Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Remember You Are Dust

I went to Mass at noon today with my friend Joe, who has been handicapped all his life, or about 75 courageous years so far. We sat where we usually sit, to the right of the altar in an open space suited to his motorized wheelchair. I pulled up a folding chair beside him.

Joe was hospitalized much of the winter and finally getting to Mass today for the first time since before Thanksgiving. This meant I could tease him every time he responded, “And also with you.” Joe laughed a bigger laugh each time I glanced at him and mouthed with exaggerated emphasis, “And with your spirit!”

Sitting where we sat, to the side of the side aisle, we had a box seat for watching people receive ashes. It is impressive to watch the Ash Wednesday procession from this vantage point, serious faces each, openly accepting the mark of their own mortality: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” They are children as well as adults, and even very young children, too young to receive Communion—so young, pure, innocent, nowhere a hint of sin, and yet already marked with a memento mori, this dirty reminder of death.

There is a Communion of Saints, I believe, and there is a communion of mortals, too. We are all lined up for dust, Catholic or not, believer or atheist. Dust is our destination.

How can dirt be so cleansing?

As we walked back to his apartment—as I walked and he rolled—I worked through my remaining pleasantries. “Well, Joe,” I said, “Lent has begun.”

“When you’re handicapped,” Joe said, without hesitation, “every day is Lent.”

I gave a rote response: “And every Sunday is Easter!”

Joe didn’t know what to make of that, and I’m not sure I do either. Easy answers, no matter how ideologically correct, don’t always satisfy.

The last of my ashes came off in a shower this afternoon, but the mark remains. And Lent has begun.

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