“Remember, from dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.” The ashes were smeared on my forehead by a colleague of mine at the early morning prayer service. Little bits fell on my nose and were pointed out by someone I’d never seen in church before. Get your ashes, her mother probably told her. It’s important.
I’ve never looked forward to Lent as much as I have this year. I’ve mentioned this to a few people and they’ve stared at me quizzically. Isn’t this a penitential season? You know, with fasting and almsgiving. What are you giving up this year?, they insist on asking.
But in truth, I have been looking forward to Lent this year since the Easter season ended last year. That’s when I started working on “Return to Me”, a reflection series at the College of the Holy Cross. For the past several months the project has consumed large amounts of my own personal and professional resources, monopolizing my time and attention. This project – a print and digital prayer resource with reflections written by faculty, staff, students and alumni – came to define my schedule and my interactions since, as a new initiative there were constant questions and issues that, try as I might, I couldn’t always anticipate or plan for.
So when Ash Wednesday finally arrived, I was excited that this project, this labor spanning months and months, was finally coming to fruition. Over 1,000 people had signed up to receive the daily email, and at 4:00 a.m. that morning, it was automatically sent by an email client.
Except to me.
I had rolled over early that day, nervous and unable to sleep. Before 5:00am, I checked my email. Nothing. I checked again at 6:00. Nothing. I emailed one of my colleagues, our tech wizard. “You probably just misspelled your name or email. We see that all the time.” So I checked. I hadn’t misspelled my name. I just didn’t receive an email.
Worried that there might be other subscribers like me in the system, I asked him to do a diagnostic test. His efforts produced a list of 30 or so address whose inboxes were either full, or whose address were misspelled (gmial instead of gmail, for instance.) Again, my address was not among them. Further tech research was needed.
That afternoon, a staff member in the alumni office and a seasoned user of the email client, told me she had figured it out. Still, she looked confused: “well, there are various reasons why one of these emails isn’t sent. But you were listed in the system as deceased.”
Deceased? Dead? Me!?! We both doubled over and laughed and I later told my colleagues and my brother Jesuits over dinner. It made for a good story. You’re eating with a dead man! Someone recalled the story of an overzealous congressman prematurely announcing Bob Hope’s death on the floor of the House. ‘Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,’ Hope is said to have quipped.
That night, as I recalled the events of the day, I felt a great sense of peace. “Return to Me” had launched successfully and the initial feedback seemed positive. My day, begun in nervousness, had been full of laughter – always a good barometer for me. But I also found that I was consumed with that email snafu and the pronouncement of my death. You’re dead, she had told me.
Get your ashes. It’s important. “Remember, from dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.”
Death certainly puts things in perspective, and it’s changed my approach to the project and my relationships with those with whom I work on it. “Return to Me” is good, objectively good, even important, but it’s not the most important or ultimate good in my life. This work – any work I do – may be at the service of my end, but it is not my end, not what I was created for. I know that end – life lived with God – in many varied ways and I will know it most completely and fully when I finally die.
On Ash Wednesday I was reminded of death. It helped me to see more clearly the proper order I want in my life, and an all-consuming approach to my work is not near the top of the list. In the weeks since, I’ve never felt so free in relation to this project. It’s not that I suddenly don’t care about it or what happens to it in the future, I just recognize that there are other things I care about more, that outrank it.
The “Return to Me” project is aptly named. In the reading from Joel we heard on the first day of Lent, the prophet pleads that we might return to God with our whole hearts. That we might die to self so to live with him. I understand this now in a way I didn’t when I picked the name. I had been overly concerned about my project and lost sight of my purpose. Remembering death freed me from this preoccupation. Reports of my death were greatly exaggerated, yet wholly appreciated.