By Sara Miles
Remember you’re dust, I say to the girl, and press my thumb hard into her smooth forehead. She doesn’t blink. I exhale, turn to the man beside me, and hand him a small ceramic bowl of ashes. “You’re dust,” he says. “Remember you’re dust, and to dust you will return.”
Ash Wednesday begins Lent, the forty days before Easter that many Christians mark with fasting, prayer and penitence. Americans tend to personalize the season with pious gestures of “giving up.” But at the church in San Francisco where I’m a lay pastor, and where I run the city’s largest food pantry, Lent stares into those bare facts of dust and flesh in order to connect our bodies. We mark each other’s foreheads with ashes and admit our common mortality: the kneeling girl, the crackhead who helps me sweep the floor, the stranger at the door. And maybe because I work so much with food––serving bread and wine on Sundays, then groceries from the same altar at the pantry––I think of Lent as an opportunity to admit our hungers.
At the food pantry, those hungers are wrapped in language and in waxed cardboard, as vividly metaphorical as the Psalms and as material as a plate of chicken and dumplings.
“I just want something fresh,” says a woman who lives in one small, airless room and cuts up some raw cabbage for a snack. “Something real.” Another wants the buttery mashed potatoes we cook for lunch, an abundant pile of softness and comfort. A restless twelve-year old wants a cup of coffee, so he can swallow the hot black magic that will turn him into a powerful man instead of a frightened kid. A woman far from home wants mangoes to remind her of the tropics; an aspiring immigrant wants American cereal, a junkie wants more and sweeter sweets. But I crave salt, and bitterness.
I remember a Lent fifteen years ago, when I cooked for my friend Bo until he couldn’t eat anymore, then gave him sips of ginger ale until he couldn’t drink, then watched as the breath went out of his AIDS-wasted body. His mother and I carried Bo’s ashes to Land’s End, where sweet alyssum was blooming on the cliffside and the blue waters crashed and broke far below our weeping group of friends. I reached into the container and tossed him into the sky, and the ashes blew back into my open mouth. They tasted slightly of salt, and of dust.
They made me hungry.
There are moments so purely present-tense, and yet so laden with remembrance, that they become a conversation with God. I look around sometimes during the food pantry, and think about all our bodies, the living and the dead ones, and all the food we’ve shared. There’s a plate of fragrant, cut-up oranges on the altar and suddenly, as the last afternoon light pours into the church, my mouth waters.
Artwork by Paul Fromberg after Andrei Rublev’s icon, The Trinity
Sara Miles is the author of “Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion,” now available in paperback with a readers’ guide.