“Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” There are implications to be found in this. If man had been fashioned from something that could evaporate, there would be nothing for him to return to. But a man, even while he is living in the flesh, can return to his constituent element: he does this the moment he is ready to be what God has made him. Dust may not be romantic, but there could be nothing more real.
—Hubert van Zeller1
The conflict between the romantic and the real plagues anyone who has ever entertained an ideal. That’s all of us. We begin life with expectations of ideal people, relationships, institutions—with life itself as ideal—and these eventually have to give way to reality—not to pessimism, but to an adjusted view.
We begin Lent with the ultimate reality of human life: we are marked with ashes on our head. And this is meant to stand for who we are: “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Clearly it is a reminder that, made from clay, we shall all rejoin the clay from which we came when God took up a handful and fashioned it into a being called man. In this fact there are, as Hubert van Zeller rightly observes, implications.
This self, whether male or female, which we assert, dramatize, panic over, or protect, this self needs such a solemn and earthy reminder as black ash rubbed into the forehead because it tends to live too much in unreality, or in a self-made reality. At our worst and most insecure, we attempt to create (or recreate) ourselves apart from God’s purpose for us. Do we not feel strangely relieved when someone looks us in the eye and says “Just be yourself”? We spend a lot of energy pretending. “You shall be like gods” sounds so inviting to people discontent with who they are, with being God’s clay children, endowed not only with the breath of life, but with God’s own spirit. Instead we layer ourselves with other identities, perhaps covering over or correcting our dissatisfaction.
A man might cobble together an image for himself that is one part intellectual, two parts rock star, another part successful professional, and finally an athlete to round out the profile. The woman who thinks herself a combination of supermom, actress, fashion model, administrative queen, and maybe pious to boot, is no less unreal than the man made of his own jigsaw pieces.
Of course, a given man or woman might, quite naturally, be all of these things and more. Why not? More power to them. But if the person tries to glue these pieces together for himself in the hope that he can make himself more lovable both to himself and to the world, more real and meaningful to himself, he defeats the purpose of having been created in the first place, which is to receive the unmerited gift of self from the hands of our Creator, who knows what He’s doing.
The obvious comparison of the self-made self to a Frankenstein’s monster fits here: a monster is something curious to behold, but not more real or more lovable for having so many parts stitched together. We have to be reconciled with and grateful for the person God has made us to be because, behold, it is very good!
The point is not that we can or should shun all influence over our character. Nor that we should not be people of many interests and talents. We are free to have as many influences and interests as our lives provide. And we are made to learn by imitation: boys and girls learn to be men and women by imitating the men and women in their young lives. The point is, rather, that if we are unhappy with the self God has made (the self with all its unique limitations and, indeed, capabilities), then we will forthwith redo it, with other materials, and always of an inferior quality. We will try to pretend or imagine ourselves to be something we are not, mistaking external appeal for the reality within.
And what is that reality?
God wants us to be a combination of two things: children and ashes. He wants us to glory in our adoption as His offspring, and yet never lose the humility of those who know their time is limited and their bodies mortal. Ashes invested with glory. Ashes covering a fire that never goes out. That is who we are. So it goes, says St Paul, with those destined for resurrection: “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power” (1 Cor 15:42-43). Or as he says elsewhere: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4:7).
Given that ashes are both a sobering reminder of our disintegration and a foreshadowing of future wholeness in phoenix-like resurrection, what should the various disciplines of Lent do for us?
They should reduce us to reality by making us see how dependent we are on God for everything. Depriving ourselves of food, sleep, entertainment, money—these serve many necessary purposes. They bend back into shape a self distorted by excessive dependence on bodily appetites, creature comforts, and worldly distractions. They free up our resources for the needy. But most of all, they should help train our vision toward the Lord and away from self. It is by keeping the Lord ever in our sight that our identity is secured.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) ties this whole experience of God and self to an all-consuming love. As love for God increases, our love for our manufactured, contrived self recedes to nothing. If you love the Lord with your whole mind, soul, and strength, with a love that goes beyond feelings and emotions, then:
…you will experience … your own true self, since you perceive that you possess nothing at all for which you love yourself, except insofar as you belong to God: you pour out upon him your whole power of loving. I repeat: you experience yourself as you are, when by that experience of love of yourself and of the feeling that you feel toward him, you discover that you are an altogether unworthy object even of your own love, except for the sake of him without whom you are nothing.2
This is the abiding message of the ashes for those with ears to hear. It also fends off the unreality of pride that creeps in when we think ourselves to be something we are not. If, as St Josemaría says, this error “prevents us from realizing that we are made of clay, that we are dust and wretchedness,”3 then acknowledgement of our dust status reduces us to the bedrock of security: “Only the grace of God is sure ground.”4 Because by the grace of God we are what we are (cf. 1 Cor 15:10). And however fragile it might be, behold, it is very good!
1 Hubert van Zeller, The Choice of God (London: Burns & Oats, 1956), p. 41.
2 St Bernard, Sermons on the Song of Songs, no. 50:6
3 Christ is Passing By, no. 113.
4 CPB, no. 113.