Vital Dust and Lenten Ashes

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On Ash Wednesday Christians lined up in prayer spaces and churches throughout the world to receive the administration of ashes.  In the U.S. ashes are customarily the burned left-over palms from last year’s Palm Sunday.  They are placed in a little container from which a minister dips his or her thumb and then places a cross from the ashes on to the forehead of each person who comes forth.  A little prayerful wish is said by the minister to each person.  In European countries, ashes are sprinkled like holy water on the assembly as the minister goes up and down the aisles.  (One has to remember not to wear a white blouse, shirt or blazer on Ash Wednesday – a minor inconvenience!) 

One of the most frequently used prayers said during distribution of ashes, is “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” a rather intimidating and maybe a downright ‘spooky’ prayer when you think about it.  The prayer/phrase comes from God’s ‘scolding’ of our first parents who ate the forbidden fruit and then faced mortality as a result. 

Father Diarmuid O’Murchu, the Irish spiritual writer, recalled in his book, The Transformation of Desire, that on one Ash Wednesday he was confronted with the reality of ashes placed on his forehead with the immediate thought of scientific writings he had been reading about dust being infused with particles, all of which are believed to be alive.  Dust has life!  In fact, according to these scientists, dust appears to promise life as it travels from outside our planet to us.  Yes, dust comes from the universe!!  On his way home from the service, O’Murchu stopped in a bookstore and what should he see prominently displayed but the newly arrived book by Nobel science laureate, Christian de Duve titled, Vital Dust.  Wow!  O’Murchu just had to know more about the science of what dust brings to our existence and so did I.  He bought the book then; I ordered it from Amazon twenty years later! 

The argument de Duve makes is “The Earth is part, together with trillions of other Earth-like bodies, of a cosmic cloud of ‘vital dust’ that exists because the universe is what it is.”  He sees the universe as a meaningful entity – “made in such a way as to generate life and mind, bound to give birth to thinking beings able to discern truth, apprehend beauty, feel love, yearn after goodness, define evil, experience mystery.”  According to de Duve, this is all done through dust—dust from the universe.  And he is not alone.  Many scientists think we truly are made of dust that has crept into our genes and will go back to the universe simply as dust again after we die!  We share in our creation with all other created matter—through dust.  I love the thought that the creative dust of others can be flowing in my body.  That seems to be a lesson about what the human being is, as made by God from the dust of the Earth.  Like O’Murchu, I was getting a far more positive perspective about being made from and returning to dust.  Hmmm, thinking of ashes, or dust, is really a holy activity.      

As I was pondering this, an Associate member of our community sent out a wonderful poem composed by Jan Richardson titled, Blessing the Dust.  I suggest you read the poem in its entirety because word number and space prevent me from printing it completely here.  It can be found on Google.  One verse says:

                                    “…did you not know

                                    what the Holy One                                                     

                                    can do with dust?”

Another continues,      So let us be marked

                                    not for sorrow

                                     …but for claiming

                                    what God can do 

                                    within the dust 

                                    within the dirt,

                                    within the stuff

                                    on which the world

                                    is made.

                                    …and the galaxies that spiral 

                                    inside the smudge

                                    we bear.”


The ashes of Lent are meant to create a joyful anticipation, not a dour, fearful confrontation with sin and death.  The ashes are, indeed, vital dust.  We face our sin with anticipation of forgiveness because we are repentant, and God loves us immensely.  We confess because we believe, not because we are afraid.  And we face our death with the anticipation of resurrection into the fullness of life beyond with God.  Yes, we sacrifice.  Yes, we fast.  Yes, we pray.  But remember Jesus’s words that we are not to do this like the Pharisees and Sadducees who do it for show.  We do it because we have left the cultic cross and now follow Him through the Christian cross for the needs of the world and our own souls.  And we do it joyfully.  Vital dust reminds us of this.

This week, read Richardson’s entire poem, “Blessing the Dust,” and reflect on it carefully.  You might like to read her essay titled, “Ash Wednesday,” and any other of her remarkable poetry.  You might also consider reading at least parts of de Duve’s book, “Vital Dust.”  It is serendipitous joy when we find a connection between science and literature and then add spirituality to the mix.  I think God loves that about us humans: finding God as source and vortex of all that is meaningful in life! Vital dust!!!  Make Lent work for you.  Your faith will mean so much more.

My prayers are with all of you who read this blog each week and my Anonymous Angels who send personal messages of what might have inspired them.  I love you all.  

Quotes from de Duve’s book, Vital Dust, Basic Books, 1995.  P. xviii. Quotes from Richardson’s poem found on Google.

7 thoughts on “Vital Dust and Lenten Ashes

Add yours

  1. Depok Chopra makes the point that we all become part of the cosmos, and so when we breathe, we are taking in the essence of all those gone before us. Comforting!


    1. So true Diane. Thank you for sharing another name our readers can look into. I agree it is comforting to think we can take “in the essence of those gone before us.” MAF


  2. You might want to look up Judy Cannato’s writings–she has 2 books of Lenten reflections on Quantum Grace, and another two on Radical Amazement–how we in the ever expanding universe are all connected, from the beginning of time 13.7 billion years ago!! It boggle the mind, and realizing that our great God is behind it all!!


    1. I am familiar with Judy’s work, Chris and, in fact, she probably influenced my evolving thinking on this matter. Thank you for mentioning her and sharing her name with our readers. (It was good to see you this week after such a long time!) MAF


  3. Love this reflection and the comments! I’ve always reflected that our bodies contain the atoms and molecules of all things that have died to nourish the earth and my death will be the stuff of life yet to be. I also think about all life being one organism as we breathe in that which other living organisms provide and exhale to provide life support back. The Cosmic Christ?!


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