“Remember man that thou art dust and to dust thou shall return.”
This phrase with its powerful reminder of our human state etched itself into my faith memory as a child, in a good way, as a grounding experience. Ash Wednesday is a marker in our lives, a clear and distinct line drawn in the sand where we stop and look at ourselves, really look at ourselves, as we are, and recognise our mortality. We are given an opportunity throughout Lent to see ourselves and our lives more clearly and honestly, and see what needs improving and changing. We can view those uncomfortable areas in ourselves where we miss the mark, where we distance ourselves from God through sin which can be so subtle that we don’t realise that we do it. We all have limited fields of vision concerning ourselves, and others, and a lens of vision that often needs cleansing.
It is a grounding experience to be reminded of how we stand on the earth, barefooted in the humus and detritus of the earth. We also realise in this humility that our eyes are raised to heaven, and we realise how very greatly we are loved and elevated by Love, and that knowledge is humbling. Love is humbling and Love is elevating. We are raised up from the ground, despite ourselves, and this inspires gratitude, the gratitude of being in such a soil which holds promise of new life, of growth, of the warm Springtime of Easter, so close and so hopeful.
As we humbly and publicly carry the cross on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday we can be grateful for all the gifts of God’s Creation and embrace the dust of our humanity with hope, trust and gratitude because we know that “As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust. “ Ps 103
February is full of examples of people who present visible signs of humility to us in the world-St Bernadette was able to view herself as a broom used by Our Lady and then put back in the corner when the broom was no longer required, a position she fully accepted and was able to embrace in humility with all the sufferings that she endured. She said “I shall spend every moment loving. One who loves does not notice her trials; or perhaps more accurately, she is able to love them.”
St Josephine Bakhita suffered greatly through a life of slavery and yet was able to forgive and to live a life of gratitude which has inspired many other people. She said “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me-I am awaited by this love. And so my life is good”
St Benedict talks at length about humility in Chapter VII of the Rule where he details twelve steps on the ladder which leads to humility “as descending by exaltation and ascending by humility. For that ladder set up is our life in this world which, when the heart has been humbled by the Lord, is set up to heaven.” Earlier than this however, in Chapter V, he discusses the first degree of humility which he clearly links to obedience and most particularly emphasises the inherently gracious responsiveness of love shown as obedience without delay. ”The first step of humility is unhesitating obedience which comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all.” He notes that the swift response which proceeds with the foot of ready obedience to carry out the order given has a harmony of intention between the command of the master and the perfected work of the disciple, and therefore this moment holds an unfolding of grace. Our Lady is the sublime example of gracious obedience and humility; she listens and she responds to God, willingly and generously.
We all have our own small crosses which can accumulate over time and seem hard to bear, but we can carry them graciously, aligned to the Cross as a sharing with Jesus Christ and then patiently treasured as gifts of small splinters from His Cross, as described in this beautiful poem:
….Let us not then by impatience
Mar the beauty of the whole,
But for love of Jesus bear all
In the silence of our soul.
Asking Him for grace sufficient
To sustain us through each loss,
And to treasure each small offering
As a splinter from His Cross….
Sarah Richards, Oblate of Prinknash