There is little more humbling than the words said as ashes are applied upon our foreheads on Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It is humbling mostly because it is a reminder that we are finite, and although created by God in a miraculous way, we will all face death at some point. These words call to mind who we are before God: He is the Creator and we are but the created. They emphasize our total reliance upon God for everything, and that as sinners we periodically need to orient our heart back to Him. Furthermore, the ashes are a symbol of sorrow because in them we recognize our sinfulness; thus, they move us to penitence by emphasizing the effort needed to cleanse what has been sullied. Lent offers the time to re-prioritize our choices so we might choose that which leads us closer to God and eliminate that which moves us away. In humility we must recognize our own unworthiness for such a gift of mercy during this prescribed time, but not without understanding that those words on Ash Wednesday offer hope, too. One of my first Scripture professors, Fr. Demetrius Dumm, O.S.B., once said that “humility means to be in touch with the Truth.” Thus, the hope-filled truth is that while we are sinners, we are loved sinners, and in His unbounded mercy God never ceases to offer opportunities for us to return to Him.
During Lent we are encouraged to redirect our lives through three important practices. First, prayer leads to a deeper spiritual life, aiding our growth in relationship with God and therefore in holiness. Prayer also moves us outward to others because it leads to growth in love and compassion. Second, almsgiving and doing works of mercy moves us to consider what we have and whether we have become too material, helping us examine our levels of generosity and hospitality. Finally, in doing penance we atone for any areas of sinfulness to which we are prone. We also grow in simplicity; as we practice abstinence and fasting we become more aware of our hungers and the result of them. We should ask ourselves, “For what do we long? Are the things we long for leading toward God or away from Him?” Abstinence and fasting teach greater discernment as we examine our choices and desires, but coupled with prayer they also teach us to realign our focus. For example, one Lent I decided to give up coffee and within a couple of days I thought I had made the 'worst' Lenten choice of my life. I love coffee and therefore the struggle was so difficult that quite soon I wanted to give up; however, I knew I had made a commitment. The result was that when my ‘interior whining’ finally quieted down, I realized that the point was not to focus on myself and what I was missing, but rather to focus more on God. It was not about me or what I gave up, but it was about what, or rather, Who I filled the emptiness with. It turned out to be one of the most powerful Lenten experiences ever. No matter what we have chosen to sacrifice, it should lead us into greater humility and also to gratitude for God’s mercy.
Remember that in the second creation story (Genesis 2), God made the first human creature out of the clay of the earth, that is, dust and water. This creature was called A-dam which in Hebrew literally means ‘of the earth.’ Then God lovingly breathed His own breath into A-dam and life entered this creature. Again, remember that the Hebrew word for ‘breath’ (ruah) also means ‘spirit,’ hence the spirit or soul of A-dam was filled with God’s goodness. God then provided a companion for A-dam; taking a rib and thus sharing the clay and ruah, He created He-vah, (which means ‘living’), who is now identified as a woman while A-dam is identified as a man.* Therefore, as descendants of Adam and Eve we are all essentially from the earth insofar as we are creatures filled with the breath of God, that is, with a soul. The story provides a reminder that we are sacred, created to be in a relationship of love with God. It reveals that God intended everything to be for our happiness, even though we also see the result of our capacity for making the wrong choices, as revealed in the next chapter of Genesis. But it is important to note that Adam and Eve were centered on God at first, and then shifted their focus to self. Thus, God began the process of sending His Son for our redemption.
“Humility means to be in touch with the Truth.” We are dust and we are in need of redemption: that is the truth. Perhaps our intention this Lent can be to pray for the humility to see ourselves in truth. But in standing in this truth, let us remember that God is rich in mercy and bountiful in love. Therefore, He sees the good and the beauty that lies beneath whatever is in need of healing. God wants us to return to Him with all our hearts because He deeply desires that we have our wounds bound up, find new life in His love, and rejoice in Heaven with Him forever. If our sin is keeping us from this realization in truth, it is our humility in doing penance, offering alms, and doing good works that will open our eyes just a bit more. Yes, our humility will move us to the Truth, who is Love.
May we embrace the humility of our finiteness and our total reliance upon God! May we grow spiritually through our efforts at prayer, almsgiving, and abstinence! And may we be moved to hope and gratitude for the mercy and love of God! Let us meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* I described A-dam without using a pronoun because in the original Hebrew the ‘earth creature’ is an ‘it’ until the rib is removed and the woman created. Only when Eve is created are terms for gender used. Thus, without the female, he is not a male and vice versa; both are intended for companionship with one another in love, in an intimate relationship, just as God wants to share with them. They are equal in God’s sight, but are created with distinct roles.
1. My photo, Mt. Etna, Sicily, Italy. What looks like a cloud is really dust coming from the mountain in the strong wind present while we were up there. The rest is ash.
2. Painting, Works of Mercy, by Olivuccio di Ciccarello. This scene depicts almsgiving.
3. Mosaic, The Creation of Adam, found in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, Sicily, Italy.
4. Icon, Our Lady of Kiev, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. When I think of humility being in touch with the truth, Our Lady comes to mind. I picked this icon to remind us to pray for the triumph of her Immaculate Heart and for reparation of sin. You can purchase a copy of this in a variety of mediums at fineartamerica.com/featured/our-lady-of-grace-vladimir-002-william-hart-mcnichols.html
5. Ashes from Clip Art.
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Heart Speaks to Heart