Fleeting Life and Ash Wednesday

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” from the imposition of ashes in the Ash Wednesday service, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, pg. 265

Song of Myself: 52
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
– final section of “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman

Forgive me for seeming obvious or cliche, but Ash Wednesday bears a message worth repeating every year, if not more frequently.Lent begins with the fury of harsh reality and the deafening silence of mourning on Ash Wednesday. This year, it falls on March 6, quite late in the regular rhythm of things. We kneel before one another and before God once again to confess our sins in the face of the hard truth that we all will die one day. Ash is mixed with oil for anointing the dying and smeared on our foreheads so that when we look in the mirror and each other, the black soot of death demands our deference.

We’ve heard it all before, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” (Robert Herrick); “Carpe Diem” (Horace and coffee mugs everywhere); and the like. Understood: life is short so we best be taking stock in order to make amends and live a life worth living, fully and with great contribution to society.

Now, what’s for lunch?

Sorry for the cynicism, but we all too easily dismiss the call to face death. We would rather not discuss our death nor anyone else’s, preferring to live as though we will be the first not to fall victim to the reaper’s honed scythe.Younger people tell me of visits with grandparents, now in their late 80s and early 90s, and being disturbed by the alacrity with which their elders speak of death and dying. “It’s unnerving,” one friend in his late forties recently said to me about his grandmother’s chattering on about her death and funeral arrangements as easily as she did about her favorite show on television and what she had for lunch that day.

The question begs to be answered ad infinitum: Death will come for you, so how are you making the most of your living?Are the hours spent scrolling through social media, news, and political sites improving your life? Are you glad for using that time in such a way as opposed to curled up with a new book or your tablet in your favorite chair? Was it better than spending an afternoon in your favorite restaurant or coffee shop with friends and family?

How about arguing and anger? The crackle and blaze of the fires of your ire: is this a sound and song that has added to your life? Are you the better for time you have spent furious at someone else’s opinion or behavior? Jesus asks us in Luke’s gospel “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (6:27)

Reach up onto the top shelf of your memories where you keep the good stuff. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Pay attention to the sensations memory plays on your skin. Where have you traveled in your mind?As I type this, I imagine myself glorying in the full cast of the sun, the sweet scent of fresh daffodils in my nose, my head resting on my husband’s chest to feel the regular and dependable rhythm of his breath, and the sound of my children’s laughter in my ears.

Yes. We need to have our attention called back again and again to the fleeting nature of this life. We need to be forcibly removed from the wasteful and unhealthy distractions and denials we have decided are merely part of our daily routine. Death must sound its own great “YAWP” to shake us from complacency and apathy. There should be no “daily routine” but daily self-assessment, daily self-reform, daily mourning and celebration for God, for one another, for ourselves.

Do we wait and die with regret or do we make our goal the final great section of Whitman’s opus:

“I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”

There is joy in Whitman’s final liberation. He sees his worth in this world as not ended by death but merely changed and he does not mourn for it.

This Ash Wednesday and Lent, do not assume you have heard it all before nor assume that you have adequately addressed the demands of the season. Commit yourself to pluck out the behaviors and habits that waste or even diminish your life. Do the hard work of refilling and restocking your top shelf moments, the ones that not only embellish your life but make it.

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