Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Liturgy for Ash Wednesday)
But Jesus bent down and started writing on the ground with his finger. As they persisted with their question, he straightened up and said, ‘Let the one among you who is guiltless be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Then he bent down and continued writing on the ground. (John 8.6-8, New Jerusalem Bible)
When we finally escaped from our building, it was quite hard to breathe normally in the street: dense fumes; thick, thick dust; a sort of sandstorm or snowstorm of dust and debris; large flakes of soft grey burned stuff falling steadily. In the empty street, cars with windows blown in, a few dazed people, everything covered in this grey snow. (Rowan Williams, Writing in the Dust: Reflections on 11th September and its Aftermath)
It’s usually a cold, dismal morning when winter has lost its pristine snowy charm and become tiresome, that I arrive at an early church service and hear the words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. We are part of the cycle of life, death, and decay, which we can neither change nor escape. In time, we will disappear, and there will eventually be no distinctive trace of our individuality—our achievements, or commitments, our aspirations. The words are meant to remind us that we are not God, perhaps even to remind us that we are not very important, that we don’t make a difference.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Our lives are filled with dust, both literal and metaphorical. How many times do we see and hear advertisements on the radio and television about Dyson vacuum cleaners, HEPA air filters, and the need to replace our mattresses periodically because they’re full of highly allergenic dust mites (which would not thrive were it not for an abundance of dust)? And we are the source of all that dust which we are told we must avoid for our own good—we shed enormous amounts of skin cells, and other bits produced by our own bodies. Not only shall we return to dust entirely at some future point after death, but we are grinding imperceptibly into dust as we go about our daily activities. Dust is never something we welcome more of into our lives. Even metaphorically, dust is a negative. We say something is ‘dusty dull and dry’ when we find it boring; we say that our desire for an opponent in a legal or business proceeding is that we will ‘grind him into the dust’; and as a child on the playground, almost every foot race began with the words ‘eat my dust’ as we took off as fast as we could and left the other runners behind. (Being no athlete, nobody ever ate much of my dust.) Cheeky adolescents take a finger to the dirt on the back of the family car and write ‘Wash me’. We are hyper-vigilant about dust, offering to remove a speck of it in our neighbor’s eye while ignoring a log in our own. Dust, in the Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic world (what moral psychologist Jonathan Heidt calls WEIRD, because it is the ‘outlier’ to the norm of human existence on Earth), is unimportant, insignificant except as something to be avoided, and then more as an irritant than a danger. Dust is temporary, fleeting. Dust doesn’t make a difference.
Until a bright Tuesday morning in September of 2001. At that point, dust, and the people who made it, asserted themselves as a force to be reckoned with. In lower Manhattan, dust became unavoidable, significant, and dangerous—and it made a permanent difference.
Most of us saw the airplanes fly into the World Trade Center on television or on computer screens via internet connections. I was about 1300 miles southwest of New York City at the time, on a one-year sabbatical replacement contract in the religion and philosophy department at a small college in rural Kansas. I was preparing for my first class of the day (a ‘senior capstone’ seminar in applied ethics titled ‘Responsibilities for the Future’). I had collected my books and notes, when I heard a scream of absolute terror from the office adjacent to mine. My colleague had CNN on her computer, and saw the first plane hit a tower. By the time I had reached my classroom and moved my students down the corridor to a room with a cable connection, the second tower had been struck. The rest of my day was spent in what I wanted to think of as practical action: standing with the psychology instructors as they offered counsel to students (this part of Kansas was home to a number of aerospace manufacturing facilities as well as an Air Force base, and there was a real fear that there might be an attack there), helping to arrange a trip to the nearest mid-sized city so that the cheerleaders could donate blood, phoning my own family members in the New York metropolitan area to see if they were okay. And knowing that a number of classmates from my earlier MBA studies had work addresses in the World Trade Center, and were probably dead or dying, and might not be recovered or identified.
As dramatic as that felt at the moment, it was still at a much greater remove than the current Archbishop of Canterbury, who was essentially next door to the Twin Towers, at Trinity Wall Street, the wealthiest Anglican church on the planet. The tiny, eloquent book of reflections from which the description above is drawn, was published early in 2002. I received a copy as a gift from a dear friend in England, and this is the tenth year in which I’ve paused on or around the anniversary of the first ‘successful’ attack on the US mainland in almost two centuries (the last was the War of 1812).
I have not been able to listen to the Ash Wednesday words in the same way ever since. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Yes, perhaps. But we do not return to the same dust from which we came. What we do between our entering this world and our leaving it, the dust we generate, matters; it makes a difference. The dust doesn’t change without our participation—and the dust does change, and in its turn, it changes us. The dust created on 11 September 2001 had, and still has, the potential to make a difference. It has realized that potential, both in the armed conflicts and further loss of life occasioned by the attacks—and by the impetus to greater inter-religious and cross-cultural understandings that those attacks have inspired. The dust has both confirmed some prejudices that existed before the attacks, and it has clouded and obscured others.
We live in and with the dust that we are. What happens in the dust between our conception and our decay matters. Rowan Williams talks about John 8, the story of the woman ‘caught’ or ‘taken’ in adultery. He suggests that when Jesus bends down and writes on the dusty, dry ground, two truths emerge. First, the refusal to give an immediate judgment creates a space between the actors in the drama, in his words, a ‘breathing space’ that helps in sympathy and understanding that would never have happened had he given into the demand for making a fixed interpretation. Secondly, that this hesitation, more than anything written ‘in the dust’ is what is important—this space for understanding and reflection, not the particular interpretations given. What is written in dust is less important than the time we take to do the writing.
The dust of 11 September 2001 is now a part of the dust from which we come. What will we do with that dust, how will we live with and in it, and how will it shape the dust to which we, and all humanity, eventually return?
We are honoured that The Episcopal Cafe has reblogged this as its lead today. Thank-you again, Wendy.
1. The main illustration, of the cross made of ashes, is by Ansis Klucis, downloaded from Shutterstock under licence.
2. New York, N.Y. (Sept. 14, 2001) — A fire fighter emerges from the smoke and debris of the World Trade Center. The twin towers of the center were destroyed in a Sep. 11 terrorist attack. U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Jim Watson, downloaded from Wikimedia under CCL.
3. The bottom illustration of a star nebula, galactic dust, is by William Attard McCarthy and downloaded from Shutterstock under licence.