I’ve been thinking — rather unoriginally this time of year — about the symbolism of dust on Ash Wednesday: For you are dust and to dust you will return. I used to be tempted to see this as a minimizing message, reminiscent of the high school bully throwing me against a locker yelling, “You’re nothing!” But this is a false temptation. Remembering that we are dust is certainly about smallness — Sagan’s “pale blue dot” (1) comes to mind — but smallness doesn’t make something any less beautiful or precious. The preciousness of smallness is of course not a new idea. Centuries before Sagan spoke of being made of “the stuff of stars” (the expression was actually widely used by astronomers from at least 1918 — Sagan merely popularized it) (2) and of the pale blue dot, Julian of Norwich spoke of all that is created as “a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, sitting in my hand,” something so small she marveled how it could even hold together. She was assured that “it lasts — and will always last — because God loves it; and so all things exist by the love of God.” (3) C.S. Lewis wrote more extensively about this paradoxical inconsequential-ness and infinite value in Perelandra, where he writes:
That Dust itself which is scattered so rare in Heaven, whereof all worlds, and the bodies that are not worlds, are made, is at the centre. … Each grain, if it spoke, would say, I am at the centre; for me all things were made. Let no mouth open to gainsay it. Blessed be He!” Each grain is at the centre. The Dust is at the centre. … Where [God] is, there is the centre. He is in every place.
He has immeasurable use for each thing that is made, that His love and splendour may flow forth like a strong river which has need of a great watercourse and fills alike the deep pools and the little crannies, that are filled equally and remain unequal; and when it has filled them brim full it flows over and makes new channels. We also have need beyond measure of all that He has made. Love me, my brothers, for I am infinitely necessary to you and for your delight I was made. Blessed be He!”
“He has no need at all of anything that is made. An [angel] is not more needful to Him than a grain of the Dust: a peopled world no more needful than a world that is empty: but all needless alike, and what all add to Him is nothing. We also have no need of anything that is made. Love me, my brothers, for I am infinitely superfluous, and your love shall be like His, born neither of your need nor of my deserving, but a plain bounty. Blessed be He! (4)
We are both everything and nothing: everything because we exist and are sustained by God’s love; nothing because we are completely unnecessary in and of ourselves. This is a beautiful balance.
But more than smallness, I think the power of the ashes metaphor is what it says about impermanence. It doesn’t matter what we build or amass, how much we know or how defined our abs are, it will all just be dust in a matter of years, “three score and ten, or if by reason of strength, four score.” The most beautiful cathedral or temple, the tallest skyscraper — even the mightiest peaks of the Himalayas — come from dust, and will return to dust (albeit on a slightly longer timescale than our own lives). When we look even at the history of our planet we see this long process of things coming into being, existing, then being broken down again: continents and land-masses, animal kingdoms, ecosystems, species, and entire modes of life, have all come and gone. The time scales of these processes are incredible. (Again, we are so small! so impermanent!) God in this sense is always at work, always Creator, always making all things new. I think this is one of the most exciting and beautiful things science has taught religion. There is such cause for wonder and humility in this. We really are “like grass, which is here today and gone tomorrow.” And the Word of God — the Logos, the Deep Structure or Grammar of the Universe which is eternally bringing forth newness and life — really does “endure for ever.”
Yet even within the span of our lives we see that everything is in a constant state of coming into being and disintegrating. Nothing is permanent. We blink and infants have become toddlers, blink again and our hair has turned grey and wrinkles line our faces. And whenever we think we’ve got life figured out, the rules of the game change without warning and we are left to start over again. Despite the universality and ever-present reality of change, our minds strive for and cling to permanence, to what has been, to what is safe and predictable. This fear, grasping, striving, is at the heart of so much suffering and the root of so much sin: It’s such a huge issue for our unwillingly impermanent minds that how to manage it is the fundamental question behind one of the world’s great religious and philosophical traditions, Buddhism.
It’s no wonder then that at the start of this season of penitence and honest reflection, we remind ourselves of our smallness and impermanence. Over and against the ego’s instinct to puff itself up in the face of these simple realities of existence — like a house cat arching its back and raising its fur at the sight of its reflection in a mirror — we instead lean into our smallness and impermanence and remember that, just like the hazelnut of Julian’s vision, we are crafted and sustained by the love of an infinitely creative God.
And this is good news indeed.
1. Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot (New York: Random House, 1994), xv.
2. Carl Sagan, The Cosmic Connection (New York: Dell Publishing, 1973). For further information on the use of “star stuff,” see: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/06/22/starstuff/.
3. Julian of Norwich, Showings of Divine Love, Chapter 5.
4. C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (London: The Bodley Head, 1947, 1963), in Canada, available at http://www.gutenberg.ca/ebooks/lewiscs-perelandra/lewiscs-perelandra-00-h.html.