A few years ago, I was sitting in the parking lot of my children’s school, waiting for them to emerge from a long day of classroom work. I was listening to the radio and Terri Gross was interviewing a former evangelical who had become an atheist, because – after years of searching – he could not find a reason for suffering. I remember audibly laughing. “Okay,” I said. “That’s cliché. ” I have a great disdain for the cliché.
Since that time, my family has gone through some difficult situations; the kind of situations to which people say,”That will never happen to me.” But they did and we endured. God granted us beautiful religious and non – religious friends to see us through and a wonderful parish to help draw us out of the darkness. But even my children, who took the brunt of the suffering – and that is what makes it so sharply painful in my motherly heart – have noted the many moments of new life and irreversible joy that have come from the depth of darker things. From death, comes life. From dying, a new leaf, a fresh root, a seedling that will one day become an ancient oak.
This sunny Ash Wednesday morning, on the way to school, my son said, “Mommy, I used to be afraid of losing a tooth, because it’s kind of scary. There’s blood and even sometimes pain, but now I get excited when a tooth is loose, because when the old one falls a new one shows up. And these teeth are the ones I will have when I am an old man and I have experienced a whole lifetime.”
Because he has known pain, he more acutely recognizes a blessing, he more easily welcomes joy. That has felt unfair to me in the past. It feels unfair to me now, and it probably is, but it is the nature of life – that darkness comes before dawn, that loss makes room for abundance.
Tonight, my family will go to mass and receive our ashes. Our priest will smear the smokey smudge across our foreheads with the mantra, “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return.”
It is a fact that human DNA and what is found in the particles that make up the stars is the same. Genesis tells us that Adam, the first man came from dirt. However he died, we know his flesh wilted and blew away with the chaff. We are made up of what is found in death. Earthly life is final, and our own bodies remind us of that; our universe echoes it. But to have life, we must die.
To rise again on Easter Sunday, we must have Ash Wednesday. We must be reminded that there is purpose in suffering, a purpose that brings us back to ourselves.
My neighbor is attending her father’s funeral today. In less than a month her daughter will give birth to her first grandchild. Death and life. My dogwood tree is bare, and for many weeks was hanging low under the weight of the winter snow. This morning, I saw the tiniest of buds emerging from its spindly branches. I will go to bed with ashes marking my forehead with a cross. I will awaken with them erased, without a trace of burned palm dust on me.
Sometimes the only purpose to suffering is that it helps us to understand and recognize all that is good in life, and there, we suddenly see the God of who’s presence we have sometimes been so unsure.