Monday, January 18, 2010

Dust to Dust

Watching the news about the horrific consequences of the tragic earthquake in Haiti has got me thinking about dust.

With the first images coming out of this natural disaster, I have been struck with the way most people are covered in dust. Now, almost a week later, there are a few heart-warming stories of more survivors who are being pulled from the wreckage--and always, there is the dust.

The instant impulse is to cringe at the sight of so much dust--but then I got to thinking. There is an immortality to dust. One of my favorite church services in the cycle of the Christian calendar is Ash Wednesday. I grew up in a church tradition that did not emphasize the liturgical church calendar, so I came to Ash Wednesday services later in my worship experience. My personal faith tradition is solidly Protestant, but the current pastor of our church has a fine sense of the symbolism that a more liturgical approach affords.

He led us in our first Ash Wednesday service about a decade ago. Part of the service included the imposition of ashes--where we all go forward, and receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads. The ashes are derived from the burning of palms from the prior year's Palm Sunday service. For someone who loves and values poetic symbolism, I thrill to this cycle of meaning.

As each worshipper approaches the pastor, he asks our given name, and then says "Donna, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."* Now, you might think that smack of mortality would be depressing--but it's not. In fact, I find it reassuring. I am dust.

I find myself thinking about the endless cycle of life that dust encompasses. Even after we perish and return to dust, from that dust new life emerges. Some people hear that statement--you are dust and to dust you shall return--and despair. Not me. I hear that and think--how wonderful: Dust from the beginning of time still encompassing cells from the beginning of time, and continuing on into the forever.

There are two wonderful poems that capture this sentiment so much more artfully than I can express. X. J. Kennedy is a contemporary poet, and Walter Raleigh is--yes, that Walter Raleigh. His poem was written in 1618, the year he was executed by order of King James I--yes, that King James.

by X. J. Kennedy

When all my dust lies strewn
Over the roundbrinked ramparts of the world
I can be gathered, sinew and bone
Out of the past hurled
Delaylessly as I
Flick thoughts back that replace
Lash to dropped lid, lid to eye,
Eye to disbanded face
No task to His strength, for He
Is my Head—Him I trust
To stray the presence of His mind to me
Then cast down again
Or recollect my dust.

by Sir Walter Raleigh

EVEN such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days:
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust.

*Genesis 3:19
Portrait of Walter Raleigh and son from the National Portrait Gallery, London


Beverly said...

Wonderful post. Thank you.

Miriam said...

"Dust from the beginning of time still encompassing cells from the beginning of time, and continuing on into the forever." ~I love that.

Mary G said...

Lovely post. The church symbolism is something that I too love.
Who was it wrote the bit about golden girls and lads all must, like chimneysweepers come to dust? (Smell of burning brain!) um, Shakespeare, no doubt, but where. Off to look it up.

JeanMac said...

Thoughtful post, Donna. It is comforting to me, too, not upsetting.

KGMom said...

To answer Mary G's question--Wm Shakespeare. His poem "Fear No More"--herewith:

Fear No More

Fear no more the heat o' the sun;
Nor the furious winter's rages,
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers come to dust.

Fear no more the frown of the great,
Thou art past the tyrant's stroke:
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning-flash,
Nor the all-dread thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan;
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renowned be thy grave!

William Shakespeare

Mary G said...

Thanks!!! Cymbeline too, I think. I have a faint echo of hearing it sung. It is now a little less than 60 years since I studied Shakespeare intensively...... and I hate how much I have forgotten.

Ruth said...

I too have noticed the dust in Haiti but did not draw interesting connections as you have done so well. I always learn something interesting here.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Both ashes and dust in Haiti…and I reckon more yet to come.

I would like to attend a church which taught at depth and without fear, and also amid an employment of the liturgical calendar, for I, too, value poetic symbolism.

A great, great post, Donna.

NCmountainwoman said...

Very nice post. I'll think about those words on Ash Wednesday which will be here in only a month. Time does fly.

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

Lovely thoughtful post. It has me thinking about things I do not generally think about.

Your delightful lively mind shapes your religious experience into a deeply metaphorical way of understanding your Life's Reality.
How enriching for you.

Anvilcloud said...

I think this is our hope of eternal life.

Mary said...

Thanks for this, Donna. You always provide cause to think a little deeper. Lovely post!