To dust we shall return

Elizabeth Donald
Feb 26 · 6 min read

Ash Wednesday is here, and for some of us, that means it’s time for the joyous celebration of Lent.


Yeah, there’s not often a lot of joy or celebration in a traditional Lent. Just check out the hymns and psalms, acknowledging and bewailing our manifold sins and wickedness. Whenever we start chanting in Lent, I hear Monty Python’s papier-mache God complaining, “It’s like those psalms, they’re soooo depressing.”

In years past, and often today, many Christians choose to interpret Lent as a season of scourging, of punishing yourself, carrying the woe of humanity’s murder of the Christ, etc. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Even my own Episcopalian brothers and sisters have fallen into this wail and woe from time to time.

Not me. Ashes notwithstanding.

To me, Lent is a season of reflection, a forty-day period of meditation and self-improvement. That doesn’t make it “New Year’s Resolutions Redux,” though certainly some people might latch onto it that way.

But I don’t think it helps God or anyone else for us to wear a metaphorical hair shirt for seven weeks. How does it help God for you to deny yourself chocolate or coffee? How does that make the world a better place?

I think if you give up something for Lent, there should be an actual reason for it beyond, “I’m giving something up for Lent.” Otherwise it is a hollow exercise, a public self-flagellation that serves no real purpose.

In fact, Jesus told us not to engage in public displays of religious faith, that only hypocrites give alms before an audience and expect accolades for their great sacrifices. For that reason alone, Ash Wednesday used to make me a little uncomfortable. It felt like the physical sign of our faith, literally stamped on our foreheads, was an attention grab for our devotion.

In St. Louis where I now live, Catholicism is the most commonly-practiced faith, so very few people wonder about the ashes. When I lived in Tennessee, where Baptist churches tend to dominate, I generally stood out on Ash Wednesday. Frequently someone would say, “You’ve got something on your forehead, you know.”

(My father used to call it, “getting your ashes hauled,” which makes me snicker inappropriately at the service every year. Thanks, Dad!)

Lent is supposed to be about an inner reflection, to make yourself better able to do what it is you’re meant to do in this world. It’s not really about punishing yourself. If you choose to give something up, it should be because you believe this thing interferes with your life and purpose, holds you back from your calling, or is somehow detrimental to your relationships.

For example, if you give up chocolate, it should be because your fondness for chocolate has taken on a disproportionate weight in your life. That sounds silly when applied to your habit of a couple of Hershey bars a week, doesn’t it?

Now replace chocolate with too many beers in front of the television at night, or sneaking out on the back porch with a cigarette, or endlessly ranting about ignorance on the internet, or any habit or obsession or addiction that draws you away from health, away from your loved ones, and denies you the peace that I truly believe God wants for us.

For Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, joining with other leaders in fasting and prayer is only valuable as it leads to action for social justice. “When fear, hate, and violence shape our politics and anger governs our speech, the soul of the nation is at stake,” he writes.

For Pope Francis, focusing on economic justice is a constructive approach to Lent. He calls on Catholics to observe Lent through charitable giving, sharing their blessings with those less fortunate, and working toward shaping a more just and inclusive economy in the world. He’s holding a summit meeting with economists and entrepreneurs in late March toward that end.

“To dust we shall return” is not an admonishment. It is a reminder that life is precious, and short. We should make the most of it, and eliminate the things that distract and disturb and can destroy our lives.

What is it that weighs on your life?

I don’t mean money problems or work issues, as everyone has those. Ask yourself this: what problems do you have that you know, in your heart of hearts, you are creating for yourself? What are you doing that is causing pain to your loved ones?

This is not about condemning or punishing yourself for your natural humanity. It’s about finding the wildman running around in your head screwing up your life and putting him in harness, to paraphrase Stephen King totally out of context.

It may be something simple. In the past, I focused on my family’s habit of eating fast food. It’s expensive. It’s unhealthy. It happens because we get busy. We are all on crazy staggered schedules and I fall behind in the planning. Can we stop for 40 days, or at least limit it to once a week?

It is not denial simply to punish ourselves because our manifold wickedness doesn’t deserve a Big Mac. It’s identifying a physical and financial problem, and attempting to solve it.

My husband has chosen to give up social media for Lent. He recognizes, as do I, that it carries an unhealthy weight in our lives. We spend endless hours scrolling Facebook and Twitter, obsessing over angry politics and ranting colleagues, watching idiocy or outright lies run rampant across the internet.

I am trying to do better. I set limits on my Facebook use on my various devices. And yet I still get drawn into stupid, nasty discussions that eat up my time and emotional energy. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is scroll Facebook, and thus I am angry before my feet hit the floor. This is not healthy, and it doesn’t help me accomplish what I need to do in my life and career and calling.

I am oddly jealous that my husband can give it up. I cannot. I run at least three organizations that communicate primarily or solely on Facebook; I get a lot of my freelance work through connections and listings there.

But does it have to have that disproportionate weight? Does everything have to be about Facebook and what this is going to sound like online? Is there no balance to be found between the positive connections it brings, the necessity of it for someone in the communication business, and the negativity of the constant scroll?

As a friend of mine once said: “The hardest thing about explaining the future to someone from the distant past would be, ‘In my hand I hold a device that allows me to access the sum total of human knowledge. I use it to start arguments with strangers and look at pictures of cats.’”

I follow the rituals and customs of my faith because in all their traditional and sometimes strange ways, they remind me of the kind of person I strive to be. A person who leaves the world a better place than she found it. Of course I often fail, because I am human.

But the key is not perfection. The key is constantly striving to do better. Lent is part of that.

On this Ash Wednesday, I strive to take a look at myself and see a way to improve. A way to improve my life and my family’s life, something practical with measurable results, to make me into a better, healthier and happier person, and therefore better able to go about doing the things I’m meant to do in this life.

Not an arbitrary self-denial that merely punishes me without actually improving me; something that makes my life or someone else’s life better in the end.

The idea, I guess, is that if you can do this one thing for forty days and forty nights, it should be that much easier to keep doing it.

A blessed and holy Lent to all who observe it, and for those who do not: I hope I have helped you to understand what it means to me and to many others who bear the cross of ashes on our foreheads today.

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