Saturday, 4 December 2021

Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return


Ash Wednesday ashes

  When I was a little Catholic in my long ago youth there were some truly beautiful and memorable words during the Mass that have stayed with me. "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return" were stern and serious words.  They remind us of our mortality at the beginning of the Christian Easter cycle of prayer, fasting and celebration. They are spoken on Ash Wednesday which in the Christian calendar, precedes six weeks of fasting and prayer called Lent.  This leads to the bleakest day of the Christian calendar, Good Friday, when Jesus, who Christians believe is the son of God, was crucified and died.  Three days later is Easter Sunday where Christians believe in and celebrate the fact that Jesus came back to life after his crucifixion, and other people eat chocolate bunny rabbits till they burst.

My Catholic upbringing brought lovely things to me.  The beauty and mystery of the Latin mass, the security of the services, feast days, holy days of obligation - we all knew where we were and what was happening and how to do it, and I learned (and keep) a respect for reverence and belief.  I did not stay in the Catholic faith, nor did I leave it as such, I just thanked it and moved on.  But there were many times during the masses as a child that I felt awed and affected by the mystery of what the priest was saying.  During the Ash Wednesday mass, we would all line up for the priest to mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross in ash as a reminder of our mortality and mutter to each of us in turn, "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return."  I felt this message was meant especially for me.  It did not frighten me, I did not really know what death was, but somehow I understood what was being said and I felt a knowing and a reassurance that I could not explain.  I come from dust, I shall return to dust.  Remember this. I am mortal, I am here and gone in a heartbeat, I come from ash I shall return to ash.  The great comfort for a little Catholic girl was that when that happened, it wasn't just lights-out and that's your lot.   Job done, life over, nothing to see here, eternal nothing.  There was God, and angels, and Heaven, and Jesus and a whole army of saints and good people (now dead) to look after me.  There was a whole new adventure coming.

Looks good, can't wait.


Are you afraid of your mortality?  Do you feel that you are fully on this earth, or do you feel that you could be whisked away any moment?  Perhaps you feel a bit of both.  Our feeling of aliveness is so personal, so changeable, so up and down and so challenged by circumstance and so rewarded by experience.  Most of the time we are simply getting on with our lives.  Getting through the day with all our stuff is more than enough for us to be thinking of but sometimes, just now and again, we are brought up short and remember we are mortal. We catch a glimpse of what it means to end, to stop, to cease and it blows our mind.  Most of us don't like it, we cannot conceive of simply not being here.  Most of us are terrified of it.  How can we disappear and how can life for us end?  Not many people are comfortable with knowing they will die and perhaps, when it is not happening at that moment, those who say they are OK with it have no real conception of how it will feel when it does happen for them.  Then again, I have been with terminally ill people who say they truly are accepting of their death and simply hope it is not too painful and uncomfortable along the way.  And even then, these terminally ill people have moments when they are not wanting to go, and have to find a way to get through those difficult times.  It can be done, it is done, and we all die sometime whatever we think or feel about it.

There is something very special about remembering that we are mortal, that we come from dust and shall return to dust.  It gives us perspective, there is a time line, and we are on it.  It won't go on forever. 

"Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return."

How are you living now?  Look around you, what have you got?  Who have you got?  Where are you? Is this what you want?  The miracle is that we are born at all, and have this span of life, and we cannot take it for granted because it will end.  We have just this tiny part of personal time in which to make the best of ourselves, before we move on and return to dust. What do you want? Is it what you have?


Life is tough.  It knocks us around and makes us work for our time here.  But we humans are gifted with extraordinary things like choice and perspective, we can always choose where we are going, what we will do and who we will be next. We can say, Well that didn't work for me, didn't like how that turned out, better try something different.  We choose what we have around us, and theoretically at least, we can choose to change it.  Takes time and courage, but can be done.  And this is where the magic of life can step in - people turn up and help us, circumstances change to support us, something happens and we have a sudden insight into what we are or are not doing, somehow life gives us a break.

Life is also beautiful.  We learn about the hard stuff, yes, and we also experience the lovely stuff.  We have to remember that we are allowed this lovely stuff, and not let the tough lessons take all our focus because unless we stop that, we will allow all the difficult things to dominate.  We learn about love, and compassion, and appreciation.  We experience satisfaction, praise, joy, wonder.  We have insights, understandings, inspirations.  We do things, we learn things, and while we are still here, still alive, we can choose to go up as well as down.  Small triumphs, small successes, especially small triumphs and successes, give us another beautiful human gift, hope.  Life is such a journey, it is your journey, and it is up to you, me, all of us to make of it what we can.  If I don't like today, what can I learn about it, and how can I move on?  How can I change it and what does it say about who I think I am?

Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return

Finally, I am thinking that with so many different perspectives on life and death, living and dying, that my upbringing in a religious faith has given me just one set of beliefs in a world full of sets of beliefs.  I am so grateful to have spent a childhood with the idea of a loving God and a whole universe of mystery.  That part has never left me, and though I have shaken my Catholicism warmly by the hand, thanked it and moved on into a bigger brighter world beyond, I love the memory of some of the words, and much of the magic, the mystery and the beauty of it.  Each of us has our own experiences, we make of it what we can.  Now, onwards and upwards, the day ahead beckons and life is yet to be lived and experienced.

life is a journey, never too late to live it.

  • Don't forget, you can buy my book As Mother Lay Dying, a tapestry woven of memories and insights from the bedside here

"I loved this book, it really hooked me in and kept me turning the pages.

This is so helpful for being with those we love at end of life, so many good ideas for making people more comfortable, feel loved and cherished. However, the emotions that run through it are what I find most interesting and helpful. There is such honesty about how, in fact, we might really feel at these times and I much admired Antonia’s courage in sometimes saying what we all might think but not be brave enough to voice. I also found the end section on grieving so helpful.

We all have to experience death at some point in our lives, it’s not a bad idea to be a bit prepared for it…..this book will so help." Pauline.

"For my work and my own life, this book held many important and meaningful messages. It is beautiful, funny, honest and poignant. Written with such grace, thank you for sharing Antonia"  Claire

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