Lately, I’ve been thinking about dust. You know, dust — that fine, dry powder made of tiny particles of earth or waste that catch the light coming through the windows of old buildings, that collect on the white baseboards of new ones, and that make your allergies flair uncontrollably. You know dust. Just dust.
Maybe I’m fixated because of that Lenten ear worm, “Remember that to dust you shall return,” that I repeated ad nauseam a day or so ago at the Ash Wednesday services. Cross after cross, forehead after forehead, I said it over and over and over as some of the dusty ash stuck, while other particles crumbled away into the folds of shirts, while other particles took flight. I should warn you: With such liturgical actions, you risk the verse getting stuck in your head. “Remember that to dust you shall return.”
Or maybe it’s not just the repetition. Maybe it’s more personal — even existential. Maybe it’s because my first name is Adam and the Hebrew word adam (meaning human) is a wordplay on the Hebrew word, adamah, which can be translated “dust.” Most notably, Genesis 2:7 puts it this way, “then the Lord God formed adam (the human creature) from the adamah (the dust of the ground).” In Genesis 2:8 when God breathes the “breath of life” into the adamah, it becomes adam. According to Genesis (and the Ash Wednesday liturgy), we are dust that becomes a living being only because God breathes the breath of life into us. We are dust, and without the sustaining, life-giving breath of God, that’s all we are — dry powder made of tiny particles of earth or waste. Nothing more.
I have some unease about admitting my dustiness. Dust doesn’t do anything, and I like having things to do. Dust doesn’t exercise moral agency. It doesn’t utilize power. It’s not like dust gives things up or adds spiritual practices for Lent. Dust is just dust. Instead dust reminds me of my mortality, that I will be dust again. Dried up. Desiccated. Dis-incorporated. It reminds me that however significant I think I may be that without God’s breath, I’m basically nothing.
Being human means I am dust. It’s my name. (It’s our name.) And I will return to dust. There is no practice I can do to stop the inevitable. No choice I can make to will it away. No piety I can perform to conjure an alternative.
If I am to be anything other than dust, more than dust, it will be because One breathes that more into me. It will be a pure unmerited gift — after all, what can dust do to merit anything? So I wait. Maybe I even yearn for the more, for what I may be if the breath of God catches ahold of me. As dust I wait for the wind to find me and animate me. As dust I wait for the light coming through the windows to become visible through me. Perhaps, I even wonder in the waiting what marvelous things can God do with dust between remembrance and return.
Perhaps it would be too much to call this waiting a Lenten practice. But, I ask, as dust, what else can I do?