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.
IN FAITH OF RISING
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.
EVEN SUCH IS TIME
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.
Portrait of Walter Raleigh and son from the National Portrait Gallery, London