In the Lenten service I attended this morning, a man I don't know smeared ashes on my skin and told me “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Our familiarity with this ancient phrase might lead us to romanticize these words of Ash Wednesday as poetic, but let’s be honest about what this person was saying to me: ‘You are going to die and your body will turn into dirt.’ We typically wouldn't say this to our worst enemy. So why would I intentionally seek out someone to tell me this once a year? And even allow this person to smear dirt on me, in case there might be any confusion about exactly what my body will turn into?
Death is a reality that smacks us in the face every time it comes around. It has a way of taking us off guard, sneaking up on us, despite it being one of the only things in the world that is for sure. We don't know when it will come, we only know that there is no avoiding it. I will die. My body will turn into dirt. I am dust.
I have been contemplating the implications of this reality, this inevitability of death. How can our life be informed by our inevitable death? How then should we live? Jesus tells us.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?" (Matthew 16:24-26)
Life in this body is not something to try and save. I am not to hold onto my life, not that I can live forever anyway. There is not a breath I take, not a moment I am given, that is not a gift from the Creator. This breath...and then this one...and then this one... Each given directly from God, loaned to me during my time on earth. I am a person with a body only because that's how God set things up for me, for now. Remembering my mortality sets me back into my proper place as the creation, not the Creator.
This can be terrifying, and it can also be freeing. It can free me up to live small in the world, to focus on being rather than to doing. It can free me up to accept the gift of each moment with nothing to prove. Remember that you are dust.
This can be terrifying, and it can also be humbling. That self-righteous attitude I'm carrying around? That anger I harbor toward my neighbor? That pride I feel about my accomplishments, and that fear I feel of failure? Remember that you are dust.
This can be terrifying, and it can also be invigorating. Life is a terrific adventure. We live in these incredibly fragile, incredibly strong bodies -- jars of clay. Within us lives the Holy Spirit of God. Indwelling our dust is God himself. God loves this dust, enough to join in the dusty adventure on earth himself for a time 2000 years ago, enough to inhabit our jars today. Remember that you are dust.
Let's live with honesty about our lives, about our deaths. Know that we are jars of clay, made not of our own hands. Let's be fully mindful of each moment that we can, knowing that there is no joy in trying to hold on forever to this perishable life. Drink of each moment as it comes, and find that which is deeper than these bodies of dust--God's spirit deep within, sustaining us throughout this life and the life to come.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I am Irene Kraegel. I work as a clinical psychologist and teach mindfulness on a faith-based university campus. I practice mindfulness because it opens me up to God (a.k.a. brings joy). I am writing here in hopes of sharing some of my experiences and thoughts related to the practice of mindfulness in the life of a Christian. Thanks for reading!
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