Remember You Are Dust

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. In my faith tradition, this is a phrase the priest whispers as she marks the sign of the cross with ash on my forehead on Ash Wednesday. During Lent, this simple but stark phrase becomes my mantra. In my tradition’s creation story, the first human was formed from dirt and named Adam, a play on the Hebrew word for dirt or earth. Remember you are dust.

And yet, we live in a time of plunder, and the great paradox of our age is that the less we remember we come from dust, the more we hasten our return to it through the plundering of our created world. But perhaps by learning to see our plundered world, and grieving our many losses, we can find a small measure of hope.

There’s a powerful and common strain in American religious thought that believe human beings at our cores are sinful and fallen. This world is the realm of sin, and we who are saved from sin are also ultimately saved from this fallen world and its troubles. This form of Christianity is not far off from the materialist industrialist belief that the world is nothing more than mechanisms and raw materials—that the world is, in other words, temporal and material while we, conveniently, are not.

But in the same way science has shown us that gravity and heliocentricity are real, science has also demonstrated that our reality now includes a planet that is strained, plundered to a breaking point. And just as believers in the time of Galileo, Copernicus, and Bruno had a hard time adjusting their religious worldviews to the realities of the world itself, so do we struggle now to adjust our worldviews and its corresponding behaviors to the troubling realities of our plundered world. We are called to remember that we are dust, and we answer that call with denial of any such thing.

Denial, we know, is a stage of grief. Whether it is the loss of so many human lives through endless wars, or the loss of so many species because of habitat destruction, or the loss of clean water or food security, or simply the loss of one individual person whom we love, we have a lot to grieve, both individually and collectively. But we don’t live in a culture or history that honors grieving. At the Third Council of Toledo, a meeting in the year 589 AD, a council of bishops were charged with determining the Church’s teachings on how to bury the dead. They wrote:

“The bodies of all religious who, called by God, depart from this life, should be carried to the grave amid psalms and the voices of the chanters only, but we absolutely forbid burial songs, which are commonly sung for the dead, and [we forbid] the accompaniment [of the corpse] by the family and dependents of the deceased, beating their breast. It suffices that, in the hope of the resurrection of the Christians, there be accorded to bodily remains the tribute of divine canticles. For the Apostle forbids us to mourn the dead, saying, “I do not wish you to saddle yourselves about those who are asleep, as do those who have no hope.” . . . For it is fitting that throughout the world deceased Christians should be buried thus.”

Ordained by church leaders, this teaching has been handed down over the centuries to shape our collective posture toward death, loss, and grief. It continues to turn up in the ways we talk about death. Just this week, an aquaintence visited me and said, “I need you to say a prayer for me because just two weeks ago I lost my mother.” I said I was sorry to hear it and that I would hold her in my mind, but she quickly said, “Oh, it’s not that I’m sad. Her funeral was completely a celebration of her life. But then just yesterday my father was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. And everything is OK because they’re Christians, so there’s no worry there, and everyone was excited for Mom to go and meet the Lord. But it’s just the logistics of it all that is overwhelming me.”

How does this mindset—spelled out by the bishops and then carried out so faithfully by my friend—pervade the ways we go through the many losses we are experiencing as a human family? How can we grieve our losses when they seem so much bigger than our capacity to grieve them? And what are we missing by trying to move so quickly past what has been lost? We might be missing out on life itself. Or as Martin Prechtel puts it, “If we do not grieve what we miss, we are not praising what we love.”

We’re in the middle of the sixth mass extinction of living creatures. We have poisoned the water. We have stripped down and decimated the mountains of Appalachia. We have cut into the earth so deeply to extract our greatest drug that the ground now trembles under the shock. For the first time in two centuries, my generation’s life expectancy is shorter than my parents’ generation. Ours is a plundered and plundering existence.

In his latest encyclical Laudato Si’ – On Care For Our Common Home, Pope Francis invokes the life of his namesake, Francis of Assisi—that troublesome Italian monk who granted personhood to all living beings long before science revealed to us the intelligence and sentience of our fellow creatures. The Pope writes that our world is like “a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” He continues, “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.”

There it is again. That word. Plunder. One of the reasons often given as to why our civilization is struggling to grapple with climate change is because it is too globalized of a concept, too abstract of a problem. No one person can experience the sum total of what is happening to our planet. Our sense of freedom is wrapped up in our wealth of possessions, so wrapped up that we mistake our material blessings for the abundant life. We have a paradigm of plunder, and, says Francis, “this paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume.”

Hope is essential. And we have reason for hope. But hope must be squared against, tempered by, placed in context of reality. The reality of the sixth mass extinction, of water poisoned and mountains removed. The reality of an endangered creation—not in the future, but now. In the face of all of this, how can we possibly hope in our rescue?

Perhaps it will not come. Perhaps placing hope in some expected rescue or salvation is just the kind of hope that feeds our destructive economy: everything we receive comes from somewhere else, made by other hands, never requiring anything of us except wishful thinking, a belief that costs us very little. Cheap salvation. I no longer believe that God intends to rescue us from this reality. But I do have hope.

I work at a place called Pilgrim Chapel. It’s a small, historic public chapel in Kansas City that was originally built by the Lutherans as a church for the deaf and is now open daily to the public for prayer, meditation, and solitude. One morning last week I was in the chapel, sitting on a cushion on the floor, looking at the stained glass window above the altar, meditating on what it has to say about hope in the face of our plundered existence.

The image depicts a moment before the crucifixion of Jesus. It has four figures: in the middle is Jesus carrying his cross. Behind him and in front of him are two soldiers; one guard is clutching a spear with one hand and clenching his other hand into a fist around the rope tied to Jesus; and the other guard has both of his hands gripping the base of the cross that is dragging behind Jesus, and based on his straining muscles in the image, he is struggling beneath the weight of the cross. The fourth figure is Mary, the mother of Jesus, down on her knees in the foreground and raising her arms in a gesture that is reaching both up toward the sky and out toward her plundered child, a gesture that appears hopeless, full of despair, begging for mercy from the sky.

What intrigues me about this image is the hands of each figure. The soldier in front, hands in fists and clutching a weapon, ready to act in this situation with violence. The soldier behind, hands clutched around the cross, his entire body burdened beneath the weight of this situation. The mother, Mary, her hands stretched out, reaching for help, asking Why.

And then there are the hands of Jesus. The crux of the cross sits on his left shoulder, so his left arm wraps around the cross and his left hand holds it in a precarious balance, so his left hand is shouldering the burden. But then there’s his right shoulder, arm, and hand. Whereas the other three seem to have both of their hands occupied with their particular posture, whether it’s the violence of the first soldier, the immense burden of the second soldier, or the complete desperation of Mary, Jesus’ right arm is amazingly free, and with his free arm he is reaching out toward his mother, opening his hand in a gesture of love and compassion, nearly touching her reddened face. While the others seem crushed beneath the weight of this situation, Jesus seems to be embodying his own words that his burden is light.

And speaking of light, as I sat in the chapel pondering these things, outside the sun came out from behind a cloud and let a sharper light in through the stained glass, and you know what I saw? I saw that the place where the light shone through most brightly, most clearly, was on the right shoulder of Jesus, that joint, that hinge from which he freed himself of the burden and reached out to his beloved kin in love and grace.

My faith tradition teaches that we are made in the image of God. Toward the end of Lent we are called to consider the image of God as Jesus—beaten, whipped, abandoned, bloodied, and crucified. The image of God, the image of God’s beloved creation, plundered. Today, perhaps it’s not the end of the world if we can’t believe in resurrection, or redemption, or even in God. Perhaps it is not the most essential thing to believe. But perhaps, for the sake of our only world, our task is to resist the plundering of the time and space we are given. We have the amazing capacity to open not only our hands but our deepest selves and participate in a fuller reality, rather than wish our world away while we consume it to death. That’s my hope, small as it is.

Ay-men. Ah-men. The end will come, but perhaps we can choose how it gets pronounced.

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