A Reflection on Dust by Sharon McCulley:
Dust gives us much to think about as we begin Lent, an introspective
time on our calendar. It is not easy to take stock of ourselves, as there is
much to distract us. When we finally eek out moments of quiet and
stillness to take in our reflection, we may become distracted by our own
image and not be able to recognize our deeper essence in this world.
For many, glimpses of our deeper selves come when pondering in
those dark and deep nights how we began and how we will end. It is a point
filled with desperate questions. We want to understand how and when and
what and where. I am convinced fragments of the answers to these
abstract questions lie in dust. It is through both scientific inquiry and our
grasping faith that we try to put meaning into our flecks of perpetually
decaying dust, wanting not to be forgotten, wanting to matter.
But, we have forgotten we are matter. We are dust. By that fact
alone, we can trace our lineage to a vast and powerful universe. Eternity
exists within our mortal form. We contain eons. Stardust that is millions of
years old flows in our veins. We are important, because we are forever
connected. We will not be forgotten, because we literally cannot be
destroyed. Our recycled ash and dust will forever come together to form
new histories, new stories, new experiences.
And what of our own experience in this moment? This very second?
Indeed, we are so very small in the scheme of time, we take up the most
miniscule fraction of space when you think about what surrounds us. We
are tiny beings, on a tiny planet, in a tiny portion of all that is. We are
mortal, our end will come, and our ashes will scatter. We need to
acknowledge how temporary we are as beings bound into dust, and how
little we control before we try to navigate our world. Contemplating the
fragility of dust reminds us that we are not permanent and allows a release
of ego that can poison even the most well-intentioned.
If you have not already noticed, I just said we are eternal and mortal.
We are forever and temporary. We are big and small. We matter a lot and
we don’t matter at all. This is the paradox of dust- our dust. This cosmic
awareness helps frame discussions as we reach into the core of our being
and attempt to recognize our collective selves.
The Lenten tradition of becoming empty in order to be filled helps us
reach into and explore our own piles of personal dust we are leasing from
the macrocosm. There are many ways we can practice this emptying.
Fasting and giving something up are common physical metaphors for the
internal change we hope to embody. However, if we merely take this time
to quietly sit and revel in the nature of our dust, to question the dual nature
of our ashes: of how we can contain the most and the least, then an
unexpected wisdom is received. Suddenly, what is important, what is loved,
what is serious, and what and who we are becomes more lucid.
The practice of taking time to reflect frames how we interact with piles
of dust that are external to our own. Jesus took this time and walked
through a desert, or through a sea of dust, for 40 days. He was not only
sorting through his soul or sieving through his inner dust. Exposed and
alone, he was coping with dust. Literally, it was in his hair and inbetween
his toes. I wonder if he recognized these grains as a part of himself as he
brushed them clear of his sandals, and if this made the pesky particles
easier to deal with when they blew past his hand shielding his eyes.
He had to dust himself off and keep going. Dust that is external to our
own, not bound up into our mortal body, can be hard to handle if it is
allowed free reign and disregards personal boundaries. There is a lot of
excess in our lives that wants to stick to us, like some sort of cosmic static
electricity. It can feel like the universe is trying to collapse all the various
forms of dust back onto itself as it swirls and surrounds us in a humid,
chaotic cloud. Yet, we can’t see beyond the storm because we are apart of
it. It leaves us to walk through it, as every single moment drips down our
backs. From time to time, we must reach outside of our own dust and
gently sweep our outer shell free from the excess dust in order to struggle
on. Knowing everything is dust, and therefore matters the most and the
least, can help us do this without feeling disrupted, discern when it is
appropriate, and bring forth humility and assertiveness at the right
So this Lenten season I invite you to wonder about dust. Both the
dust that dwells in us and outside of us. Take note of the dust you can’t see
but of which everything consists. Revel in the flecks and flakes and the
whole. Allow it to lead you through the outward dust you encounter. And
know you are big, and know that you are small, and know while you walk
through deserts you are also walking across the stars.
Thank you for this beautiful reflection that invites us to wonder at the both/and nature of our mortality and eternity, both individually and collectively. This week I’ve been reflecting much on the linguistic and existential interconnections of humor, humility, humus and humanity. In this season of life (the “know-it-all” twenties), gardening grounds me in ways I often don’t know I crave until potato dust sticks to my skin dust, until compost’s humus wafts up to greet my nostrils’ humanness. When I sit in the soil and look up at the world from down there, I am humbled by my tiny place in the vast universe. This humbling calms rather than terrifies me. It checks my pride. It cools my hot-headed (often self-righteous) passions. It cautions my frenetic rushing, as though everything depends on me. Yes, I am called to care and create. But maybe I should slow down. This work did not begin and will not end with me. Rather, it invites my mortal self to remember and rejoin our eternal selves.
Finally, your sharing reminds me of another Sharon’s reflection – Rabbi Sharon Brous. Here is an excerpt from her Ted Talk that, for me, particularly echoes the both/and complexity our dusty condition represents:
“There’s a rabbinic tradition that we are to walk around with two slips of paper in our pockets. One says, “I am but dust and ashes.” It’s not all about me. I can’t control everything, and I cannot do this on my own. The other slip of paper says, “For my sake the world was created.” Which is to say it’s true that I can’t do everything, but I can surely do something. I can forgive. I can love. I can show up. I can protest. I can be a part of this conversation. We even now have a religious ritual, a posture, that holds the paradox between powerlessness and power. In the Jewish community, the only time of year that we prostrate fully to the ground is during the high holy days. It’s a sign of total submission. Now in our community, when we get up off the ground, we stand with our hands raised to the heavens, and we say, “I am strong, I am mighty, and I am worthy. I can’t do everything, but I can do something.”
Thanks for this, Kimberly.