A priest was talking to a friend. He told her that he found himself working really hard to always get it right, to have the correct answer for everyone, to always know what to do, to speak the right words, to be strong and in control, to accomplish what he set out to do with perfection. On and on he went describing the expectations he had for himself. And finally he said with a bit of exasperation, “It’s not working; I can’t hold it all together; Things aren’t turning out as I planned.”
When his friend stopped laughing, she said, “Well, welcome to the human race. Who do you think you are?” She could just as well have said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” He finally realized that somewhere along the way he had forgotten his dustiness. He had forgotten his mortality; that he is human and a creation of God. To hear these words and remember our dustiness and mortality is the first step in healing the many ways our lives become distorted and disrupted. It is the beginning of the reordering of our lives and re-establishing ourselves in Christ.
Whether it is fear, arrogance, pride or the illusions of success and accomplishment; we often forget that we are dust and to dust we shall return. When we forget, we may begin practicing our piety before others, hoping to be recognized and praised. Sometimes the other is ourselves and our own self-preoccupation, self-monitoring. Merton once referred to the doppelganger, the self who is always looking over own shoulder at what we are doing and how we are doing. Once we have forgotten our own mortality, we have no need for the immortality of God, the immortality offered us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The immortality offered us through the acknowledgment of our own weakness, frailty and sinfulness. Perhaps such forgetfulness is really the birthplace of sin; the distortion of who we really are as beloved sons and daughters of God.
Ash Wednesday interrupts the cycle of forgetfulness. It declares clearly and unambiguously that enough is enough and that each one of us is enough in God’s eyes. And that there is another way. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Photograph by Brother Colombo. Excerpts from Abbot Damian's Homily for this Ash Wednesday.