Waiting in the Wilderness: This Quintessence of Dust

What a piece of work is a man!
And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
~ William Shakespeare in Hamlet’s monologue 

God –
the God who made the dust,
who made the stars,
who made the elements of which we are composed –
that same God chooses from the beginning to make his dwelling among us,

to live for all time like us,
as a servant of the soil.
I am the dust of the earth,
but God declares that he is not too good,
not too proud,
for my dustiness.
~Daniel Stulac from
 Plough Quarterly No. 4: Earth

What I know for sure is this:
We come from mystery and we return to mystery.
I arrived here with no bad memories of wherever I’d come from,
so I have no good reason to fear the place to which I’ll return.
And I know this, too:

Standing closer to the reality of death awakens my awe at the gift of life.
~Parker Palmer “On the Brink of Everything

This dust left of man:
earth, air, water and fire
prove inadequate
to quell the significance
of how, in the beginning,
this dust became us, and
how, forevermore,
this is the dust we leave behind.

Only now,
the transcendent hope
of eternal life restored by faith
can breathe glory
into us,
the plainest of ash.

All this pain
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change, at all
All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found?
Could a garden come out from this ground, at all?

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of usAll around,
Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found, in you

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us
Oh, you make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

You make me new,
You are making me new
You make me new,
You are making me new
(Making me new)

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us
Oh, you make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

You make me new,
You are making me new
You make me new,
You are making me new

Songwriters: Lisa Gungor / Michael Gungor

Like Right Now

It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.


Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out––no guarantees
in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.
~William Stafford “Yes”
from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems

Of course there are no guarantees — no matter how selfless we are, how devout our practices, how righteous we appear in others’ eyes.

The natural disaster still happens, the illness progresses, the unexpected still happens because there is no warranty on how things must go while we’re here.

What is guaranteed is our vision of God’s glory as portrayed through His infinite sacrifice, His infinite worth, His infinite value, His infinite presence and transcendence. We glorify him through our enjoyment of Him — right now, right here — the bonus of another morning, another noon, another evening. It is bonus, not anything we are owed.

Guaranteed glorious. Unlimited warranty.

When August Burns Low

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Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

Remit as yet no Grace
No Furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now 
~Emily Dickinson

 

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“…one of the great poems of American literature. The statement of the poem is profound; it remarks the absolute separation between man and nature at a precise moment in time.  The poet looks as far as she can into the natural world, but what she sees at last is her isolation from that world.  She perceives, that is, the limits of her own perception. But that, we reason, is enough. This poem of just more than sixty words comprehends the human condition in relation to the universe:

So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

But this is a divine loneliness, the loneliness of a species evolved far beyond all others. The poem bespeaks a state of grace. In its precision, perception and eloquence it establishes the place of words within that state.  Words are indivisible with the highest realization of human being.”
~N. Scott Momaday from The Man Made of Words

 

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On the first day I took his class on Native American Mythology and Lore in 1974 at Stanford, N.Scott Momaday strolled to the front, wrote the 60 words of this Dickinson poem on the blackboard.  He told us we would spend at least a week working out the meaning of what he considered the greatest poem written — this in a class devoted to Native American writing and oral tradition.  In his resonant bass, he read the poem to us many times, rolling the words around his mouth as if to extract their sweetness. This man of the plains, a member of the Kiowa tribe, loved this poem put together by a New England recluse poet — someone as culturally distant from him and his people as possible.

But grace works to unite us, no matter our differences, and Scott knew this as he led us, mostly white students, through this poem.  What on the surface appears a paean to late summer cricket song doomed to extinction by oncoming winter, is a statement of the transcendence of man beyond our understanding of nature and the world in which we, its creatures, find ourselves.

As summer begins its descent into the dark death of winter, we, unlike the crickets, become all too aware we too are descending, particularly when the skies are filled with smoke from uncontrolled wildfires in the north, the east and the south.  There is no one as lonely as an individual facing their mortality and no one as lonely as a poet facing the empty page, in search of words to describe the sacrament of sacrifice and perishing.

Yet the Word brings Grace unlike any other, even when the cricket song, pathetic and transient as it is, is gone.  The Word brings Grace, like no other, to pathetic and transient man who will emerge transformed.

There is no furrow on the glow.  There is no need to plow and seed our salvaged souls, already lovingly planted and nurtured by our Creator God, yielding a fruited plain.

 

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To Win the Sky

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The tree is more than first a seed,
then a stem,
then a living trunk,
and then dead timber.
The tree is a slow,
enduring force
straining to win the sky.
~Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Wisdom of the Sands

And so should we be
so much more than mere life cycle:
we are infinite variety
and fascinating diversity,
clothed in finery
yet naked and vulnerable,
we lift burdens in our arms
and harbor the frail,
dig our roots deep
and hold fast,
shade those overcome,
and sing in the breeze.
Most of all
we aim high,
to touch a sky
beyond our grasp.

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Lenten Grace — Quintessence of Dust

photo by Josh Scholten
photo by Josh Scholten

What a piece of work is a man!
And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
~ William Shakespeare in Hamlet’s monologue 

This dust left of man:
earth, air, water and fire
prove inadequate
to quell its significance.

Only the transcendent hope
of eternal life restored
can breathe glory
into the plainest of ash.

We therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ;
who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body…
Committal service from The Common Book of Prayer

Breaking Through Rocks

“The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks.”
Tennessee Williams in “Camino Real”
These words became his epitaph

Some beginnings in this life commence on inhospitable ground: no soil, no protection, barely enough water.  Just a crack in the pavement, relentless heat and the drive to thrive.

Such delicate beauty can come from nothing but a seed packed with the potential to transform its circumstances.  A gentle transcendence has the power to break through rocks and change the world.

Forever.