Remember your creator in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come,
and the years draw near when you will say,
“I have no pleasure in them”;
before the sun
and the light
and the moon
and the stars
and the clouds return with the rain;
in the day when the guards of the house tremble,
and the strong men are bent,
and the women who grind cease working because they are few,
and those who look through the windows see dimly;
when the doors on the street are shut,
and the sound of the grinding is low,
and one rises up at the sound of a bird,
and all the daughters of song are brought low;
when one is afraid of heights,
and terrors are in the road;
the almond tree blossoms,
the grasshopper drags itself along
and desire fails;
because all must go to their eternal home,
and the mourners will go about the streets;
before the silver cord is snapped,
and the golden bowl is broken,
and the pitcher is broken at the fountain,
and the wheel broken at the cistern,
and the dust returns to the earth as it was,
and the breath returns to God who gave it.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.
I’m traveling light through the elder care facility, just a tiny glass tea light holder with burnt palms, ashes, mixed with a few drops of oil.
“Would you like ashes for Ash Wednesday, Mr. Pierce?”
He’s sitting around a table, making Valentine’s Day cards. He peers over his huge glasses skeptically, then plants down a pink heart on a paper doily emphatically. “I don’t want those sissy ashes,” he declares, capping his glue stick.
“Would you like ashes for Ash Wednesday, Professor Johnson?”
He’s having a bad day. He doesn’t remember who I am today. Today, he tells me that he murdered his wife in a boating incident when they were in their 30’s. I know that his wife definitely died in her sleep, of old age, five years ago. He is begging for absolution for her murder.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. From dust we came, to dust we will return.
He was the leading researcher in his field. He has his own Wikipedia page. You can still find his lectures on YouTube – clever, funny, warm, brilliant. His papers are still cited as the definite source in organic chemistry.
I smudge oil and burnt tree on his head. To dust you will return, Professor Johnson. We hold hands and pray before I leave.
“Ashes for Ash Wednesday, Father?”
He won’t take ashes from a woman. He is a Catholic priest who presided over an extremely successful parish “back East.” He tells me a rude joke about female pastors and chuckles to himself before sitting me down in the folding metal chair next to his bed and explaining to me how he managed to turn a tiny church into an enormous, successful community. He shows me a picture of himself with the Pope, and then with George W. Bush, and then with a famous football star, and then with the Dalai Llama. He won’t let me pray for him before I leave, but he does offer to pray for me.
Ashes to ashes.
Dust to dust.
Next week I hear that he has been transferred from the elderly community to the ICU. He passes away a week later.
We’re reading Ecclesiastes in church these days. It’s jarring, nihilism rolling off the stage of a pleasant little upper-class Presbyterian church. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? And I saw that this, too, is meaningless.
This is the Word of the Lord, says the liturgist. Thanks be to God, say the people. And we all break for coffee.
We don’t want those sissy ashes.
“Would you like Ashes for Ash Wednesday, Miss Jones?”
She lights up like a lightbulb when I come in. Oh, yes, she would like ashes. Lord knows my time is coming. Pretending it isn’t won’t change that. How are you, Chaplain? How have you seen the Lord today? We sit together in the double room at the end of the hall, sunlight making patterns on her linoleum hospital floor, trading Scripture verses, back and forth, taking turns. Perfect love casts out fear. I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.
From dust you came. To dust you will return.
Those sissy ashes didn’t scare Miss Jones.
“And she greeted Death like an old friend”