Don Follis | A reminder that we're all a wondrous mix of dust, divinity

Don Follis | A reminder that we're all a wondrous mix of dust, divinity

At 6:50 a.m. on Ash Wednesday, I walked into St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Urbana and sat down amid the faithful already beginning to gather for the 7 a.m. Mass. I greeted a neighbor. I smiled at the parents of kids my children swam with in years gone by. An old friend was one of the morning Scripture readers. Soon 150 had gathered to have ashes rubbed onto our foreheads, a forcible reminder of our frailty, mortality and sinfulness.

Though I was up by 4:30 a.m. and all shaved and showered for the Ash Wednesday service, by 5:30 a.m. I decided to take a pass, even though for days I had been planning on attending. Instead, I turned to an Ash Wednesday devotion book and began reading and meditating on the selected Bible readings. The author concluded the devotion, writing, "By all means go to your nearest church as early as you can today and receive the imposition of ashes. It is such an important way to start the 40 days of Lent. You are, after all, just dust. You may as well gather with other mortals and admit it."

Well, there you go. Back to my original plan. I grabbed my coat at 6:30 and headed to St. Patrick's. After settling in a pew, I looked down at the cuticle of one of thumbs that I had picked, causing it to bleed. My mortality and embarrassment instantly melded as I pulled a tissue from my pocket and wrapped my four fingers tightly around that thumb.

After slowly inhaling and exhaling several times, I opened my journal I had brought along and wrote, "Death is one thing that has been the case since the beginning of time. It awaits us all. We all die and return to the earth. This morning we gather to remember that."

The time to receive ashes came early in the service. Exiting the pew, I stood in one of two long lines snaking down the center of the sanctuary. Suddenly I was face to face with a woman holding a bowl of ashes in her left hand. Rubbing her right thumb in tiny circles in the ashes, she lifted her thumb from the bowl, making the sign of the cross on my forehead and saying, "Dust you are and to dust you shall return."

Slowly returning to my seat, I waited for a woman pushing a walker. Nearby was a woman in a wheelchair. A stooped elderly gentleman shuffled alongside me. My four fingers still were wrapped around my thumb. All four of us displayed ashen crosses on our foreheads.

As I watched the faithful receive the ashes, I wondered if Adam and Eve anticipated what God would say to them in response to their first transgression, when their eyes were opened and they knew they were naked. Did they even know what death was? "By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Genesis 3:19)

With saints across the globe, on Ash Wednesday I cast my lot in Urbana, pressing into the depth of that mortal decree — "to dust you shall return." For a moment my mind returned to my childhood out on the barren High Plains along the Colorado/Kansas border where the relentless wind blows dust everywhere. My mother would say, "Dust serves no purpose other than to mess up my furniture and floors."

In fact, starting with dust God made of one blood all the people of the earth. We all are creatures made of dust, breathed into life by the Creator and sustainer of life itself. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our humanity but also of our humility. Lest any think they are the captain of their soul, the prayer of Moses in Psalm 90 begs to differ. "You, O Lord, turn people back to dust, saying 'Return to dust, you mortals.'" And this, "Our days may come to 70 years, or 80, if our strength endures. Yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass and we fly away."

This is a hard truth to embrace as we frantically grasp at the spinning world, trying to prove we are anything but clay. We dart here and there at top speed, hoping to avoid having the dust settle in our wrinkles, thereby reminding us of our mortality, our weakness, our fallen nature.

The challenge of Lent for this mortal is to ask my Creator where I have gotten away from God. In fact, where does God want this redeemed, lovable lump of clay to turn back to Him with all of my heart? Ash Wednesday initiated for me what I hope will become for all of us, a Lenten season of honest reflection on the wondrous mixture of dust and divinity that God has formed in each of us.

Don Follis counsels pastors, directs retreats and consults with a wide array of churches, helping them clarify issues related to conflict. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter (@donfollis).

Sections (1):Living
Topics (2):People, Religion