To Dust You Shall Return
A neighbour’s funeral.
At a particularly patchy time of faith as a teenager, I remember attending a neighbour’s funeral. I was getting to a point in my faith journey (or lack thereof) in which I felt apathetic, even numb to the effects of sin and prayer.
I remember wondering whether I was, to some degree, losing my Catholic faith. Yet it was at this funeral, of a woman I’d barely ever spoken to, that I was slapped back to better judgment.
Observing my neighbour’s funeral scene reminded me that I, too, was going to die one day — and I wanted to be prepared. As I stood at the back of the church (of course our family of 8 at the time had arrived late), I contemplated my 18-or-so years of life.
Temporary highs vs an immortal soul.
Throughout that hour of Mass, I saw clearly that I had been thriving on temporary ‘highs’ which, in the context of my soul that will never die, was short-sighted and reckless. With a sense of relief (not dismay, as might be expected, at a teenager’s prospect of partying less), I realised I had reawoken to a reality I needed to be sure not to forget: that my soul is immortal and how I live in this life decides my eternal destiny.
It wasn’t all smooth from there, but it was a breakthrough that steered me to a better path. And it all started with that thing we don’t like to talk about — death.
Why is Ash Wednesday so popular?
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” the priest smears our forehead and says on Ash Wednesday, which remains one of the most well-attended days in the Catholic Church, up there with Easter and Christmas. Why throngs of people show up to be told, “Hey, you suck, and you’re going to die,” have their foreheads soiled, and be sent on their merry way is, one must admit, rather strange.
Perhaps Ash Wednesday’s popularity is for the same reason that Baptisms, First Holy Communions, and Confirmations remain standard: people, whether they have a strong faith or not, like tradition and ritual. But could there be something more to Ash Wednesday? Could it be that as humans we have a natural instinct to know we are broken, sinful, and in need of repentance — as is so clearly the message of this day?
The reality of death.
Truth is, Ash Wednesday is a fitting day to contemplate our fleeting existence. Deep down, this fascinates everyone, but without faith it can also be extremely frightening. While the world will tell us to live in the moment, the Catholic faith faces up to reality — the reality of death and an eternal destiny. In a world starved of truth, misguided by hedonism, and largely devoid of purpose, there is something uniquely attractive, or at least pragmatic, about the Catholic tradition of preparing for death.
What does it mean if your soul is immortal?
So, let’s dive in. Look around you. Everything you see will eventually die or rot. Not even your own body is trustworthy enough to last more than a couple of decades. The key to understanding why this life even matters is believing in something that will not pass away, and that is your soul.
(This article is not the place to debate whether or not the soul is immortal [if this is a question for you, check out Catholic Answers], but rather to explore what the implications are if we do, as Catholics, believe in our souls’ immortality. If you do believe in the immortality of your soul, I invite you to contemplate what that actually means. That, while your body will decay, your soul will go on ad infinitum.)
In my experience as a Catholic navigating the storms of adolescent and adult life, eternity has been an extremely important concept to help refocus my priorities. Not only is living a double-life (partying one day, praying the next) at its core unfulfilling, it’s also clearly not worth it when considered in the context of our soul’s immortal nature.
God, have mercy.
This isn’t to say we can’t make mistakes, that God won’t have mercy; He tells us He will, if go to the Sacrament of Confession and are truly sorry (John 20:21–23). But we can prevent a lot of heartache for us and Him if we remember those words, “and to dust you shall return”, referring, of course, to our bodies and (importantly) not to our souls.
Use Ash Wednesday to self-check.
So today, let’s use Ash Wednesday as an opportunity to self-check our awareness of our immortal nature. Think about your life in the context of your death and subsequent eternal destiny. Then ask yourself the ultimate question: does the way I am living my life now line up with where I want to spend the next one, forever?
If the answer is ‘no’, run back to God. Drop whatever is keeping you from Him, turn to prayer, the sacraments, community, and don’t look back. If the answer is ‘yes’, you’re either worthy of canonisation or, more likely, not being entirely truthful. We all have room to grow.
Let’s not take for granted the gift God has given us of being able to live with Him forever, but remember that we have to choose it. We have to choose Him. As we prepare to don our cross-shaped ashes and contemplate the ephemeral nature of this life, let’s pray to our Heavenly Mother for a holy death:
Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now,
and at the hour of our death.