Remember: Thou Art Dust

And the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth … 

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust …

I am going to die.

You are going to die.

Public Catholic has enough regular readers that it is a statistical certainty that at least one of us, perhaps more, will die this year.

Our souls, as the Scriptures say, will be required of us.

We have unbelievers who post on this board who tell us that nothing awaits us when we close our eyes on this world, that we will simply drift into the nothingness of non-existence, go back to the dust from which we came, and cease.

Our ending, according to them, will be our end.

But this, quite simply, is not true. I doubt very much that the nonbelievers who say it actually believe it. They use it as a ruse to hide behind when dealing with the existential miseries that their bankrupt philosophy imposes on them. It is an odd and sad outlook on life that finds its comfort in a studied hope for annihilation.

The truth is, there is no death for us. We are immortal beings who will live on past our bodies. Most of us sense this in a deep and incontrovertible way that can either comfort or torment us, depending on what we do with this innate knowledge of our own natures.

God is real. I have felt and known Him. I experienced His Presence in my life as an inpouring of love that I neither expected or sought.

But — and this is something that so frightens unbelievers that they invariably become angry when you say it — the devil and his evil are also real. It is not fashionable to say that. I’ve had members of the clergy chide me and tease me for believing it. But I do not doubt the reality of a malicious personality that hates the light and craves annihilation. I have felt his presence, too.

“If you eat of the fruit, you will not die” he told the woman, and like all really effective lies, this one was partial truth. You will not die … today. That was the truth of it. Turn your back on God. Defy Him. Do your own thing. And you will not die … today.

God lies, Satan told the woman, just as he tells us today. God lies to you when He says “Thou shalt not kill, lie, steal, commit adultery or covet.” He doesn’t mean it when He says “Put no other gods before Me.”

He lies. Because he doesn’t want you to have the pretty things of this world, to be able to enjoy the sexual pleasures He created for you, to live as you choose with your own free and preeminent will. He lies, and you are a fool for listening to Him.

Because you are not dust. You are the Lord of creation, the master of your fate, the god of your own life. There is nothing to fear because there is nothing that matters. At the end of our days, there is nothing but nothing. We stop. And we rot. We are carrion meat that walks for a time. So we should, again as the Scriptures say, eat, drink and be merry.

Like all effective lies, this one contains a bit of truth mixed in with the untruth. “Eat and you will not die … today.”

“Ignore God now and there will be no reckoning … today.”

Because you are dust, and you will die, regardless of how you live. You can run ten miles a day and your heart will still stop at some unknown time in your future. You can eat spinach and beans and forego fast food and steak, but your arteries will still cease to pump blood on some day you don’t know yet.

You can break every moral precept in the Scriptures, and you will not die … today. You will live for a time and you may even appear to triumph over those who do not indulge their darker natures as you do. There will be no reckoning … today.

But God is real. He gives us every opportunity to turn to Him and live life His way. He lets us choose. He sets before us every day life and death, and He lets us freely choose which of these we want.

That is what Lent is about. It isn’t a matter of giving up candy or foregoing wine for forty days. It is not about wearing ashes on our foreheads like religious jewelry or meatless Fridays.

Lent is about conversion. It is about renewal by means of awareness that we need to be renewed. The penances of Lent are signposts to guide us to a knowledge that we are but dust and we have sinned, but that we are also immortal beings who will one day stand before the God Who made us.

Lent is a time of turning again to the roots of our being. It is going back to the garden and acknowledging that we too “are naked and ashamed” before God. We, too are, to paraphrase St Peter, “sinful men and women.” But instead of crying out as Peter did, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” We can say, “come close to me Lord, for I am your broken child.”

The difference is the cross. The difference between despair and trust is the certain knowledge that we are bought at a terrible price and we do not have to be masters of our own fate. We do not have to feel our way blindly through life with no idea of what is right and wrong. We do not have to die an eternal death. We can have life, and have it abundantly. Because of the cross.

Lent is a time of penance and reflection in which we take an honest look at ourselves and our tawdry righteousness. Lent is for turning back to the One who can save us from ourselves. We are preparing to go to the cross where we will stand in solidarity with the rest of humanity, united in our sinfulness and our great need of Him and His redemption.

Lent is not about giving up candy and meatless Fridays. It is rather our gentle foretaste of Gethsemane.

Cardinal George, Dead of Cancer at 78
Turkey Says Pope's Remembrance of Armenian Genocide is Islamaphobia
HHS Mandate Loses Another Round with the Supremes
Vatican and Nuns Reach Agreement
  • Don

    The story of the serpent in the garden is mythological and seems to have the purpose of instilling a fear of disobedience of God. I doubt whether the serpent was Satan from the Book of Job or the rebellious angel Lucifer or the Devil which all probably come from different sources.

    While I believe in a Creator or intelligence in the universe, I find it hard to believe that it gets intimately involved in the day to day activities of the human race.

    I do believe that ashes to ashes, dust to dust means exactly what it says. We were nothing and we will return to nothing.

  • Manny

    I went to mass and went in late to a very important meeting at work. Well, there are priorities. They lived with me being late.

  • pagansister

    Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. This is said at most Christian funerals I have attended. We are all part of a vast Universe, and no one really does know for sure what happens when our physical bodies die. Those of faith believe they will live again in a heaven or something similar —-but whatever happens, IMO, the point is to live this life with as much love, compassion and grace towards others on this planet, and not worry about an afterlife.

  • Joyce M

    Thank you for this reflection. It is really helping me solidify the for myself the reason why it must be His Will done and not my own, for I am dust and as such cannot direct my life to its most optimal conclusion. Truly all work, all building up of self, done by man eventually ends in dust blown away by the winds of time, forgotten. Dust cannot make more than what it actually is. It would be woe to me, except for the cross of Christ that has so saved me and reconnected me to the Life of God, Who is not dust, and Who freely wills endless life to the dust, making it what it could never be on its own. I hope for this lent to let go of my own will with its wretched outcomes and take instead the Divine Will with Its miraculous result in overflowing life.

  • Subsistent

    Let’s be clear: “To dust thou shalt return”, taken literalistically, is heretical, because it denies our spiritual soul’s immortality. Likewise, “the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden” (Gen. 3:8) would be heretical understood literalistically, because it would contradict the pure spirituality of God’s divine nature. Of course, the Church does NOT understand either of these Biblic assertions literalistically. I for one am glad the Ash Wednesday liturgy no longer says to the person getting ashes, “to dust thou shalt return”, because taken out of context by a poorly catechized person, it goes against the Church’s affirmation of the great dignity of every human person.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      I don’t know what heresy you may be referring to. I do know that Genesis 3:19 says:

      “By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made. For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return.”

    • Subsistent

      I was not referring to any single heresy. A number of heresies deny the immortality of every human soul: materialism, atheism, etc. Altho the quote from Genesis 3:19 is an accurate quote, it is not to be taken literalistically, because it was not meant literalistically by the Scriptural author, nor is it taken literalistically by the Church, which teaches rather that every human soul is immortal.

      • Rebecca Hamilton

        I don’t want to belabor this, but considering that our bodies are formed of the substances of this earth, it can be taken that we are made of the “dust of the earth.” I am aware that we are made of more than dust, including quite a bit of water, but hopefully you get my drift.

        This does not deny that we have and are immortal souls. But when we die, these bodies of ours rot. In time, most of our bodies will decay and return to the soil. That’s a simple fact. There are some human bodies that are mummified or whatever, but most of them simply return to the dust they came from.

        So … is this “literal?” I suppose it would be a question of how literal you want to be. The phrase, “dust of the earth” is itself poetic.

        However I have read enough papal encyclicals which refer to the first chapters of Genesis to know that the popes do take these chapters quite seriously. That is not to say that they imply that they are incompatible with current science. They don’t.

        As for equating the use of the phrase “dust of the earth” with atheism, materialism or any such, I think that is an extreme and rather literal-minded understanding of what people intend that leads to inaccurate conclusions. No one I have ever heard has used this phrase in the manner in which you seem to. You are the first.

        • Subsistent

          “… when we die, these bodies of ours rot.” Actually, one prominent view of this matter in Scholastic philosophy, as expressed by James E. Royce SJ in his book *Man and His Nature*, is that properly speaking, “A corpse WAS, not IS, a human body.”

  • Subsistent

    With regard to agnostic nonbelievers, I’ve found interesting Pope Benedict’s remarks as reported by John L. Allen in his NCR blog dated Dec. 30, 2011. Allen there wrote that in September of that year in Germany, Pope Benedict praised “agnostics who … suffer because of our sins and are desirous of a pure heart.” Benedict said such folk are actually “closer to the Kingdom of God than ‘routine’ believers who only see the apparatus of the church without their hearts being touched by faith.”
    Allen there reported also that in October, at Assisi in Italy, Benedict said genuine agnostics are “inwardly making their way towards [God], inasmuch as they seek truth and goodness,” and even thanked them because they “challenge the followers of religions not to consider God as their own property, as if he belonged to them, in such a way that they feel vindicated in using force against others.”

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      I read that at the time. I think there is a difference — a big difference — between honest seekers who are asking honest questions and some of the Christian-baiting demagogues who try to post on this blog.

  • Bill S

    ” Christian-baiting demagogues”

    That would be me. Sorry.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      No Bill, that would not be you. Almost all of them never get into these comboxes — though they do try mightily. They are rude, crude and just plain nutty sounding.

  • FW Ken

    I find “to dust you shall return” a great comfort. The world is not about me. It was here before me and will be here after I’m gone. Whatever happens to us when our bodies die is sort of irrelevant, since death puts us outside of time. As a Catholic, I “look forward to the resurrection of the body, and the life of the life of the world to come.”

  • Bill S

    “We have unbelievers who post on this board who tell us that nothing awaits us when we close our eyes on this world, that we will simply drift into the nothingness of non-existence, go back to the dust from which we came, and cease.”

    I think that if you look at how the brain works and at what happens when it stops functioning, there is no other way to look at death. If you read Genesis only, you will find no references to any kind of immortal soul. Death is to me the same as it was to the writer.

    Christianity and Islam preach immortality and that is what brings in all of their followers and makes them the biggest religions in the world. Not all Jews believe in immortality. The Promised Land was earthly not spiritual.

    It is like the carrot and the stick. Obey and you get the carrot. Refuse to obey and you get the stick. It’s a marketing strategy, nothing more.

  • Bill S

    “A corpse WAS, not IS, a human body.”

    Meaning …?

    Do Catholics really have to believe in the resurrection of the body. I’ve always had doubts about that, even as a child. Why would having a resurrected body be better than just being a spirit? It’s like someone in heaven will say “OK, time to go back into our bodies.” And where are we going to put all these people? I guess I can’t really say “we” can I?

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      “… where are we going to put all these people?”

      Bill, you pick the silliest things to worry about. God made everything, everywhere. I think he can work these things out.

      As for “having to believe” in the resurrection of the body, I think you are tripping over grains of sand. Start with the important things: God loves you Bill. Just as you are. Nothing you can do will earn more of His love. Nothing you can do will subtract from His love of you. People reject God, rather stupidly, I think. He doesn’t abandon us.

      You don’t “have to” believe anything. Just accept His love. “Cease striving and know that I am God.”

      He’ll take care of the rest of it.

    • Subsistent

      What does it mean, that “a corpse WAS, not IS, a human body”? It means that, properly speaking, after you or I die, what’s rotting is not a human body: it’s a non-human conglomerate of microbes and chemicals.

  • Bill S

    It’s hard to resist how nice Christians can be. Believing what they believe is a good thing for the most part even if it has an effect on their political views. But I am comfortable in my belief that there is no supernatural anything.

    If, for some reason, I had to come up with a concept of God, which I don’t really, it would be the fortuitous chain of events that resulted in intelligent life and on a personal level caused me to go to a club on the night I met my wife. There have been other fortuitous circumstances that one might attribute to a deity if one were superstitious like my wife and everyone around me. We are going out today to get her a little statue of St. Michael for her desk in work to keep away evil spirits/ co-workers.

  • Bill S

    “properly speaking, after you or I die, what’s rotting is not a human body: it’s a non-human conglomerate of microbes and chemicals.”

    So a living body is human and a dead body is not? Biologically speaking, they are the same body. The difference is that the flow of oxygen in the blood has stopped and the organs, most of all the brain have stopped functioning. That’s all she wrote. There is no more consciousness and we cease to exist as intelligent beings.