Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dust you are

I haven't posted here for a while. Apologies. Life gets in the way.

Over the weekend I was in Washington, DC, to help with a program for Associates of Holy Cross led by Esther de Waal. Esther's new book, Seeking Life: The Baptismal Invitation of the Rule of St. Benedict, has just been published. She was wonderful, as always. On Sunday I preached at All Souls, Woodley Park. The Rector, John Beddingfield, is a good friend, and it was a joy to share Sunday with him and his wonderful congregation. You can read the sermon on the Holy Cross Lectionary blog here. And it was a special joy to meet the Prior of St. Anselm's Abbey, Simon McGurk, and to share Vespers and supper with the Community of St. Anselm's.

It was my turn to preach today in the monastery chapel, for Ash Wednesday. I didn't write out my sermon, so I thought I would turn it into a meditation and share it with you.

Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.

Years ago, I spent Ash Wednesday preaching for my dear friend, now departed, Fr. Bob Worster, at the parish of which he was Rector, St. Mary's in Palms, near Culver City in Los Angeles. He had been a novice of OHC, then a Companion in our work in Liberia, and in fact was ordained there. He was of the old Anglo-Catholic school, quite certain of both faith and practice. He used to say, "Hell is Lent at Holy Cross." Perhaps it was then. Not so much so now.

A dear friend of his, an RC sister, was staying with him. I came in from preaching and found her with a feast of food spread out on the table. As a simple-minded Anglican I assumed that fasting meant simply not eating. I indicated my simplicity, asking if it were not a fast day, and she looked at me with an expression of horror and said "Oh -- you mean the Black Fast!"

We're having cheese and fruit today, laid out by a chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America. Not hell. Not the Black Fast. Deo gratias.

We make such a fuss out of Lent, which is not exactly what our Lord is telling us in today's Gospel reading (Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21). He counsels us not to make such a fuss. But we go on doing it anyway, in part, I suppose, because we need to remind ourselves that we are contingent beings.

Our daily life as North Americans is not normal in historical terms. We have so much more than human beings historically have had -- all the food we want, medical care, transportation, education, housing, entertainment, all to a surfeit. We rather regard people who don't have those things, who live at the margins and without, as somehow not normal. We pathologize them. But not having is the normal condition of human life.

Brother Randy recommended a novel to me last fall which I did not pick up until recently, Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth. It is a wonderful read, and in many ways quite accurate about medieval life. Of course the characters think and speak like contemporary Americans, not least I suppose because Follett wants contemporary Americans to buy his novel. He adopts the literary device of multiple points of view, which allows him to insert little essays on all kinds of things -- church architecture, twelfth century politics, medieval dietary habits, monastic customs, and so forth. But it is engrossing, a real page turner.

It begins with a family, the husband and father of which has lost his work. He is a master mason, a skilled builder, a knowledgeable man. His wife will reveal shortly that she is pregnant. There are two children, a difficult adolescent boy and a seven year old daughter. They are not marginal people in their society. In ours he would probably be a successful contractor. But in their society their life is uncertain, because, as the novel makes clear, everyone in that society was marginal. They were much closer to the edge of things than we are, much closer to the earth. This family sets out to find new work, which involves walking through the countryside and forest from castle to cathedral to monastery, not knowing what they will find, and finding nothing but rejection, sometimes with scorn and dismissal and sometimes with sympathy. They have a little money, the husband's tools and a pig. They run short of money, the pig is violently stolen from them, they gradually sell off the tools for food, and we see and feel their downward progression heartbreakingly described by this skilled writer. The mother lies down on the ground, gives birth and dies, and they bury her deep in the earth. I found this account deeply moving.

Their story is much more "normal" in human historical terms than ours is. Most people through most of history have lived close to the edge, uncertain of work, of a place to live, of food, of life itself when biology asserts itself in pregnancy, injury or illness. We in our abundance are not "normal". Our fortune is quite recent in historical terms.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Our Christian faith reminds us who we are in Lent. We are just creatures of the earth, briefly and insecurely alive, even if we think we have virtually conquered nature. It is good for us to remember who we are.

The word humility comes from the Latin humus, meaning earth, soil in which things grow. To be humble is to recall our reality, that we are in fact very close to the earth, not always able to control our destinies, liable to hunger and cold and uncertainty and sudden violence and physical weakness that will result in death.

In a way, then, Lent calls us to be "normal" -- to remember our nature, that we are part of the earth and not lords of it, to remember our contingency and how close we are to death when we are in life. Such remembering also gives us a strong sense of the value of simple things, of nourishing food, of an unexpected kindness, of the usefulness of practical skills that can prolong our lives if we find ourselves shut out of what we had before and wandering without knowing what is next. It might give us a little more respect for the poor of our own time, whose survival skills might be worth studying. The current urgency may call forth skills we did not know we need.

Our ashes today remind us that we are of the earth, that death is around the corner, that we are temporary and contingent. Humility is the proper response. Humility before the power of a universe we think we understand and mostly control but which yet will get the better of us. Humility in the face of human greed and nastiness, but also in the face of unexpected sympathy and kindness. Most of all, humility before God, who loves us just as we are, not for what we have or for what we can do, but simply because we are creatures of His earth.

Remember that you are dust.