Remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return”
“The infant had been born without a complete digestive track”. The pediatric surgeon gave the news to the stunned father and grandmother. The priest listened. “Many surgeries, really that’s all”, the doctor said, “and months and even years of healing and recovery would be able to restore her functions”. “So it must be done, the family and priest agreed”.
And there were months of recovery, mother sleeping for weeks at a time in the clean and bright pediatric unit of the modern hospital. Daily visits by father and grandmother, Step by step as the “Plumbing” was corrected and the child underwent times at home and times of operations and recovery in the hospital.
The little child was slow to grow, but each tiny step was a victory. And she grew and grew and finally she had a functional digestive system, her survival a miracle of science and faith.
One Ash Wednesday when she was barely two years, she came up to the altar rail between her mother and grandmother to receive the ashes. The ashes are dispensed by the priest with the words” You are dust and to dust you shall return” The old priest used the old words that he had memorized from his youth.
Now only two years since that life and death decision had been made in the hospital waiting room and many operations, the priest approached her. The child probably would not understand the profundity of the act, his hand with a slight tremor and his forehead beaded with sweat, he made the sign of the cross with the ashes, said the ancient words, and wept.
How many noticed, he didn’t know, couldn’t tell. He was long past the time when he worried about the tears that would sometimes flow. The experience shattered and informed him…one of the many breakthroughs that in his later years he called sacraments.
The priest wanted to say and did whisper into the child’s ear, “God give you a long and beautiful life”. He also said to himself, “may all her suffering be behind her”, knowing the impossibility of the prayer and offering it anyway.
We are at once so incredibly durable and fragile, he thought. The ashes are reminders of our fragility, a confrontation with our tendency to live unconsciously. The ashes reminded him of the ashes of the past year, ashes of family, of those dear to us, the ashes of our enemies and his own brokenness. It is a time set aside to be swept with tears of joy and of sorrow, the remembering of the child’s healing and the child’s fragility and our own.
Just a few days ago the priest told me that the girl’s mother called. She had to be taken back to the hospital where minor surgery was performed.
It seems she took a pebble and put it up so far into her nose that her mother couldn’t remove it.
The child is at home recovering and doing fine.