Remember man, thou art but dust
and unto dust thou shalt return.
Those words have hung around in the recesses of my mind since I was an earnest little girl of perhaps nine or ten. They form part of a palimpsest of those years – they swirl in amongst other layers of anxiety: being sorry for my ‘grievous’ sins, not letting the Host bump on my teeth when I received Communion, dreading invasion by the Communists – and being sure I would be the first to recant my faith if they pushed bamboo splinters under my finger nails.
Dirt and dust were a feature of life in our raw new post-war suburb. There was no infrastructure accompanying the building. Just housing the population after the deprivation of the war years was all that could be managed. Winters turned that hated dust into mud from one side of the streets to the other, including the footpaths. As that dried it became yet more dust.
Our mothers were judged by the depth of the dust and the excellence of their cleaning – of our homes and of us. Similarly we knew if we died unexpectedly, were facing our Last Judgement of how we had avoided staining our souls. We were promised that if we wore a green scapular at the time of our death, we would die in a state of grace. Unfortunately my prickly scapulars that I wore, even tied to the strap and tucked into my bathers, were brown. Second class.
Dust was the image of something shameful and lifeless. It was what we sprang from, and each Lent, we were reminded that no matter how we strove to overcome our tendencies toward badness, what we had to look forward to in the end, was to become what would then seem to be a disintegration into nothingness – worthless blown away particles of dry brown dust.
It is a puzzle to me now, how anyone could have thought this was a curriculum for dear little children. I spent my school life in ongoing fear of being bad, and going to hell. I know the nuns who taught me were not arbitrarily setting out to destroy my confidence and belief in myself. No doubt they lived with the same fears and strictures themselves. Hopefully in later years they attained a new freedom and understanding. The end result for me though, was that I absorbed and formed other layers of ‘wisdom’: of not getting above myself, not thinking myself too smart , not ever forgetting that God revealed precious things to the least – certainly not to those proud people who thought themselves intelligent or clever.
I look back now with fondness at the little philosopher who was not satisfied with the message but who felt totally ashamed for doubting it. I tried to suppress the logic that if the whole story was to be just ‘from dust to dust’ and in the twinkling of an eye, then what use was living it at all? God seemed to me very strange and confusing, but I certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone. That was only a thought to push out of my mind – a temptation, from the always lurking Devil.
You might imagine that my questions destroyed my faith, as I was warned they would.
Well, in a way they did.
They certainly destroyed my belief in that limited, rule bound nonsensical paradigm. That itself became dust and ashes in my mouth. As I used my dreaded intelligence, I was able to discard the superficiality of that understanding. It was painful and risky to let it go and find life and abundance and trust welling up in its place.
The more I discarded what was not, the more I opened up to the terrifyingly imageless way ahead. In my hesitating steps, and my quest to find authenticity without losing anything of truth, the more I was reassured that I was finding that the deepest light is the light of darkness. In losing everything, I lost nothing and I gained everything.
You can call this grace, or God, or Oneness.
In the most minute, in the endless expanse of the Universe
And here it is, right where I am living. Underneath and through and flowing.
Life itself, behind and beyond all that we know and can name.
This year, I am spending time weeding my metaphorical roots. I am sorting out what is to be kept, what to be discarded, but most of all, what is still useful and can be transformed into a life giving form.
I have decided to do Lent again. Some of my practice is traditional, none of it negative and self-punishing.I do want to spend some time removing the clutter, holding my life gently in my hands and seeing how it is, the rough and the plain. I am grateful for every minute and second of it, for every blessed day of sunlight and shadow. The theme of my holding won’t be ‘from dust to dust’. This Lent, I am playing with a new concept.
What happens if I use these gentler words
Remember that we are from earth
and to this earth we shall return.