Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, falls this year on 9 February. One of the formulas used when ashes are imposed on the foreheads of the faithful is, “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
These sentiments seem to cut across many religious (and non-religious) traditions, since the rock group Kansas scored its biggest hit with “Dust in the Wind,” written by guitarist Kenny Livgren. Taken from their 1977 album “Point of Know Return,” the cut was based on American Indian poetry.
I close my eyes
Only for a moment and the moment’s gone
All my dreams
Pass before my eyes, a curiosity
Dust in the wind
All they are is dust in the wind
Same old song
Just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do
Crumbles to the ground
Though we refuse to see
Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind
Now don’t hang on
Nothin’ lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away
And all your money won’t another minute buy
These sobering lyrics, very much in the spirit of Lent, force us to put things—and our lives— in perspective. Now, we’re ready to take on two of the three traditional works of Lent: fasting and almsgiving. (The third work is prayer, and this essay is focused toward the secular world.)
Fasting refers to abstinence from food, of course, but can be generalized to include other forms of self-denial. Many of us in this country are overweight, and this phenomenon has little to do with money. Indeed, obesity is rampant amongst the poor. That said, nearly all of us could afford to skip a meal once in a while, forgo some calories, and give our systems a break. Regular fasting is customary in many cultures, and is known to provide certain health benefits.
Natural hygiene, a discipline that includes rigid dietary restrictions, but also boasts extreme vitality and long life in most of its adherents, teaches that fasting is important in curing disease. Contrarian fourth-generation physician William Campbell Douglass relates the story told by his grandfather, returning from World War I. This was the time of the flu pandemic, and he noted that all the troops (many of whom had the flu) were being fed big farm-style meals. Douglass’ grandfather, recalling advice from his own grandmother on fasting during an illness, refused the meals, and was one of the few who made it home outside of a pine box.
As to other forms of self-denial, many Americans could cut back, and avoid being sucked into the horrifying downward spiral of credit card debt. And, we baby boomers could surely learn a few lessons about greed and selfishness, don’t you think?
Almsgiving, simple acts of charity toward those who are less fortunate, should be encouraged at all times. Sadly, we feel less inclined to do so these days, perhaps because the government is taking so much of our money, and is, in theory at least, providing for those who are needy. Getting theological for a moment, we note that there is a strange paradox here. We believe, with the author of Genesis, that the material things God has created are good; yet Jesus warns us not to let them weigh us down.
This is very much tied in with self-denial, but even if we truly have little to spare, we can at least reach out, and try to pierce the veil of our rat race/impersonal society. It’s amazing what even a kind word or courteous act can do to improve someone’s day. The life you improve might be your own.
May I propose that even those who are outside the Church practice these works for the 44 days of Lent? You might even feel reborn on Easter Sunday!