  2. Hello, RG! Long time, no see! I’ve thought a lot about you over the past weeks as I haven’t written, but have followed the political races (and voted, ugh). I plan to meander over to your blog tomorrow and catch up. See you there!

  3. Thank you for this most wonderful reflection. It is good to remember that we are dust, and precious to remember that the kingdom of God is within us. Both at once!

  4. Pingback: Lenten Inspiration « Significant Pursuit by Renaissance Guy

  5. Thich Nhat Hanh is one of my favorite authors re: spiritual life! I just re-read Living Buddha, Living Christ and am just as blown away. I appreciate your perspective, and although I don’t comment much (I feel a bit out of my league to be honest), I really love reading your perspective.

    God bless you and your family during this Lenten season.

  6. You’re one of the few people I know who can incorporate Buddhism, Catholicism, and Pentecostalism in one paragraph. I love that.

    You reminded me with this post of a wonderful verse written by Rudolf Steiner:

    To us is it given
    At no stage ever to rest.
    They live and they strive the active
    Human beings from life unto life,
    As plants grow from springtime
    To springtime – ever aloft,
    Through effort upward to truth,
    Through fetters upward to freedom,
    Through illness and death;
    Upward to beauty, to health and to life.

    Darn it, why does it always have to be us that have to do all the work? Why all the responsibility? Why all the consciousness?

    Steiner said that humanity is going through the stage right now (meaning, about the next 3,000 years!) where it’s all about developing our consciousness. We used to have more of a clairvoyant, instinctive consciousness, but now we have to work at it.

    The nice, comforting part is that while we’re sinking deeper into the material world with all its responsibilities and challenges for our developing consciousness, the spiritual world is still there, whether we can directly perceive it or not. The kingdom of God has never left us.

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