Ash Wednesday just seems to be one of those days on which fresh words are a stain on silence; and old words can be a source of revelation, if only because they remind us we are old, too; and our problems are old; and there is nothing new under the sun.
Which is a kind of blessing.
ASHES, ashes, all fall down. How could I have forgotten? Didn't I see the heavens wiped shut just yesterday, on the road walking? Didn't I fall from the dark of the stars to these senselit and noisome days? The great ridged granite millstone of time is illusion, for only the good is real; the great ridged granite millstone of space is illusion, for God is spirit and worlds his flimsiest dreams: but the illusions are almost perfect, are apparently perfect for generations on end, and the pain is also, and undeniably, real. The pain within the mill-stones' pitiless turning is real, for our love for each other-for the world and all the products of extension-is real, vaulting, insofar as it is love, beyond the plane of the stones' sickening churn and arcing to the realm of spirit bare. And you can get caught holding one end of a love, when your father drops, and your mother; when a land is lost, or a time, and your friend blotted out, gone, your brother's body spoiled, and cold, your infant dead, and you dying: you reel out love's long line alone, stripped like a live wire loosing its sparks to a cloud, like a live wire loosed in space to longing and grief everlasting.--Annie DillardMemento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem revertis.
Remember, human, that you are dust, and to dust you will return.--Genesis 3:19
Upon the Image of Death
By Robert Southwell
Before my face the picture hangs
That daily should put me in mind
Of those cold names and bitter pangs
That shortly I am like to find ;
But yet, alas, full little I
Do think hereon that I must die.
I often look upon a face
Most ugly, grisly, bare, and thin ;
I often view the hollow place
Where eyes and nose had sometimes been ;
I see the bones across that lie,
Yet little think that I must die.
I read the label underneath,
That telleth me whereto I must ;
I see the sentence eke that saith
Remember, man, that thou art dust!
But yet, alas, but seldom I
Do think indeed that I must die.
Continually at my bed's head
A hearse doth hang, which doth me tell
That I ere morning may be dead,
Though now I feel myself full well ;
But yet, alas, for all this, I
Have little mind that I must die.
The gown which I do use to wear,
The knife wherewith I cut my meat,
And eke that old and ancient chair
Which is my only usual seat,—
All these do tell me I must die,
And yet my life amend not I.
My ancestors are turned to clay,
And many of my mates are gone ;
My youngers daily drop away,
And can I think to 'scape alone?
No, no, I know that I must die,
And yet my life amend not I.
Not Solomon for all his wit,
Nor Samson, though he were so strong,
No king nor person ever yet
Could 'scape but death laid him along ;
Wherefore I know that I must die,
And yet my life amend not I.
Though all the East did quake to hear
Of Alexander's dreadful name,
And all the West did likewise fear
To hear of Julius Cæsar's fame,
Yet both by death in dust now lie ;
Who then can 'scape but he must die?
If none can 'scape death's dreadful dart,
If rich and poor his beck obey,
If strong, if wise, if all do smart,
Then I to 'scape shall have no way.
Oh, grant me grace, O God, that I
My life may mend, sith I must die.
Historian Philippe Ariès reminds us that death was a part of life. Medieval and early modern romances, chronicles and memoirs speak with one voice: when death knocked, the door was opened and the visitor was welcomed in remarkably similar ways.DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Organization was essential. The dying person was responsible for the proper execution of his final exit. The doctor's principal task was not to delay death, but to guarantee that it was welcomed properly. And, indeed, the doctor wasn't alone. Family and friends gathered for the ceremony and the doctor was simply a face in the crowd. One and all understood their roles and the lesson that was imparted: they, too, would eventually be called.
The intimate relationship between life and death unfolded in unexpected places. The medieval and early modern cemetery was no less public place than the deathbed. For centuries, the activities we associate with the marketplace commonly took place in cemeteries, amongst the tombs and charnel houses. Merchants and scribes, musicians and dancers, jugglers and actors and, gamblers and the like sought to make a living in the company of the dead. When Hamlet clowns about with Yorick's skull, he's exceptional only in the fluency of his language.
By the late eighteenth century, language and attitudes began to change. Public authorities tried to stop profane activities in the newly redefined sacred spaces like the cemetery. At the same time, doctors began to sound the way they do today: the crowd of family and friends around the deathbed, they complained, complicated the job of attending to their patients.
Death thus got away from the dying person; it became the responsibility of others. It is only recently, with the rise of the hospice movement, that we're reminded of the ways in which we formerly responded to death. The recognition of death's finality, the planning for its arrival, the gathering of family and the redefinition of the physician's task: rather than confronting a brave new world, we seem to be returning to a simpler and older world. Ariès called this older understanding "tamed death." According to him,
the old attitude in which death was both familiar and near, evoking no great fear or awe, [is in] marked a contrast to ours, where death is so frightful that we dare not utter its name. I do not mean that death had once been wild and [is no longer], I mean, on the contrary, that today it has become wild.And death has, in part, grown wild through the very tools with which medical science tries to domesticate it: an irony that would not be lost on Hamlet's creator.
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.--John Donne
THE cross, with which the ashes are traced upon us, is the sign of Christ's victory over death. The words "Remember that thou art dust and that to dust thou shall return" are not to be taken as the quasi-form of a kind of "sacrament of death" (as if such a thing were possible). It might be good stoicism to receive a mere reminder of our condemnation to die, but it is not Christianity.--Thomas MertonAnd, for Lent, this quote Rick provided me, from Chesterton:
Historic Christianity rose into a high and strange coup de théatre of morality -- things that are to virtue what the crimes of Nero are to vice. The spirits of indignation and of charity took terrible and attractive forms, ranging from that monkish fierceness that scourged like a dog the first and greatest of the Plantagenets, to the sublime pity of St. Catherine, who, in the official shambles, kissed the bloody head of the criminal. Poetry could be acted as well as composed. This heroic and monumental manner in ethics has entirely vanished with supernatural religion. They, being humble, could parade themselves: but we are too proud to be prominent. Our ethical teachers write reasonably for prison reform; but we are not likely to see Mr. Cadbury, or any eminent philanthropist, go into Reading Gaol and embrace the strangled corpse before it is cast into the quicklime. Our ethical teachers write mildly against the power of millionaires; but we are not likely to see Mr. Rockefeller, or any modern tyrant, publicly whipped in Westminster Abbey.Which, again, gives me the excuse to mention this:
If the leper was removed from the world, and from the community of the Church visible, his existence was yet a constant manifestation of God, since it was a sign both of His anger and His grace: "My friend," says the ritual of the Church of Vienne, "it pleaseth Our Lord that thou shouldst be infected with this malady, and thou hast great grace at the hands of Our Lord that he desireth to punish thee for they iniquities in this world." And at the very moment when the priest and his assistants drag him out of the church with backward step, the leper is assured that he still bears witness for God: "And howsoever thou mayest be apart from the Church and the company of the Sound, yet art thou not apart from the grace of God." Brueghel's lepers attend at a distance, but forever, that climb to Calvary on which the entire people accompanies Christ. Hierarchic witnesses of evil, they accomplish their salvation in and by their very exclusion: in a strange reversibility that is the opposite of good works and prayer, they are saved by the hand that is not stretched out. The sinner who abandons the leper at his door opens his way to heaven. "for which have patience in thy malady; for Our Lord hateth thee not because of it, keepeth thee not from his company; but if thou has patience thou wilt be saved, as was the leper who died before the gate of the rich man and was carried straight to paradise." Abandonment is his salvation; his exclusion offers him another form of communion.Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, tr. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage Books 1988, p. 6-7).
Ritual served many purposes in communal life. Sometimes I think it even served to create community, however flawed that community was. But what life have we, if we have not life together?
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.