From: Windows Into the Light
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer)
Loving God, you formed us from the dust of the Earth and filled us with your life-giving spirit: let us find beauty in our creation, and trusting in your never-failing love, help us to see all our days as opportunities for the freedom you give; through Jesus the Christ, who stooped so low as to know dust himself, and who with the Holy Spirit, still breathes life into us each moment. Amen.
(Baptism of Jesus and temptation in the wilderness)
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from Heaven, You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Before that Ash Wednesday, I had wished I’d never crossed the threshold into the tower that cold January day. As a father, I wanted to take the whole thing back – to somehow erase my son’s experience of death at such an early age as if his experience were a document on a computer. I wanted to take him back to a place where death wasn’t in his dictionary, where I was fully in charge of his life, where Daddy could solve anything, make it better, and restore order amidst threatening chaos. When the calls had come in the middle of the night and the deaths had been unknown characters in Daddy’s priestly life, Jack had been protected. But when I took his little hand in mine and walked into that church and through the tower door that fateful day, everything changed. I was no longer the supreme daddy of the universe but just an ordinary human being. And more importantly, my son was no longer a toddler, or even a child on some deep level. He had seen life fully, the whole circle, and the three-year-old had grown up.
All this guilt evaporated in the tears streaming down my face when the three-year-old theologian was revealed on Ash Wednesday. Crossing the threshold, Jack had seen the ashes; he knew death. But miraculously, he had also seen light and life. In the simplicity of his proclamation, he had reminded me and all around him that the key to life lies just beyond the threshold.
Few of us realize we’re dust: our lives are far too comfortable for us to be in touch with our earthiness. The modern life, with incessant hand-sanitizing, sparkling marble bathrooms, crisp linen sheets, and thick absorbent towels, is quite like checking into a five-star hotel where our dusty lives pass into the distant past. We buy our packaged meat at the butcher, peering into nice little Styrofoam containers to select the best cuts of prime beef, totally separated from the reality that something died for the food we will consume. Our carrots, something grown in the dirt, in all the dust of life, are even clean. They don’t even look like carrots anymore – they’re just perfect little orange bullets, a virtual dirtless pill of beta-carotene.
Our ancestors didn’t bask in this luxury. Death was a constant companion, always lurking behind every shadow. Children often died during birth, and the odds weren’t good for the mother either. Toddlers fell prey to the common cold. A woman in her thirties was getting pretty old. The obstacles of getting enough food to eat, protecting one’s family from invasion, figuring out where good water flowed, all took precedence over the comfort of a bed. Survival was key, and being in touch with the dust of the Earth wasn’t a problem at all. Dust was everywhere.
So, why on Earth did early Christians leave the comforts of civilization and venture ever deeper into the dust? Why did they make their way to the deserts of Egypt, the recesses of Spain, the north shore of England? And most certainly, why did a group of people venture off the coast of southwestern Ireland to a rock jutting from the depths of the ocean floor?
Skellig Michael is a mammoth rock, rising some nine hundred feet out of the North Atlantic. On a clear day, you can see it jutting from the ocean, with its companion island, Little Skellig, standing close by as if saluting its neighbor, that marvelous monster of a rock. Sometime early in the fifth century, a monk or two dreamed of sailing to Skellig Michael to seek a deeper relationship with God. But of course, the diesel-powered boats had not pulled into the bay as of yet, so the dream was just a dream – or so it seemed. With time, these monks told others of their desire, and in either great bravery or great stupidity, they joined forces and began building boats, some from logs and others from leather. After many a test in the strong currents of the bay, a group ventured out toward the Skelligs. The boats were small, holding one, two, or three men at most.
Arriving at the Skellig is not fun in the best of boats. The forces of the ocean, rising up against the large rock in the deep sea, produce dramatic and destructive waves that crash upon the jagged edges like a hammer upon an anvil. Even today, visitors to the sight are dismayed at the landing, a narrow gate some sixty feet wide with a varying swell of a good twenty feet on a calm day. How fifth-century people made their way to the Skellig in such small boats, how they garnered the strength to row through unbelievable seas to arrive to jagged, sharp rocks, is incomprehensible to any modern visitor today. But by the end of the fifth century, many a believer had made the trip and the beginning of a monastic community upon the Skellig was taking place.
Instead of a nice organic grocer, these disciples arrived to one small piece of soil, a field between the two peaks, about two-thirds of the way up the Skellig. They named this plot, about the size of two tennis courts, Christ’s Saddle. And there the community raised all its crops. Going back to the mainland to shop wasn’t quite an option. On Christ’s very back they grew potatoes and other root vegetables to supplement the fish they caught and dried in the summer and fall months. Eventually they even brought over several cows for milk and some meat – imagine that boat landing! They chose to come to this wilderness, this great rock of dust, and they did what they had to in order to survive.
But the dust of the rock was harsh. Winters were cruel, with cold winds, upwards of seventy miles per hour, howling sometimes for weeks. The monastic community was built some six hundred to seven hundred feet up the rock, probably for defense purposes when the Vikings came calling. But being so high meant facing winter head on; it wasn’t at all like checking in a nice Franciscan retreat center with a fireplace and a cozy chapel for contemplation. No, going to the Skellig, facing the lack of food, staring into the wind, listening to the howling silence of God swirling all around the cracks and crags upon the rock, was hard core dust work. Hearing, “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” was the way of life here, not some liturgical rite for once-a-year observance.
But they found something there that gave them life. There on the rock, in the very incarnation of dust, shallow adherence to doctrine for the sake of doctrine was not the theology of the day. Whether one was in the church or out, whether one believed correctly or not, whether one had defined God forever and ever amen was not even on the radar. Those matters didn’t come up in the dirt of Christ’s Saddle. No, in this small place of holy women and men the pursuit of God among the dusty dirt was life itself. Prayer with a howling wind and freezing rain was the mantra; contemplation with the birds of the air – puffins and gannets galore in the summer – were the sacraments of redemption and reconciliation; toiling with Adam in the rocky soil and fishing with Peter, James, and John were the oblations of daily work. Life upon the rock was life amid hardship, life within the dust. But more importantly, to toil upon the metaphor of God’s Earth was where the believer found salvation. In each molecule of dust there was life, the promise of something that had been before and something that would come after. Every spec of dust was essential to growing the crops. Every splinter of wood meant just enough warmth. Every drop of milk. Every single potato, the beautiful and the one half-rotten. Everything, literally every thing, was dust pointing to God – something beyond the rock, something beyond the shore, something worth pursuing in every moment.
We need to be a little less tidy in our spiritual journey. Lent asks us, “to remember that we are dust,” not in some holy, ritualistic way, but in reality. Each and every one of us must leave the tidy, clean lives of our antiseptic world behind and re-encounter the life the monks sought upon the Skelligs. Underneath all the suburban shopping malls, underneath all the brick houses we build, underneath every shoe we wear is the same dust the monks of the Skellig tilled just a few years ago. If we can see our own dust, and if we can see the dust of those who have gone before, then we do not take life for granted. Instead of merely breathing, we start living when we embrace the dust of life.
That’s what the monks believed. It is what our souls long for each day. It is what it means to be sons and daughters of the dust.
Facing Our Dust
Having discovered the niche with Jack and having reclaimed the dust of life with the monks, facing our own niche and dust becomes possible. In the first exercise, we remembered our life and selected copies of photographs. Now, we create a resting place for our life – a place to hold us as we journey deeper and deeper into God’s love for us. Seeing the niche in the tower scared Jack; it was the moment he understood dying and death. But ultimately, seeing the niche brought understanding, the same understanding the monks held daily. By seeing the dust of death, one discovers life. We now seek to prepare our niche with Jack and venture into the Skellig’s hope.
- A shoebox or other small cardboard box. If you have time, you might visit a flea market and find a wooden crate or old jewelry box that draws your attention. Wine crates work very well, especially if you can find one with a top.
- Construction paper or a collection of nicer papers, such as rice paper and other handmade papers from an art and crafts store.
- Photographs selected from the previous exercise.
- Glue, preferably rubber cement if working with paper and cardboard boxes; for wooden boxes, a glue gun or stronger epoxy works well.
- Markers, colored pencils, etc.
We’re not just decorating a box in this exercise. Instead, we’re creating a vessel to house all the dust of our lives. As the chapters unfold, you’ll have the opportunity to place items within this box for your niche: all the darkness and difficulty of your life can be given to this burial place, praying and hoping for God’s grace and mercy in the Easter moment. So don’t just wrap a box as if for a birthday present. Instead, create your urn, your vessel to hold the dust of your being so that in it you might find new light and life.
As with all our exercises, take several minutes to assemble the materials you need in an area where you will not be interrupted. Turn off the phone, the television, the radio, and other distractions you can control. Create a holy place of intentional silence for your workspace. Then, after you have prepared the area, get a comfortable chair in which to work and just sit down. If you can, close your eyes and let the thoughts flow through and away from you like a stream. Clear your mind and invite God into the time you are giving for this exercise.
Start with a prayer. You can use one of the prayers at the beginning of the chapter if you like, but you really don’t have to use such a formal prayer. A prayer as simple as one word, such as, “love,” “peace,” or “ashes,” said repeatedly might form a contemplative time for you. Other suggestions might include a phrase like, “remember you are dust,” or, “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” Live with a word or phrase for several minutes. Let the prayer center your preparation for the exercise.
When you’re ready to begin, decorate your box without much thought. If you’ve assembled all the materials in one place and put them on a worktable, you’ll be able to work freely and without constraints. Just begin to work and try to free yourself of any distractions. If an inner critic emerges, let it go. Just work.
A few practical pointers will probably help as you begin. The first step is likely creating a background. You might wrap your box in paper to create a background color or colors for the photographs you will eventually assemble and glue as a kind of collage on the outside of the box. As you work, remember to wrap the top separately. You’ll want to place items inside later and you must be able to remove the top or open the box. If you are using a wooden box or a heavy cardboard one, you might choose to paint instead of applying papers. If so, you can divide your work into a session for painting and then a session for applying the decorations after the paint has dried.
Your next step is applying a collage to the box. Assemble photographs from the first chapter and select an assortment to apply to the box using glue. Creative papers, glued behind each photo, or other items can also be incorporated to provide depth and create more interest. Could you weave a ribbon underneath the pieces of paper as they are glued, a kind of thread running through your life? You might even use a ribbon as a time line when you begin pasting photos or other images. A baby picture could begin your trek and a recent photo to end it. There’s really no correct way to assemble the collage on the exterior. You could apply photos in the timeline method or you could arrange them thematically. You can keep the photographs distinct or you could paste them together in a more extravagant collage. Be creative and see where the Holy Spirit takes you as you go.
Continue to pray throughout the exercise, repeating your word or phrase as a kind of mantra. When you start feeling off track, return to the prayer and let it re-center you. Also let the words of the lesson from Ash Wednesday enfold you and Jack’s story illumine you. Let God’s love surround you as you contemplate your life and its meaning as you face the reality of dying and death for all of us. Get in touch with the dust of the Earth, going to your own Skellig within your life.
And when you’ve finished, take time to sit and reflect upon your work. Use the soul questions to help discern what your work says to you for this journey.
- What images or drawings did you use for your box? What do they say to you about your life’s journey? How might they be asking more of you for the future?
- What emotions do you see among the decorations? Are they mostly sad? Happy? Excited? Do you see common emotional themes among them that indicate what you’re feeling as you face the narratives of Ash Wednesday in scripture and in Jack’s story?
- What other images came to mind as you began to work? How do they relate to where you are in your journey now?
- What images are missing that you wish you could incorporate? What do they say about the dust of your heart, the things still waiting upon God?
- What word or phrase did you use as your mantra? What’s the meaning of your prayer as you understand it for now?
Thoughts for the Journey
- What are you afraid of as we begin our Lenten journey?
- How does Jack’s story speak to you about dying and death? Are you afraid of death? Has the death of a loved one caused you much pain? Do you need to think more about what death means to understand more about life?
- How might you begin to see things as a three-year-old theologian?