“You are but dust”

Reflections on Impermanence and Mortality on Ash Wednesday

Chaplain Resident Michelle Jendry

I remember getting ashes on my first Ash Wednesday as a Christian. The morning light shone softly through the stained glass windows in the old church building. It was a small crowd. I took my seat, by myself near a window and away from other people so that I could look out the window and reflect.

Ash Wednesday (noun): the seventh Wednesday before Easter and the first day of Lent, on which many Christians receive a mark of ashes on the forehead as a token of penitence and mortality.

My spiritual life up to that point had been a curvy, complex one. As I sat in the church, I was coming towards the end of a physical health crisis and in the middle of a mental health one. I’d been in a skateboarding accident a couple years before and had spent two years working to recover from the debilitating effects of a concussion and post-concussive syndrome (among other injuries). I was deeply depressed and struggled with anxiety. Church, which had been a source of inner conflict for me in the past, was a solace for me at that stage in my life. It gave me something to hope for when I felt like I had nothing to hold on to, and it gave me assurance that whatever happened to me, I would be okay with God. I was twenty four years old at the time.

I sat in my chair, eager to participate in my first Lenten season of reflection and devotion. I don’t remember any of the service except getting the ashes. My pastor crossed my forehead with ashes and said, “Remember, you are but dust and to dust you shall return.”

I don’t know what I was expecting. Something a bit more…worth-affirming? Life affirming? Being told I was dust certainly wasn’t it.

I walked back to my chair, blank gaze masking growing conflict and heaviness within me. At a different time in my life, I’m sure I would’ve had a different reaction. At that point, in my struggle with depression, meaninglessness, and lostness, it felt like the ashes on my forehead were a mark of what I’d been fighting against every day and what I’d sought refuge from in my faith: the idea that none of this mattered anyway. That what I was living wasn’t worth the pain and struggle I was putting into it. That we all die and nothing lasts anyway. Like the grasping for meaning and worth I’d been doing was really just me grasping handfuls of sand in the desert, the grains slipping away like dust no matter how desperately I wanted to hold on. I don’t know why this experience stuck with me so much, but I still vividly remember the heaviness in my body and my spirit and the anger, fear, shame, and resignation I felt.

While Ash Wednesday is a Christian tradition, the themes it deals with are universal and found across many religious and spiritual traditions: impermanence, mortality, fallibility. Nothing lasts forever, we die, we make mistakes and fall short.

That memory of my first Ash Wednesday has been on my mind lately, especially given the year we’ve had since this time last year. I think for a lot of people, this year has felt like one where everything is futile. I think about healthcare workers fighting to save as many lives as possible, just trying to hold everything together, in swamped and chaotic units filled with covid patients. I think of those who have shown care and concern for the community by staying home and following CDC guidelines to stop the spread of the virus, yet are lonely and losing hope that we’ll ever come out of this. I think about how many people are likely experiencing depression, anxiety, and PTSD. A year where we’ve especially been forced to face our mortality, our frailty, and our fear that everything is temporary and thus none of this really has any meaning anyway.

I think the question of ultimate meaning is a hard one. I wish I could give the right answer for each of you. I’m still working on answering it for myself. I think it’s one that we each have to find our own answer for. I think finding worth and purpose in the midst of frailty and impermanence is our own life’s journey to reveal.

What I can say for myself and my own personal experience is that I’ve thought and felt a lot more about that first Ash Wednesday. I think I’ve come to an understanding. An understanding that just because everything is temporary doesn’t mean that all of it is meaningless. That our frailty and mortality does not make this life or us worthless. That being a human who falls short and makes mistakes and needs to work to do better is okay. It’s part of my becoming.

This year, when I get the ashes on my forehead, it’ll be a lot different than that first experience. The actual process of it will be the same (apart from maybe a few tweaks to make the process safer from covid), but my interpretation of it is different. Nothing lasts forever. I am limited. I make mistakes. I come from dust, and I’ll return to the earth as dust someday. And that’s okay. Because even though I still struggle with those facts, it’s those facts and the search to understand them that also give my life meaning and purpose.

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