Early in my twenties, I lived and taught and ministered in a little town called Waynesville in western North Carolina at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains. I noticed that there were an amazing number of churches in the area and remember saying that in the midst of so much beauty, what else could we humans do? If you ever have the opportunity to go to Maggie Valley, adjacent to Waynesville, there is a magnificent church named St. Margaret of Scotland where behind the altar the entire wall is glass. One prays looking out on the ever-changing grandeur of the wardrobe of the trees that cover the mountains. Long before “awesome” hit the exclamation chart for contemporary culture, I caught my breath at the wonder and – had I been of another generation – might have hummed “How Great Thou Art”.
But this says nothing of ashes! In this tiny town in a tiny parish with a tiny school attached, one of my involvements was to teach religious ed on Sundays to first and second graders. Such little persons! A couple of weeks before Lent, we were speaking of Ash Wednesday and I asked them if they knew what ashes were. One young man, eager to please, shot up a hand and, waving it, said, “yes, yes, YES!” Of course I called on him. He said he’d like to show everyone, and that Granddad could come to class next Sunday, he was sure, and he was ashes, his parents said. Like many such moments in retrospect, I have no idea what I said. But I think of it today, and of the little eager boy with no desire but to share what he knew.
The phrase Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return is infrequently used any longer (in my experience) as ashes are placed on foreheads all over the world today. Repent and believe the Good News or Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel has echoed more often in Lent-beginning ears of late. I prefer those myself, but am brought to think of ashes today.
Ashes are the remains after a fire. My young friend’s Granddad’s ashes were the remains after his full life. And I am led to reflect on the brave and important work of Ernest Becker in his The Denial of Death (1973). In the introduction Becker considers a certain human urgency to pursue a heroic life, to stand out, to be more important than others, to attain a cosmic specialness, to earn one’s self esteem. Later he cites Jose Ortega y Gasset’s words on facing that life leads to its eventual loss, and the efforts we humans expend to cover this with “a curtain of fantasy where everything is clear” and ideas, to be used as “scarecrows to frighten away reality”. (The Revolt of the Masses, 1957).
Facing ashes and dust as where we come from and where we go… this brings us back from looking for the wizard behind the curtain, the ultimate idea, the best achievement, the most complete ‘answers’ we can find to the riddles of human life. This is a place where we would prefer not to have clarity! Death happens, and I know that with a different and highlighted certainty that comes to many of us in the time after the loss of someone dear. (My Dad, John Elwood Cahoon, died in February 2010). And I extend my heart and hand to those reading who walk grief’s road in any way.
So, on this Ash Wednesday, is all this morbid? What brings us hope? Do the limits of our lives bring a preciousness and beauty to our involvements and loves and commitments and faithfulnesses? Yes. But today, I offer a different take, grown out of recent reading, re-reading, and reflection.
Therese of Lisieux, in her Story of a Soul, finds great freedom when she moves from being motivated by fear in encountering God to walking in confidence and love, at God’s invitation. She says that when the latter emerged in her life, she didn’t walk any longer the path to holiness, “I flew!” In the realization that what is most real is God’s love for us, the need to earn or achieve or count or worry fell away. Psalm 96 tells us that God governs God’s people with faithfulness. We are led not by a string or a rule set or fear or achievement, or brought to wisdom by study or experience alone. It is God’s faithful love which guides us.
In Chicago in 2005 I was substitute teaching a high school class of freshmen (and women!). Somehow we spoke of saints and one young man said they were the ones who loved God best. A slight young woman raised her hand and said, “No. I think they’re the ones that knew that God loved them the best.” 14 year olds! How wise.
I think this awareness is hope, and lights any path we are to travel on our human way with true sanity. In Beatrice Bruteau’s Radical Optimism, she notes that the root of sin may well be a lack of freedom that we have because we are somehow trying to preserve ourselves in being, very similar to Becker’s language of our need to seek heroism. We are actually small and limited, yet the love we are loved with enlarges us and brings us into union with the never-ending, the Trinity, with creation. We cannot preserve ourselves in being. But we may find that we no longer need to hide from our temporal time-clock because our being is held by Being itself in love, without our doings.
What if being faithful to the Gospel this Lent means that we are invited to remember that the dust we come from is stardust, that the involvement we have in the universe is to first know how essential a creation we are (Psalm 8, 139 or Paul’s “we are God’s work of art”), that our embracing of poverty (Franciscan style) is an awareness of our need and incompleteness and creatureliness – and a God who loves all of who we are so much that God embraced it and became it in Christ?
If we are rooted and grounded in love (Ephesians 3), then we are personally-existentially-ultimately safe. And, strengthened in our inner being (again, Ephesians 3!) we can live in and from that safety, and come to embrace that all are the same kind of holy and well-loved dust made flesh. And we can live our lives extravagantly.
Do you know this story?
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him: ‘Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’
If we are rooted in love, we can choose to have our lives become all flame… to live boldly, stubbornly, and with abandon all to which we are called… and in so living bring light to others.
I hope my young friend’s Granddad’s life was flame… and that all of ours may be, today. We can turn from the need to be our own reason and origin, let go our posturing that we are other than loved creatures, and embrace the magnificence of the story we are actually in. We can relax the tension with which we live, and harken to living not to prove or earn anything, but only to be flame and light. Of course, we ebb and flow with our ability to hold this truth… just like we see tatters of clearness. Part of our experience includes terror and anxiety associated with death’s reality, as Becker names it. But that too is part of being human, and the One who is our origin and the One who lived this way of being on earth, and the One who dwells within us – this holy Trinity know us and are compassion and tenderness. May we live brightly and tenderly with others, and with ourselves, a fullness of life we did not create but know and believe is ongoing. And may the fires of our lives resolve into precious ash, in the end, handled and breathed into anew by a loving Creator.
As the presider at the Ash Wednesday service I attended said today at the close of his reflections. “We are in a great story. If you find a better one, let me know. But I think God is a genius!”