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 on a platter like a Thanksgiving fowl.
This icon of St. John the Baptist always makes me want to shout like a Pentecostal. I am reminded of the charismatic southern preacher, Dwight Thompson, who during sermonds liked to holler, “HA HA, DEVIL!” I smile to Dwight Thompson, too.
On Ash Wednesday, we went to the first mass of the day, which is also the mass for our local Catholic school. 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 so real. It’s also what’s been bothering me for years—what’s bothering me right 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 that soon I would feel like a nursing mother again, awake every few hours every night.
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 the grandparents 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 our actual children.
Our teenagers are nearly adults, but not quite. 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 still seems very much alive to me, in spite of the ashes in that pretty little urn in my living room.
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.