Ash Wednesday 2005
At the Ash Wednesday service today ashes were placed on my forehead in the shape of a cross as the ministrant said to me, “Remember, man, ashes you are and to ashes you shall return.”
I knew it before he told me, because I had been reminded of this coming fact in the past few days, through the deaths of a relative and a friend, and also through our book discussion group Monday night.
For several years we have been meeting to talk about the latest book we have read together. There once were six of us. One has died, the other moved away.
This Monday the remaining four of us talked about Elizabeth Costello, the most recent book of the Nobel-prize winning South African novelist J. M. Coetzee (whose birthday, interestingly, is today).
I found it intriguing but baffling, and so I think did the others.
Costello is an ageing Australian novelist who on the strength of her first and most impressive novel is invited to lecture at various universities and other sites (including a cruise ship!) around the world.
The lectures she gives on several topics – realism, animal rights, whether some things are so evil they should not be written about – are based on essays or lectures Coetzee himself has given on these matters. Costello has very firm views on all these matters, but prefers to leave any definitive answers hanging in the air. Most of her relationships with her family are also hanging some place in mid air.
My first impression was that Coetzee had come up with a forced narrative character as a way of cobbling together his lectures for a wider audience. The more I read (and the more we discussed) the more I felt there was far more to the book. Far from being an overreaching book by an overrated author (as Jonathan Yardley wrote in his critique) I think it is a most profound statement of a dilemma that the author, every artist, and every human faces: how can I know what I really believe?
The last chapter is a kind of dream-like experience of purgatory. Costello is in a drab town having to face a panel of judges who decide who gets to go through a certain mysterious door. What lies beyond it – heaven? hell? nothingness? – we are not told, although she does get a peek through and sees first a bright light, then a dog.
But when the novelist has to tell what she herself believes she is at a loss.
“I am a writer … a secretary of the invisible,” she says, “It is not for me to interrogate or judge what is given me. I merely write down the words.” A good secretary, she adds, “should have no beliefs.”
When pressed to make a statement she says, “I believe in what does not bother to believe in me.”
And when asked whether she believes in God she protests it is too intimate a question, and says, “I prefer to let God be. As I hope He will let me be.”
Our friend George who professes to be a secular humanist posed the question to us: what would any of us say or write if asked what we believed.
As for George himself, he told us that he would say, “I believe I am going to die. And then there is nothing more.”
Which led into a most fascinating discussion from which I digress for some personal thoughts.
I think I would say, “I believe, like George, that I am going to die. The ashes on my head today remind me that is a fact. It’s true for all of us whether we believe it or not.
“I also believe other things. I believe I am alive. I believe I can think about death and what it means. I believe I can argue with George, unlike my beautiful and very bright dog Wrangler who will instinctively flinch from death but does not talk to me about it. He may have his thoughts but I don’t know that. I know that I do.
“I know that when my little granddaughter Anabel came for Christmas and had to leave, she lay beside me for half an hour in the early morning, very quiet next to ‘gagee.’ I looked at her and wondered what a two year old thinks lying in bed in the morning, and whether when I am long gone what she will remember of being there with me. When the time came to leave for home she sobbed and kicked because she did not want to leave Wrangler or Gagee.
“So I know other things besides dying. I know that I love, as does Anabel. I desire. I long. I have at times hated. Once I thought I could kill. I have lusted. I deeply care about life and those I love.
“Our friend Brent who was part of this group and died was a brilliant judge who loved justice and mercy.
“Has that all died? The love, the longing for justice and mercy and caring?
“Does that turn to ashes too?”
“I believe it does not. I believe love does not fail.
“Can I prove these as inescapeable realities, like death? Not in the same way. But love and longing and justice and mercy are proved also from experience, from life. These are not merely words, or abstract values. They have meaning only because they are lived out by real people in real relationships.
“So when Jesus, who for me embodies all of these, tells me that there will be a house of love as the end of our longings, I believe him.
“So yes, I believe. Not in something but in the One whom I confess in the Creed:
I believe in God the Father Almighty,
and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.”
Today at Ash Wednesday communion the hymn was the same we sang last year:
We rise again from ashes,
from the good we’ve failed to do.
We rise again from ashes,
to create ourselves anew.
If all our world is ashes,
then must our lives be true,
an offering of ashes,
an offering to You.
The second stanza says that we offer to God our failures, our attempts, the gifts not fully given, the dreams not fully dreamt.
Those last words brought tears to my eyes when I read them, as they did last year.
I know where the tears came from. They are tears for Sandy, our son who died at the age of twenty-one, nearly a quarter of a century ago.
Is Sandy only ashes?
I stood by his grave Saturday, near to where our other relative was to be buried. I brushed a few pieces of grass off the headstone.
I thought of the note I just received from someone who knew him in college, remembering the kind of person Sandy was, how without being preachy his faith was evident by the way he lived his life and cared for others.
His influence lives on. The memories do.
But what about him?
Jesus said that God is the God of the living, not the dead. So Sandy is more than a memory. As long as God lives, Sandy lives, alive and vital in the presence of God.
How that can be is a mystery beyond what George or I can calculate from our bodily lives, beyond our reason.
But the heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of.
Pascal said that.
I believe it.