by Katie Harmon-McLaughlin
At 12,000 feet, my worry began to dissolve into the grandeur of the mountains as Rocky Mountain National Park stretched out before me. The previous several months had been so arduous that I practically crashed into a week of vacation. It took days to unwind and begin to relax, to release some of the dis-ease so present in my heart over all that I could not fix. As I gazed at the mountains, I felt something shift deep within me. It felt restorative. A phrase emerged that began to soften all the sharp edges of my anxiety and despair, “Awe is the most reliable cure for overwhelm.”
I repeated this phrase with every step as I drank in beauty, vast and incomprehensible. It was my utter smallness that began to form release from the tight grasp to control. Something about the immensity of the landscape, and the humility born of my vulnerability within it, put into perspective all that had been restricting full presence.
Holiness lives where awe and humility meet.
This is the message of Ash Wednesday. We remind each other on this sacred day, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19) It may sound like doom and gloom or reason for public shame, but the point is far from self-deprecation.
“You are dust” triggers memory for ancient hearers of the creation story where God breathed life into the very dust of the earth, from which we came. (Genesis 2:7) Being dust is not a bad thing. It is the reality of our profound identity as member of a complex, interconnected family of creation. We are reminded that our very bones and muscles, flesh and breath come out of and are sustained by the earth, which is sacred. We are made of what is ancient. Every particle we consume has a lineage of life beyond our imagining. Consuming it, it becomes part of us. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, has passed through countless life forms throughout history. To consider the cosmic origins of the dust we are is even more breathtaking.
How could we ever have thought we were in this alone? On Ash Wednesday, we smudge the material stuff of earth upon our flesh and reaffirm our place within it.
It would be inauthentic to this text to simply dwell in the blessing of dust when these words to our ancestors sounded more like a curse, “… and to dust you shall return.” Just as we revel in the profound relatedness inherent in our dust-being, we are reminded of the profound consequence of living in denial of that relatedness. This consequence is not punishment. It is not meant to shame or place blame. When our lives are so radically and inextricably connected, everything has impact on the whole. The humble way of Lent invites us to restoration and reconciliation that begins with an acknowledgement of the ways we have walked upon the dust forgetting we are part of it.
If we could remember that our lives are holy connected beyond what we can know, perhaps the fear and anxiety of this time would dissipate into awe, as did my despair into the mountains. Humility may be the way to the redemption of the world.
On Ash Wednesday, we face the reality and inevitability of mortality with reverence. We remember just how fragile and fleeting life is. We ponder the source from which we came and seek to realign our lives more closely toward it. We allow ourselves to be captured by what is immense, to find surprising solace in what we cannot control or explain, to be saved by our smallness.
We confess what is broken because we yearn to be whole. This is less about a God who needs our confession, and more about humanity that needs to rekindle an awareness of what is truly sacred. God’s breath into the dust of our lives means that we are made of dust divine– ashes to ashes, dust to dust. From where we come we will return.
When our lives feel too frantic, when the world feels divided, when the pressures of the moment mount impassable within…
When our priorities are misplaced, our relationships strained, and the future unseen tempts hopelessness in our hearts…
May we pause to remember that we are dust, holy and connected.
May this Lenten path lead to the meeting places of humility and awe, where we are restored and made whole again.