dust thou art

The priest raises his ash covered thumb to my forehead. “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return. Repent and believe the Gospel,” he says, making the sign of the cross.

“to dust thou shalt return”

The campus was home to the oldest cemetery in the county. One afternoon, as I was wandering in the woods, something drew me to that cemetery.

What is it that draws me to cemeteries? Maybe it’s that I’ve never had a grave to visit, my own ancestors and friends buried thousands of miles away. Maybe it’s my love of history and tradition. Maybe my curiosity. I don’t know. But that afternoon something was drawing me to the old cemetery.

It was fall. Everything was dead. Leaves had lost their crunch and covered the decaying graves with a layer of visible decay.

Gove Cemetery

I climbed over the wall, where a little modern sign marks “Gove Cemetery, 1785.” I wandered to a far off corner, over the crest of the hill. I’d never been this far back before. A flag had fallen to the ground. I picked it up and planted it next to the old Captain’s headstone. When I stood up I saw the old cemetery entrance marked with two tall stones, tucked away in the corner farthest from our modern road.

I slowly, almost reluctantly, I made my way to the old entrance. I paused again and again, my mind wandering back to the place of the dead. Largely neglected, weeds surrounding, stones tipped at precarious angles, engravings faded. What is life? What is the purpose of life? “84 years of age” was written in one stone. Now what remains but a weathered stone, a lump in the ground, a faint memory whispering through the once farmed forest?

I reached the entrance. The wood gate was broken, rotting on the ground. Stepping over it, I found myself on an old road, if it can be called such: a path of saplings cutting through a forest, a pattern of breaks in old walls, a heap of stones leveling a gully. I stopped on the ridge above that gully and saw the heap of stones for what they had been: a bridge. Does anything we make last?

My thoughts wander back ten years to another graveyard, another ruined road. They were older, two thousand years older. Roman buildings lasted longer than the makeshift farm buildings of New Hampshire settlers. Longer, but not forever. The Roman headstones were more impressive, more legible. But the bodies were the same. The stone sarcophagus prevented the lumpy ground. But the memories were further removed. No one remains from 2000 years ago to tell an old story, to put flowers on an ancestor’s grave, to look with love on an old headstone.

The grand city and the small farm alike are gone, ruined, lost in history. The king and the farmer alike decay in the ground. And 200 years from now . . . where will my grave be? Will my memory stir through the grass? Will there be a path to the place I am buried? Or will it be forgotten, the town near the cemetery covered in overgrown forest?

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What happened to our?

Sometimes I want to join a monastic community. Not because I want to swear off marriage and children. Not because I feel the need to be part of such a community to serve God. Not because I think communities are safe or easy places to live. No, I want to join a monastic community because I long for committed, open, sharing relationships. I’m tired of convenience. I’m tired of eating alone. I’m tired of being the sole possessor of everything I own. I’m tired of my car, my books, my food, my computer, my room, my life.

cooking togetherIn college I had a few friends with whom I lived in community. There were many others in my dorm, many others who were close friends. But with these few I shared everything. I do not mean I spilled my guts, told all my secrets, announced all my dreams. I mean we shared books, rice, silverware, canned fruit, scarves, salt . . .  I mean I could walk into their room at any time, whether or not they were there, sit on their couch, make tea, lend another friend their spoon. I mean that when one of us had plenty to eat, we all had plenty. When one of us had a tomato and another a cup of rice, we ate our meager feast together. No one kept accounts. No one kept lists of things borrowed. We cooked together, ate together, read books aloud together, sang together. When we moved in separate directions we divided the stuff—not by who had purchased it, not equally, but by who most needed what.

These days I share a divided house. My milk carton is marked with a large HW. I own clothing that only I wear. I use someone else’s cooking utensils, knowing that they belong exclusively to that person. Someone else uses my plates, knowing that those belong to me. I buy Christmas decorations and divide the cost to the penny. It’s been months since someone borrowed my car. It’s been longer since I’ve borrowed someone else’s. Only at church potlucks do I share food and share fellowship over food.

I don’t want to live this way. I want to share. I want to eat common meals. I want to know that I belong in a place, that others belong in the same place, and that none of us are leaving without a really good reason. I want to wash someone else’s laundry; I want someone else to wash my dishes. Or I want to wash someone’s dishes and have someone else wash my laundry. More honestly, I want us to wash our dishes and our laundry. I want an our-life.

Yet, looking at my priorities and habits honestly, I see that I perpetuate the my-life I despise. Sharing was easier when I was poor. There was less to let go of, less to lose. Sharing a car (though it be a well-used 2001 model), feels riskier than sharing my last zucchini. And rearranging my schedule to share meals is far more complicated now that I own a car. It’s easier to grab a bite on my way out the door. It’s easier to live a separate life. Easier. But much less fulfilling.

How do I step out of this individualized life? How do I eat with others, share belongings and join in a common song? How do I let go of the need to possess, to account, to receive equal amounts, to pay only my portion? How do I do that as a single woman in a culture that expects me to make a life for myself? In a culture that says that only married couples hold all things in common with one another [maybe], that only families eat together regularly [maybe], how do I, a single woman, find community? How do I live, not as a single woman, but as a celibate woman in community?

Good Works: created for me

American culture is largely utilitarian. As a people we are obsessed with productivity, usefulness and efficiency. This obsession extends to the way we think about people, including ourselves. “What do you do?” is one of the first questions we ask a new acquaintance. “What have I done?” is the question we ask ourselves, the question on which we often hang our worth.

A local organization recently started a job training program. The program, like every other job training program I know of, has the goal of equipping people to be useful in the current economy (and be paid for being useful). We expect our high schools and colleges to do the same. There are tasks to be accomplished and positions to be filled. We want our schools to prepare young people to be useful, to take on those works.

As Christians we often expect our discipleship programs and Bible schools to do the same: to produce productive people. We might not be as concerned with the money making aspect of productivity, but we want to train people to be useful in the Kingdom, to do good works for the Kingdom.

We prepare people for good works.

When I was eleven years old, I memorized Ephesians 2:10 for Awana (think Evangelical version of the Scouts). Ostensibly, I memorized it so that I could, through hard work, reach the goal: “Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed.” Actually, I memorized it to look good, out-do my friends, and get enough points to buy rubber stamps. Those who designed the program anticipated my motives. They did, after all, invent Awana bucks.

All that to say, I memorized Ephesians 2:10 nearly 20 years ago. I’ve read and recited it hundreds of times since. And, until this week, I never heard the last phrase. In my mind, the verse—the universe—read this way: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus just so that we could do some of the good works on the long list of good works that God needs to get done.”

After all, I buy a vacuum cleaner because I need my carpets cleaned; I hire a plumber because I need someone to fix my clogged drain; I build a shelf because I need something to hold books. It makes sense that God would make me because he needs a Sunday school class taught, a child fed, or a room cleaned. When I was asked to consider who I am, who God made me to be, my question formed accordingly: What good works did God make me for?

This week, while engaging the First Principle and Foundation in the Spiritual Exercises of St.Ignatius of Loyola, I was asked to consider, once again, Ephesians 2:10. This time, in one disorienting moment, I saw what was written. Yes, God creates me for good works. But God creates those good works for me. Rather than having a list of good works and creating me to accomplish them, God creates me and forms good works that are suited to me. I am the primary creation, the good works secondary.

When interacting a child, I often prepare a task particularly suited to the interests and abilities of the child. I might suggest baking cookies or making cards. I might invite the child to help me rake the yard. I might give the child a puzzle to solve. In every case I think about the child and prepare the good works accordingly. Whether the child is useful or efficient does not cross my mind. I want to see the child enjoy her work. I want to build a relationship with the child as we work together. I want to encourage a child to grow in his confidence. Could it be that God’s love and care for me is greater even than mine for children?

A few months ago I was talking with a friend about her vocation to full-time ministry. One portion of her story has remained in my heart, a foretaste of this week’s reorientation.

She talked about being called to enter full-time ministry, exploring options, and sensing that the work she was called to did not yet exist. She did other things for a few years. Eventually she sensed God saying, “Now.” She quit her job and started walking through open door after open door. Soon she was in full-time ministry, a ministry perfectly suited to her, and that didn’t exist until God said “Now.”

I ponder these things: my reading of Ephesians, the way I prepare works for children, the way God prepared good works for my friend. God, it seems, is not utilitarian. He’s more interested in relationship with me than in making me productive.  My earlier question, I see now, is the wrong one. As I consider who I am, the real question is not What good works did God make me for? The real question is Who has God made me to be? What talents, desires, gifts, skills, and story has God given me? Where in time and space has God placed me?

What good works has God made for me?

Every morning I ride the bus.

Every morning I ride the bus. Every morning I mask my emotions and hope my clothes mask my body. Every morning I spend an hour not looking at the pictures of naked women, or at the men looking at the pictures. I stare out the window. Women in trench coats and head coverings, boys in skinny jeans, girls in tube tops, men in suits. We pass the mall. I wish I was on the other side of the bus. I don’t want to see the half-naked women, twenty times life-size, plastered on the wall. I don’t want to see men looking at the half-naked women.

One morning a woman gets on the bus. A foreigner. I can tell by her eye color and by the way she carries herself. She is not a silent, mask-faced woman. She stops a row ahead of me, by a man. She doesn’t mind that his eyes are fixed on the naked women of the newspaper. She flaunts herself, touches him, tosses her head.

She’s old. No, not old. She’s worn, tired, lonely, dead inside. I mask my life; she masks her death.

I stare out the window. Children in school uniforms, babies in mother arms, men in police clothes. I hear her voice. Russian, I think. She has distracted the man from the paper bodies. Her broken Turkish is loud, strange in this place of public silence.

I glance over. I see her desperate. I see the man hooked.

She looks cold. If only I could offer her some tea, some warmth, some rest.

I stare out the window. Grey buildings, grey streets, grey clothes. I don’t dare remove my mask. Most of the men remain absorbed in their paper women. A few look up, look at her, look past me. As long as they look past me, I am safe. I too am a foreigner. I do not want their attention.

I hear her get up, hear her cajole the man. Out the window I see the red light district.

She walks to the front of the bus. For a moment I think the man will stay, will go back to his paper, will go to his work. Then I see him stand and follow her.

Every morning I ride the bus.