You Are Dust, Stardust: Reflections On A Wednesday

STARDUST REFLECTIONS ON A WEDNESDAY

If you’re in the United Kingdom and hold to those old traditions and customs then you will know that yesterday was Ash Wednesday. The day before, Tuesday, commonly known as Pancake Day, was when, so it is said, in years gone by,  it was the day to use up the flour as Lent, a time of fasting, was about to begin. And what better way to use up that flour than by making pancakes, coupled with sugar, syrup and/or fruit, and lemon juice. As a wee lad I can remember trying to flip the pancake over as it cooked in the frying pan and usually (but not always) getting it right. Great fun and a good tradition that many, even today, experience.

But, yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the day when, apparently, we are to remember the fact that we’re dust, animated dust, earth, or (poetically) clay! It’s a time of reflection, to consider our humility and frailty. And, what follows is a reflection on that!

We are (earthly) dust!

The ancients, living in a pre-industrialised, pre-scientific, pre-computerised age would have been more easily be able to reflect on this. It was there evident in their daily life: the cycle of birth, growth, death, re-birth etc. The changing of the seasons, growth from the soil, abundance and then decay as plant matter rotted and became fodder for the next year’s growth. All this would have been known to them, and death and dust would have been very familiar to them. As would their humility to the forces of nature, and their frailty.

‘…Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.’
(Genesis 3.19b, The Book)

It might seem morbid to dwell on this, but we live in an age of scientific marvels and do things in such a way that the experience of witnessing the demise of those around us is minimised, that we can become forgetful that we are dust! We are frail creatures! And, we only have a limited time here! Even if we don’t uphold the Ash Wednesday tradition, I do believe there is some mileage in thinking upon it, and what it means to us.

But, you know me – there’s more – and life here is followed by a returning to something else that continues onward, which some call the Summerland, heaven, elysium, arcadia, valhalla, nirvana or Jannah.

But, it’s good to remember that we are dust and will return to dust one day, for then it will encourage us to use the time we have here even better than we might hitherto have done. In this form, we only have now! And, Ash Wednesday is a great time to reflect upon that.

‘In reality, we are all travellers – even explorers of mortality’, (Thomas S Monson)

However if you didn’t get around to reflecting upon that fact today, and maybe wanted to have some form of quiet meditation, or liturgy, or poem reading to add to the event, you can always do that tomorrow. It’s intentionality rather than the exact timing that is important.

But, there’s more.

But, there’s always a flip side to these ideas, and always a balancing thought. We are dust, and will one day return to dust, and so we’re encouraged to make good use of the time. But. It’s not all negative. Apart from the Summerland, heaven, elysium etc, we can view our ‘dustly’ composition in another way.

We are stardust!

Yes, many of you will know that I’m an amateur astronomer. Nothing pleases me more than gazing up at the moon and its phases, the progression of planets across the night sky, and the constellations that rise, like Orion denoting the winter months are here, and fall in the sky as the seasons change. They are are great way to mark the seasons, and something the ancients, our spiritual ancestors, would have been doing for several millennia, quite naturally. Unlike them, I’m be blessed with such ‘tools’ as a Meade LX200 12 inch telescope (computer controlled), a planisphere, and a star atlas. But, the awe of gazing up and looking back into the distant past is always, always thrilling, as it must have been to them.

We are connected!

In looking up, we look at the Universe and a myriad of points of lights which are stars and galaxies. But, in doing so, we often make the mistake as though there’s some invisible barrier between us and the Universe. Yes, we live on the Earth and have a biosphere that makes life possible, but anyone looking this way, say from Alpha Centauri, would see our sun as just another point of light in their night sky, and not differentiate it from the Universe.

‘We are stardust,
we are golden,
and we’ve got to get ourselves
back to the garden’

(Joni Mitchell, Woodstock)

In many senses, there is no barrier, no separation, and the idea that the Universe is ‘out there’ and we are ‘down here’ is an illusion – and probably one that our ego quite likes as it makes us feel different, and therefore special.

But, the greater revelation, I believe, is to consider that we’re so special that we’re no different, in essence, to the Universe and have a special part to play in it. We are stardust, we are in the Universe and the Universe is in us, and we are the conscious part of the Universe looking back to itself. We are the stuff of stars! Star dust.

‘We are stardust, in the highest exalted way,
Called by the universe, reaching out, to the universe,
We are stardust, in the highest exalted way,
Reaching out, to the universe, with these methods and tools of science,

We are part of this universe,
We are in this universe,
The universe is in us,
Yes, the universe is in us’.

(We Are Stardust, Symphony of Science. Hear the song/see the video here.)

There are different ways of thinking about our connectedness to the Universe. The ancients celebrated the season and they believed what happened ‘up there’ affects ‘down here’. I don’t think they were far off the mark. NASA regularly montiors the sun for sunspots and coronal mass ejections of plasma, for instance, and issues warnings about ‘space weather’ which can affect national and corporate satellites, GPS, and even national electric grids. Others, may have ritualized that connection as in the first few chapters of Genesis, and still others by telling the story of Indra’s web (see here).

And, so today, as you read this do remember you are dust: connected, cosmic star dust!

 

Playing With Dirt: Alternative Perspective On Ash Wednesday

20190301 PLAYING WITH DIRT ASH WEDNESDAY

Even as a Christo-Druid (or Druidic/Celtic-Christian) I admit it sounds bizarre, but letting someone smear ashes on your forehead while telling you that you are dirt is a good experience. And, though it isn’t as obvious, it is also a declaration of stupendous importance and of great news.

‘Technology and industry have distanced people from nature and magic and human values’. Laura Esquivel

There was a time when I would do it religiously. Yes, at school when I was a wee lad, at the time of Ash Wednesday, we would all have to line up, then kneel at the front of the church in groups of about twenty. The priest would walk about in all his robes, dipping his thumb into a plate of ashes and mark a cross on our foreheads. Our only thought was: let me be the third one, please.

That was then.

They were great days at school – although with hindsight it did so very much resemble Hogwarts!. To save time at those Ash Wednesday services and to save ash the priest dipped his thumb into the plate of ashes every third student, but it also meant that the third student would, fortunately for him/her, only get a few ashes, hardly visible on the forehead.

The student who was number one each time the priest’s thumb was dipped into the ashes, unfortunately from his/her viewpoint, would receive a huge dollop of black ash on the forehead, so much so that some of it would usually fall onto the cheek or nose. Wiping it off during the day – even with studies in the afternoon – was frowned upon.

‘There is a comfort in rituals, and rituals provide a framework for stability when you are trying to find answers’. Deborah Norville

Oh, when I left school I dismissed the ‘religious’ stuff as something that meant little to me. And, because of that I had little to do with the ritual behind it. It meant little to many of the teachers at school, too, and that thought ‘rubbed off’ on to me any many students.

That was then; this is now.

Fast-forward a number of years and now having attended a number of Ash Wednesday services, and led them, they mean something more, something much more. I’m never an advocate of blind or shallow ritual. But,…..?

But, what about meaningful ritual? What about ritual that touches the very core of your being? What about ritual that is deeply moving and seemingly opens us up to sacred-time, and ushers us into a ‘thin place’? What about ritual that is physical-metaphor or intentionality that ushers us into the imaginal realm of the Other, a place of peace, power, potential? Yes, now that is altogether very different to what I experienced at school.

What sparked this trip down memory lane?

Well, next Wednesday, 6 March 2019 is Ash Wednesday and many people will be receiving those ashes on their forehead. Ofcourse, some will receive them unthinkingly, some will ensure they don’t take them for a variety of reasons (and I do support those people, too, but would ask them to periodically ‘review’ their position as should we all, myself included); and some will receive those ashes on their forehead and for them it will be a deep and meaningful experience that is a liminal, threshold experience, a glimpse of the Other. And, that is the point of this article.

‘The only way we’ll know where we’re going is to look at the past and to remember who we were through ceremonies and rituals’. Laura Esquivel

And, so next Wednesday, a few of us will be in a busy London city street, and for those  unable to get to a church service, we’re bringing to them the ability to be blessed in the street, to receive ashes on their forehead too, as I, and the few others administering the ashes will also say to them: ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ In this sense it can apply to all, and that street blessing and ash-application wont be exclusively Christian, but will be open and available to all those who want a blessing and experience that ritual (perhaps for the first time).

It sounds like a negative but for those willing stop for a few minutes I would share that is extremely positive: it means we’re here in this form for a limited time and we’re encouraged to make good use of the time; we’ve come from dust, even star dust, we’re part of nature, and to that state of dust we’ll return; we’ve come from somewhere which some call heaven, and we’ll all return ‘home’. I find that immensely life-reassuring and positive, and love the depth of meaning to life that ritual can apply, and which many miss.

‘As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.’ 1 Corinthians 15,22, The Book

So, taking a few minutes out of our busy lives, and letting someone smear ashes on your forehead while telling you that you are dirt is an experience that I would heartily recommend.

And, no I wont be dipping my thumb into the ash for every third person blessed, but I will take ‘pity’ on them and will wipe the excess off my thumb each time before applying and blessing them. And if you can’t get to participate in such a ritual, then rest assured that evening I will be thinking of you, blessing you (as I do now; be blessed) and will apply ashes to myself vicariously so you benefit.

We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion year old carbon
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden…

Woodstock, Crossby, Stills & Nash