You are Dust
by Mary Harmon-Vukic
Department of Psychology
“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words are literal truth. Most elements of our body are those created in stars billions of years ago. While it may seem romantic to be stardust, dust is still just… dust. Anecdotal reports suggest that Ash Wednesday is the most attended mass of the year, despite not being a holy day of obligation. How intriguing. What is it about Ash Wednesday that calls people back? Scholars have argued that people enjoy the ritual experience with ashes. Yet the Catholic Church offers plenty of ritual experiences both in and outside of mass that fail to attract crowds. Others hypothesize that Ash Wednesday gives us permission to consider death in a more formal way. I disagree. People typically only think about death in a vague way or when they must confront the possibility of death.
Over the past 15 years I have delved into academic research in the psychology of religion. Specifically, I’m interested in how people think about God. Most scholars have concluded that people understand God as a super superhero. While that is partially true, it does not tell the whole story. Reports of transcendent or intense spiritual experiences may offer a window into how we think about God. Interestingly, such experiences always occur when we perceive vastness. For instance, chancing upon an open view of the stars in the desert may initiate an intense spiritual experience. People who have had such experiences also report a sense the “smallness” of themselves. While some individuals express terror in that smallness, the majority also perceive a connectedness with the whole of the universe, resulting in an overwhelming and indescribable experience of love, peace, and joy. The consistent pattern of the significance of vastness paired with the sense of “small self” and the feelings evoked are worth psychologists’ attention. I have concluded that the observations indicate the our spatial awareness (specifically, vast space) is actually part of our understanding of God.
My hypothesis is supported in several (non-experimental) ways. The prophets often met God in the desert and Jesus fled to the desert to pray. Perhaps it was the isolation and quiet that facilitated prayer, but deserts permit an experience of visual vastness that is difficult to find in a city. In many art forms, God is depicted in the sky. The sky is the most obvious and consistent experience of vastness for most humans. As a more personal example, my son Nikola made his first confession at SPV several years ago. I attended service and went to confession myself. He went in first and then waited for me. When I came out of the confessional, preparing for my penance, Nikola took my hand and led me directly to the gate of the sanctuary. I frantically whispered, “What are we doing?!” Nikola responded, “Sister Martin de Porres said we should do penance here.” I felt awkward but complied. I knelt down just feet from the altar and closed my eyes to pray. I was immediately struck with a very distinct sense of vastness kneeling in that most holy place (and encourage you to try; feel free to report back to me with data).
I share my hypothesis because perhaps it provides insight into the importance of Ash Wednesday. I believe Ash Wednesday calls to a deep longing in the heart of every human being. It is a desire that we can’t fully express in words but somehow sense that it is present on Ash Wednesday. It is the longing for the smallness of ourselves to be united with vastness of God. We bow our heads as we approach the altar in reverence and humility. We hear that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Those words soothe our hearts because although we are dust, we belong to the vast love, joy, and peace that is God.
“Return to me with your whole heart with fasting, weeping, and mourning.”
“Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord.”
Let us pray that we continue seeking God after Ash Wednesday. The Church gives us Lent, and even a set of practical guidelines to unite our small, humble selves with the vast love, mercy, and peace of God: alms-giving, fasting, and prayer. Let’s consider how those three activities will give us our heart’s desire.
I believe most people are quite generous and are happy to give alms. But what if we gave alms until we became so humbled and small and were forced to rely on God?
We fast from meat today and every Friday during Lent. But what if we fasted not just from meat but from all food until we recognized our physical and mental weakness? What if we fasted until our bellies grumbled and we became desperate? Could we turn to the Lord in that desperation and realize that our true hunger is for living bread?
Finally, Lent offers the opportunity to reinvigorate our prayer life. Many of us (myself included) struggle with consistent prayer. Perhaps we should take a different approach prayer. Jacques Philippe encourages us to enter prayer humbly, remembering our own smallness. If we enter prayer not with words or actions but with a posture of humility, remembering that we are dust, might we better understand the vast glory of God?