Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Though the Ash Wednesday saying rightly evokes repentance and humility by reminding us of our mortality, dust is not only a symbol of death. As I have come to realize in delightful new ways this year through poking around in my garden dirt, dead and decaying matter is a powerful source of life.
It is a ridiculously obvious fact that we humans have known since the discovery of agriculture, but something that I as a city-dweller still find wondrous: throw some tiny seeds in dirt, and, with some sunlight and water, they grow to produce delicious edible wonders! In a truly miraculous way, that brown and unassuming dirt, the bedrock of the food chain, sustains our lives.
Starting a garden this year has been therapeutic for me, not only because I have gotten to witness these small everyday miracles of creation and eat yummy vegetables, but also because of my contact with dirt.
It is good for us to touch dirt – not just as a way to symbolically acknowledge our mortality. Dirt is powerful on a physical, cellular level.
The power of dirt is something that therapists often utilize. When I was getting acupuncture for fertility issues at a Chinese medicine clinic, one of the student doctors there told me to regularly touch dirt to tap into the fertility of the earth. On a recent visit to Colombia where we walked through a cypress grove, our guide told us that people often come to this grove to walk around barefoot, touch the trees, and discharge static energy from always being around electronic gadgets.
It may sound like “new-age” fluff, but it makes sense too from a Christian perspective. God breathed his life into creation, and it means that each created thing – humans, animals, plants, water, sunlight, dirt – somehow resonates with the energy of the Creator. Even rocks, Jesus said, have the capacity to cry out God’s praises (Luke 19:40).
We often spiritualize this knowledge of God’s divine energy in creation. Spending time in creation is good for the soul, we say. But I think it is also good for our bodies, which are inextricably connected to our souls. When we come into physical contact with the goodness of creation – though playing in the dirt, through a walk in the forest, through an ocean swim – something shifts in the energy of our bodies, in our very cells. We are re-attuned to something basic in life. Like receiving the imposition of ashes at the start of Lent, we become more aware of our humanity – not only of our impending deaths, but also of our lives and bodies, which are sustained in the power and love of God.