Remember that You are Dust and to Dust You Shall Return
Wednesday morning at 6 am my alarm woke me from warm, senseless sleep to face a cold, rainy, and intimidating day. I delayed the call for minutes, wanting to lose myself again in wondrous sleep. I finally pulled myself out of bed, dressed, prepared coffee, and set out for Mass.
Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance. It is a day of measuring how short you fall from Christ and from your Christ-self. It is a day of the dreadful reminder that one day you, and everything that you have done as yourself, will die, and all that will be left is the work that God has done through you. That same sense of judgment is writ large for society. It can be a day to measure how far we are from the kingdom of heaven on Earth, and to cry aloud our repentance, to mourn our faults, and to renew our endeavor to enable that kingdom.
Of course I wasn’t aware of any of that as I stumbled toward the church. I was thinking of how I had finally taught my cat what it’s like to be woken up by being trampled on. I was thinking of how I had beaten the sun up. I was thinking of how, as a Quaker, I should have considered that this was a needless ritual I could perform anytime and that I should go back to bed and rest up before the day’s big action. As I finally arrived and settled in, however, I knew that I had done the right thing. I felt somewhat awkward, like an impostor, but I had done the research. I knew that the ash smearing was sacramental, not a sacrament, and therefore open to anyone, not just Catholics. I didn’t take communion, can remember nothing of the homily, and left with only the priest’s clipped, accented voice in my ear: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The weight of that statement followed me as I walked to the coffee shop to begin my vegan Lent. I noticed the flicking of eyes to my forehead, where the ashen cross lay. I biked to Center City Philadelphia, found my destination at Friends Center, and settled into contemplation, aided by a crumpled copy of Psalm 88. The words of isolation I found there, the words of grief and darkness and helplessness, struck such a chord with me that I began rewriting them to form a song. As people began to gather in preparation for an Earth Quaker Action Team event, for which I had volunteered to be a police liaison, I finally connected the messages I had received that morning.
The Earth right now is in a state of desolation. Our civilization, the one we were born into, exterminates six dozen species a day, desertifies and deforests thousands of square miles a year, exploits every natural resource it can reach to the point of collapse, and manages to favor only a select few of its human inhabitants, leaving the wreckage for the unfortunate ones who remain. If Christ’s arrival at the Pentecost was to signal the redemption of humanity, as classical Quakerism teaches, we have certainly strayed far from our task of redeeming Eden.
This distance hurts us, though it has hurt hundreds of indigenous communities far more. Living in the city of Philadelphia, I get virtually no reminder of what Eden might have been like. I live out of cycle, unaware of countless rhythms around me that I might otherwise notice. I am insulated from knowing how species interact with each other. I am constantly distracted by noise and pollution. Entire histories go up in flames or under a bulldozer blade while I enjoy the benefits of a recovering economy. There is no natural process here that is untouched by humanity.
Sometimes that’s not always a bad thing. A feral cat displays as much vigor for life as a lynx. Exotic, introduced, non-native species push their roots through asphalt and concrete to break the spell of a human-dominated environment. The mundane horror of death, found every day in roadkill and discarded chicken bones, reminds us of our life without God as much as it reminds us of the intricate and marvelous mechanisms that surround death in nature. There is still much for us to learn, even in the unnatural pallor of the city. Moreover, we humans are remarkable and wonderful creatures, capable of forming bonds to Eden—though we live far from it—replicating it in our interactions with each other, and speaking of it as food for our dreams.
This is the situation of most of the members of Earth Quaker Action Team, who dedicate their efforts to save the mountains of Appalachia and the people who depend on them for their history, livelihood, and spiritual nourishment. After an unexpected victory last year, in which PNC Bank agreed to cease funding companies whose main source of revenue was mountaintop removal, EQAT decided to press its advantage and call for a complete sector exclusion policy that would prevent any PNC money from funding mountaintop removal. Our action was to take place at the Philadelphia International Flower Show, a beloved local event, sponsored by PNC Bank. Members who were willing to risk arrest would cordon off a section surrounding PNC’s display pavilion, declaring it a “Flower Crime Scene.” The expectation was that we would be arrested quickly, in the meantime embarrassing PNC and reaching out to the 250,000 visitors who regularly attend the event.
It suddenly occurred to me, sitting in that room, preparing to deal with an incredibly uncomfortable role for me, that all prophecy began in such a way. In the Old Testament, there are several examples of God getting angry about the mistreatment of the land and the poor. Prophets would do incredibly risky and strange things that would have terrified anyone who was sane. My mild discomfort at having to be loud and defend my viewpoints against people who felt we were being obnoxious and crazy, not to mention dealing with the police, is small potatoes next to Ezekiel lying on his side for 430 days, but it’s a start. Our protest ended up taking most of the day. At the end, a dozen security personnel stood around a determined few who still held banners and spoke loudly, effectively blocking all visitation to the PNC display. No one was arrested but dozens showed support and the protest made news as PNC dropped its sponsorship of the Flower Show for unrelated reasons. However, PNC still finances mountaintop removal coal mining.
There has been a good deal written recently about prophecy, and particularly about how the call for repentance is one rooted in love for the ones being called out. I do agree with that, but I would add that the love extends not only to what still exists but to that which has been forever lost to possibility, and to those who bear the burden of being next on the chopping block of our civilization. We mourn for our environment and the disruption of our human communities because we love them. We mourn for and repent our benefit from the atrocities that pass by unknown to us. We pray for the repentance of the powerful, not only for their souls and well-being, but also with the full knowledge that their work will return to dust, and when it does, countless others may pay the price.
These are the times we live in. We are in constant isolation from God and from our task. The source of that isolation is multifaceted and cannot be readily determined, but as our closeness to our leadings grows, it is harder to isolate us. The more we build our Eden together, the more stable our lives become. The more we engage our Christ-selves, the more natural they seem, and the more we pay attention to repentance, the easier it seems to engage the problems before us. God continues to lead us as in the days of the Old Testament. Let us pray for continued and deepened acts of prophecy, and the melting of the hearts of the powerful. Let us examine what our lives and our faith will have meant when we return to dust.