Because I Am Dust

One of the first posts I wrote for this blog was entitled Because This May Be My Last Mass. I wrote it based on my experiences in the Marine Corps when I saw the photograph of a Navy chaplain administering the Eucharist to Marines on Iwo Jima.

I suppose it is easy to consider the idea that you may die today when you are engaged in combat. But as I sat in Church today as Lent approaches, the same thought entered into my mind. This may be my last Mass.

Will it be my last Mass? Not if I can help it. But the fact of the matter is, I really have no idea. Having just gotten over a flu bug, I realize again how poor and weak I actually am. Someone commented on my first post from sick-bay, “Have you been taking your vitamin C?”  No, I have not. Not since I was almost killed in an accident have I wasted any time or money on vitamins.

Of course, I haven’t completely abandoned trying to eat “healthy” while having a balanced diet either.  I just don’t think of my body as something I can control, like I may have thought at one time. Today’s readings helped me along in this, as I was reflecting that Ash Wednesday is only a few days from now and the Lenten season will begin.

Paul writes to the Corinthians and I emphasize in bold,

If the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.

Before I was a Catholic, I was a fair-weather sort of Christian. It is still a temptation to be one now. You know, it’s easy when things are going right to be thankful to God. But in the Summer of 2001, I almost became dust in the sands of the Mojave Desert.  Two of my comrades lost their lives. I was hospitalized for 5 1/2 weeks and convalesced for 6 months. My Marine Corps career came to an end as well.

I don’t have any memory of the event at all.  My brother Marines at the scene have told me a few things. They tell me I said I wanted to see my kids, for example. My mother says I wrestled with an angel the way Jacob did. I don’t really know why I was spared. Maybe it was so I could write these words for you. To remind you that you are dust as well, and that at any moment your version of eternity will begin.

In today’s Gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount, Our Lord says,

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. . . . Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.

Kind of leaves you with an uneasy feeling, doesn’t it?  There is nothing fair-weather in those words. But they speak to my soul, if not to my body. These words also remind me of something G.K. Chesterton wrote as well,

The Catholic Church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.

So on Ash Wednesday, my family and I will go to Church and have the mark of the Cross traced on our foreheads. A mark that says we are not of this world. As the mark is made, these words will be said,

From dust you came and to dust you will return.

What humbling words to hear. What a subtle reminder of my own poverty. For rituals like these, I became a Catholic. Because I need to be reminded of my place in the grand scheme of things and to whom I have pledged my allegiance while I am here.

The first time we went to Church on Ash Wednesday was in 2008, right before I was accepted into the Church. I had been going to Mass for close to 18 years with my wife, and we had never gone on Ash Wednesday ever before. I remember being amazed at how many people were at the service. I remember thinking to myself, These people understand.

I’ve never missed going to Church on Ash Wednesday since, and I intend to never miss it ever again. That is, right up until my last Mass.

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  • Allison Salerno

    Beautiful post, Frank. Thanks for sharing your experiences in such compelling detail. I remember taking my baby to Ash Wednesday mass and thinking how odd it was the priest put ashes on his forehead too. But now it all makes sense.

  • Webster Bull

    Frank, thanks for this. I had been mulling a post all day long about today's readings, and Father Barnes's homily about them–when I wasn't in bed trying to sleep off this cold, that is. So you've saved me finishing that post, and I can hit the Delete button! The beauty of Father's homily was that he focused on Hope, a word that appears only once in the Jeremiah and once in the Corinthians, not at all in the "other Beatitudes" given by Luke. As I understand it, his point was, when we are turned away from God, we put all our hope in transitory things, all the things the Beatitudes warn us against: Riches, being "full," being famous (well thought of and spoken of), even laughing. None of these things offer us ultimate hope. Only one thing does that, and it's what we're about to plunge into Lent for: the Passion and Resurrection waiting at the other end.

  • Warren Jewell

    My parish has someone bringing me ashes, so important is this sacramental. Reminds me of Ash Wednesday when I was (I think) a sophomore at my all-boys Catholic high school. One of our class clowns cracked about what the effects would be if one of us got ashes and keeled over and died at the foot of the priest. He barely got a small grin on, and none of us did, when we were all struck: it COULD just happen. That we "know not the day nor the hour" means any old teenager could have a gross physical defect take him down right in school, at some rite and while we would be shocked – well, we shouldn't be. About the issue of death, we can all say "WHO KNEW?" about the person who suddenly is lost to us.BTW, the follow-up dumb-founded look on Clownie-boy's face cracked us up for months when we just would hang out as youths do. Youth does not long celebrate its vulnerability.

  • Maria

    Frank:What a story! And look where you are. This sort of relates to Webster's confession's post, as well. I had a heart attack in 2007. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was a hollywood movie/man kind of heart attack, you know? So, anyway, I am on the way the hopsital in a fire truck w/ pain such as I have never known, unable to breathe and, no exaggeration–this is not intended as metaphor, I was certain that I was going to die. Hear this: the only thing that I was worried about was that I had not been to confession–I mean in decades and decades. God in his Mercy gave me more time to repent. He gave me a way out. How good is He? I had not thought of this until now, but maybe that is why I had a heart attack.I found this in my Grandmother's prayerbook:Hear us O Lord, for Thy mercy is kind:look upon us, O Lord, according to the multitude of Thy tender mecies. Sweet, hmm?

  • Maria

    Howdy Warren:Seems like you have been away a bit. Hope you are well…