April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain…
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
~T.S.Eliot from “The Wasteland”
We do not want to think of ourselves as the dust we were and the dust we will become. We are living fully right now; we cast shadows before and behind us depending on the time of day and time of life, mere ephemeral reflections of our presence on earth.
Yet the dust we were and the dust we become is as fearful a thing as our transient shadow.
Dust so cruel~
it reminds us
of what could have been,
how life once rose miraculous
from the dead.
We are nothing but a handful of dust…
until the Creator lifts us up in the palm of His hand, and blows on us.
We breathe and pulse and weep and bleed.
We become more than mere shadow.
We are His, part of his Hand, breath of His breath.
Skin was earth; it was soil.
I could see, even on my own skin,
the joined trapezoids of dust specks God had wetted and stuck with his spit
the morning he made Adam from dirt.
Now, all these generations later,
we people could still see on our skin
the inherited prints of the dust specks of Eden. ~Annie Dillard from An American Childhood
A goodly portion of my work as a physician is spent looking at my patients’ skin. Most of the time, it is a quick assessment of color, moisture and texture before I go on to concentrate on the chief complaint that brought the patient in. However, skin concerns frequently are the chief complaint — perhaps as straight forward as an abrasion or laceration, or a puzzling bump, an oozing sore, a total body itch, or an ominous pigmented lesion.
I feel like Sherlock Holmes when I focus on a patient’s outer covering in magnified detail. I assume the identity of detective, inspector and archeologist all at once, trying to discern what is taking place on or beneath a piece of dermatologic geography.
No matter what the diagnosis or the treatment plan, I’m continually awestruck by the topography of skin. This supple landscape is made up of trapezoidal specks connected one to another, just like the soil upon which I tread. Skin cells are in a state of constant renewal, the dead and discarded falling off to rejoin the dust from which it came.
This elaborate matrix of collagen and keratin is the foundation for our scaffolding and our shroud.
His spit provides the superglue: the rivets, the bolts and the nails that bind us together for a lifetime, creating us to be far more than a mere pile of random dust specks.
The snow is melting and the village is flooded with children. ~Kobayashi Issa (translated by Robert Haas)
A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more. Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15
We think of him as safe beneath the steeple, Or cosy in a crib beside the font, But he is with a million displaced people| On the long road of weariness and want. For even as we sing our final carol His family is up and on that road, Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel, Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,| The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power, And death squads spread their curse across the world. But every Herod dies, and comes alone To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.
~Malcolm Guite from Waiting on the Word
And the slaughter of innocents and weary road for refugees continues unabated- In observance of The Feast Day of the Holy Innocents:
There is no consolation for the families of those lost:
Their arms ache with emptiness tonight,
beds and pillows lie cold and unused,
blankets and cuddlies await all night hugs
that never come again.
There can be no consolation;
only mourning and great weeping,
sobbing that wrings dry
every human cell,
leaving dust behind,
dust, only dust
which is beginning
He came to us
for times such as this,
the dust of woman and
the breath of Spirit,
God who bent down to
lie in manger dust,
walk on roads of dust,
die and be laid to rest as dust
in order to conquer
such evil as this
that could displace masses
and massacre innocents.
He became dust to be
He began a mere speck in a womb
so often washed away from life
His heart beat
breathing each breath
until a fearful fallen world
and our breath
He shines through
the shadows of death
to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
His tender mercies flow freely
when there is no consolation
when there is no comfort.
He hears our cries
as He cried too.
He knows our tears
as He wept too.
He knows our mourning
as He mourned too.
He knows our dying
as He died too.
as this happened.
Evil comes not from God
yet humankind embraces it.
Sin is a choice
we made from the beginning,
a choice we continue to make.
Only God can glue together
what evil has shattered.
He just asks us to hand Him
the pieces of our broken hearts.
We will know His peace
when He comes
to bring us home,
our tears will finally be dried,
our cells no longer
never only dust
as we are glued together
by the breath of God
the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. Luke 1: 78-79
In sleep his infant mouth works in and out. He is so new, his silk skin has not yet been roughed by plane and wooden beam nor, so far, has he had to deal with human doubt.
He is in a dream of nipple found, of blue-white milk, of curving skin and, pulsing in his ear, the inner throb of a warm heart’s repeated sound.
His only memories float from fluid space. So new he has not pounded nails, hung a door, broken bread, felt rebuff, bent to the lash, wept for the sad heart of the human race. ~Luci Shaw “Kenosis”
To think the original Breath stirred the dust of man to become New on earth.
This mystery of God becoming Man, growing within woman, fed from her breast, wounded and bleeding to save her who delivered Him, emptied Himself completely to then deliver all of us as newborns, sliding slippery into our new life.
And we gasp for breath, our nostrils no longer breathing dust, but filled by the fragrance of forgiveness and grace.
We break through His wounds, bursting into bloom.
Who comes this night, this wintry night As to the lowly manger? The shepherds and the Kings did come To welcome in the stranger
Who sends this song upon the air To ease the soul that’s aching? To still the cry of deep despair And heal the heart that’s breaking
Brother Joseph bring the light Fast, the night is fading And who will come this wintry night To where the stranger’s waiting?
Who comes this night, with humble heart To give the fullest measure A gift of purest love to bring What good and worthy treasure
Brother Joseph bring the lamp For they are asking for him The children come this starry night To lay their hearts before him
For those who would the stranger greet Must lay their hearts before him And raise their song in voices sweet To worship and adore him
Brother Joseph bring the light Fast, the night is fading And who will come this wintry night To where the stranger’s waiting
Brother Joseph bring the lamp For they are asking for him The children come this starry night To lay their hearts before him Pure of heart this starry night To lay their hearts before him
What a piece of work is a man!
…And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” ~ William Shakespeare in Hamlet’s monologue
This dust left of man:
earth, air, water and fire
to quell the significance
of how we were made of dust
and the dust we will leave behind.
Only the transcendent hope
of eternal life restored
can breathe glory
into this, us,
the plainest of ash.
We therefore commit his body to the ground;
earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life,
through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body,
that it may be like unto his glorious body…
~Committal service from The Common Book of Prayer
What I know for sure is this: We come from mystery and we return to mystery. I arrived here with no bad memories of wherever I’d come from, so I have no good reason to fear the place to which I’ll return.
And I know this, too: Standing closer to the reality of death awakens my awe at the gift of life. ~Parker Palmer “On the Brink of Everything“
I wished to wade in the trillium and be warmed near the white flames. I imagined the arch of my foot massaged by the mosses. This field immersed in gravity defying growth. Green and glorious. It let me know that out of the soil came I, and green I shall be. Whether an unnamed weed or a wild strawberry I will join in the hymn. ~Luci Shaw from “Spring Song, Very Early Morning”
After a few days away from the farm, enriched by the contact with like-minded people of faith and words, I am longing to return to the land of moss and trillium, of green grass that overwhelms.
I am of the soil, dust to dust am I. Created, celebrated, centered on the joy of returning where I belong.