Remember you are dust

By Donald Schell

When my twenty-three year old son said to me, “Dad, don’t you understand that we’re the first generation that has thought we may be living in the literal end of the world?” I reminded him how my world in junior high school stopped dead as the classroom P.A. systems broadcast moment-by-moment radio reports of the last stage of the Cuban Missile crisis, the confrontation at sea between Russian and U.S. warships. I told him how the silence around the radio voice deepened as we waited World War III was about to begin, and our astonishment at the moment the Russian ships, slowed, stopped and turned back. Teachers had been instructed to ready to ‘duck and cover,’ under our desks, away from windows, and “don’t look toward the blast.”

I reminded him of the assassinations of my high school and college years – John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy. And I described living with the draft and the seemingly unending war in Viet Nam hanging over our heads, and recalled for myself the feeling the bitter astonishment of Kent State, when the National Guard turned their guns on peaceful student protest.

“Josh,” I replied to him after I’d offered my bit of history, “your mom and I certainly did know the fear it all could end soon when we were your age.”

The threats around and feeling everything so fragile made me love Shakespeare’s The Tempest when I first read that play in high school. Prospero’s god-like re-ordering of the storm of chaos and malice that had engulfed him and his daughter Miranda had a Gospel/Resurrection feel to me. When Prospero’s enemies (his brother and the King of Naples), who had tried to kill him, finally understand that they’ve fallen completely under Prospero’s power, they see what they’ve done, and though expecting and fearing the worst from Prospero, are astonished that he blesses them with mercy and the good hope of a peaceful future.

And as any good comedy should, The Tempest ends with the promise of a wedding and a long and happy life for Prospero’s daughter Miranda and Ferdinand, the King of Naples kind and loving son.

In so many ways, that play was just what I needed, but it bothered me terribly that, near the end of the play, when Prospero, the God-like wielder of justice making, reconciling magic said:

…this rough magic

I here abjure… I’ll break my staff,

Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,

And deeper than did ever plummet sound

I’ll drown my book.

And the magician who’d undone so much evil laid aside all magic powers forever; the restorations he has accomplished will mean leaving his enchanted island to sail to ordinary home in Milan, where from this point his:

“every third thought shall be my grave”

How I regretted those lines! Times like we were living needed benevolent magic and thoughts of hope, not death.

Recently watching Julie Taymor’s haunting film where Helen Mirren plays Prospero as Miranda’s mother Prospera–I noticed something new, not in those lines, but in me, this sixty-three year old lover of the play. Have I actually become grateful that Prospero puts aside his magic? I’ve certainly come to identify with his frequent gaze ahead toward death. And I find comfort in that gaze.

Something began to shift for me when I was working in a very conflicted mission church and finding my work almost unrelentingly stressful. I discovered I could stop my mind spinning its dread of what I’d done wrong and worry for all that was left undone by recollecting the comet or meteorite that might hit the earth as it had done ending the era of the dinosaurs.

Hearing, for example, from the bishop that he’d fended off another group from the church that had come to him to get me fired for ‘all those changes’ I’d brought like the New Prayer Book and communicating young children, I could stop my spiral into feeling sorry for myself (‘I’m doing what our church has done. I’m just the messenger!’) or toward relishing my self-righteous fury at my parishioners (‘Why are they going behind my back. Do they think I’m lying when I say I want us to talk and face change together?) by reminding myself that a comet like the one that killed all the dinosaurs could hit the earth at any moment. The comet invited restored me to patience and invited forgiveness toward frightened, angry parishioners. All they or I could ever do was our faithful best, mistakes, failures and all.

Though I had grown up haunted by the double threat of ‘Left behind’ nightmares (waking to an empty sounding house and fearing Christ has come and raptured everyone I loved and I’d been left behind!) and haunting visions of nuclear holocaust, imagining a comet colliding with earth and ending life as we know it seemed simply an end, a reminder that nothing is permanent, a sort of freeing Zen koan.

But this remembering our mortality and the possibility of a sudden end of all didn’t make grief easy to feel, to comfort, or to explain. When a parishioner’s young nephew was killed in a farming accident, I was glad I could go and sit with the family. They seemed to welcome that and need the sitting more than answers.

I certainly didn’t have answers when a superb physician – one of those parishioners clergy simply feel privileged to serve – died a slow, painful death from cancer in his 50’s. I’ve cherished his deathbed vision of divine welcome that he described to me a few days before he died, “I’ve seen the welcome waiting for me, and I’m eager. It’s beautiful.” But I didn’t preach that to the crowd at his funeral.

For the funeral sermon, I simply told stories I’d heard of our physician’s love and said that the heart for that kind of care was a gift from God.

Later one Ash Wednesday, as I was nearing forty, I had another small breakthrough. That morning of marking each person’s forehead with ashes and saying the Prayer Book’s words, ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,’ I felt God’s mercy in those stark words and a wave of tenderness for our fragile humanity. l was blessing the finitude of people God loved beyond measure. I’ve looked forward to Ash Wednesday ever since.

Though all Lent after I first learned that it was a mercy to remember we are dust, I thought and prayed into this sense that our mortality wasn’t only tragic. I couldn’t explain just how our God-given finitude (including our boundaries of birth and death) was a gracious gift, but since then, I’ve always heard “remember you are dust,” as genuine Good News.

A few years later, I knew I couldn’t grasp the mind of God or find blessing in the too early deaths of my wife’s parents, too young in their sixties and just three years apart. We found no answer except to feel the reality of their loss to us.

The more deeply we’re grieving, the less grace there seems to be in answers about afterlife or what it all means. So I’m also grateful for the ashes the Prayer Book gives us at the graveside:

“In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother ; and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him and be gracious unto him and give him peace. Amen.”

What is our Christian hope? Yes, I love that prayer and there’s obviously more to talk about and some specifically Christian hope to proclaim – whatever we mean by Jesus’ resurrection and whatever it’s got to do with our own death and resurrection. So, there’s plenty more to talk about, but for now, I hope others will write in response more simply

– just how do we live in hope? and

– where do we find grace in death or meet God in our mortality?

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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