Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return. Not.

Today is Ash Wednesday.

Today many churches, especially those higher up the candle – the Catholic end of things – will have held ashing services to mark the beginning of Lent.

I went unexpectedly to an ashing service about twelve years ago.  My companions at the time had planned that we all should go and, as the occasion of our togetherness was a professional commitment, the flow of the river took me there too.  I didn’t mind.  I felt curious, intrigued, never having been to an ashing service.

I don’t remember much about it – the main structure of the ceremony was an Anglican eucharist I think.  What I do remember vividly was the moment that makes an ashing service what it is – kneeling at the altar to receive on my brow the smudge of ashes signing the cross on my brow, accompanied by the pronouncement of the priest: “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.”

Avert!” my soul cried: “Avert! Avert! Thou shalt not pass!

For it is not true.

There is a wonderful moment in the Chronicles of Narnia when Eustace Scrubb meets a Star.  Looking at the shining being standing proudly armed and carrying a spear, Eustace observes: “In our world a star is a ball of flaming gases!”

And the Star responds: “Even in your world my son, that is not what a star is, but only what a star is made of.”

And so it is with human beings and dust.

God, in the Genesis story of creation, gives the man he has created from the dust of the earth the name “Adam”, and this is a play on words.  It is like the Hebrew word for “earth” (adama), and so could be understood to signify “earthy” or “earthling”.  It speaks of the substance from which Adam is formed, and says something of our origin, where our roots are.

“Eve” means “life”.  A good pair – Earthy and Life – a good summary of what we are made to be.

But there’s more to it than that (I’m sure you remember the story).

The form God fashions from the dust of the earth is lifeless.  It is not yet Adam.  Into that inert shape God breathes – a little puff, the story says; a puff of God’s breath.

In Hebrew the word for breath (ruach) is also the word for wind, and for spirit.  It is used interchangeably.  So “the breath of God” in Hebrew is indistinguishable from “the spirit of God”.  The Holy Spirit is the Breath of God.

That little puff God stoops and breathes into Adam infuses Adam with Life itself.  It is when God breathes into him that he becomes a nephesh – a living being.

So the beautiful truth of this story, the word of life to me, is that a nephesh (which is any living being, not just a human – in the Bible an animal is also a nephesh) is created from two components: the dust of the earth from which it is formed, and the Breath of God, the Holy Spirit, which is its life.

When the priest thumbs the ash onto my forehead saying “Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return”, this is a word of death; it is not true.

Only the form we see comes to an end, its dust metamorphasised into some other life form.  The dust returns to the earth – but the Breath of God returns to God:
“. . . when thou takest away their breath, they die, and are turned again to their dust.   When thou lettest thy breath go forth, they shall be made; and thou shalt renew the face of the earth.” (Ps 104, 1928 BCP)

I am formed from stardust, from the dust of this beautiful Earth; and when I die, the Earth will have her dust again and this form by which you knew me will be lost.  But that is not my life.  What made me a nephesh, a living being, is the Breath of God – that is my life, my anima, my spirit, my soul.  That is the I Am in me.

I will not have this curse laid upon me, “Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return”, for it is not true.  Dust is not my “I Am”; even in this world that is not what a living being is, but only what it is made of.  My “I Am” is the Holy Spirit, the Breath of God.

Spirit I Am, and to Spirit I shall return.  And this I witness in the name of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Parvo et humilis

Reading the excellent, comprehensive, astonishingly informative Macrobiotics for Dummies last night, I came across a phrase I didn’t know: ‘Vivre parvo’.  

Parvo (Latin) means ‘small’ and vivre (French) means ‘to live’.  They have it down as a Latin phrase, in which case I think they might have lost an ‘e’ somewhere, and meant to say vivere parvo.  Though I think it should be vivere parva.  So a bit of a mongrel phrase, really!  They translate it ‘Take the minimum required’, saying that to achieve maximum health you should not ever pig out, but eat only what your body needs for nourishment in the context of your personal lifestyle.  As a guide, take the capacity of your stomach (same as a heaped amount in your two cupped hands) and eat no more than that (you can have less!)  Frugal feeding.  Sounds like wisdom to me.

Anyway, for some reason, the word parvo wanted to team up in my mind with the word humilis, and tagged itself to the song Panis Angelicus.  A little digging around turned up that the phrase I was thinking of in Panis Angelicus is in fact servus et humilis, more fully pauper servus et humilis – ‘poor and humble servant’ being the most usual translation.   Interestingly, both pauper and servus can be either adjective or noun, so I’m not sure if it really means ‘poor and humble servant’ or ‘a poor person of lowly servant status’ (which clearly would be too clunky a translation to serve up).

So having scratched around in this dust of ages for a while, I came back to the phrase that had formed in my mind, parvo et humilis, which had apparently turned up by itself then, and means ‘small and lowly’.  Humilis is a great word (where ‘humble’ and ‘humility’ come from – as well as ‘bumble-bee’, which used to be ‘humble-bee’ did you know?)  It comes from the same source as humus - earth, compost, so implies substance of earth, close to the earth, dusty, bumping along the bottom - all that.

And I thought that as well as vivre parvo (I’m worried about that phrase now – what language does it think it is?) being good practice for healthy eating, parvo et humilis is what I want to be: small, insignificant, close to the earth, of no account.

Unsurprisingly like most people I have wild ambitions to be rich, famous and  enormously important too, but that’s just the gibbering ego, the froth on the wave.

Parvo et humilis is what I want to be.  Now what I really need is Julia Bolton Holloway to check my Latin!  


Thank you for checking my Latin, Julia!  The phrase I need, Julia says, is parvula et humilis.  Thank you!

Oh, but wait!

Julia says: "Parvo would be something that's small, Parvula would be a little girl, the dictionary being for, belonging to, Parvulorum, little boys studying with the Carmelite hermit in Lynne.  
Latin has three genders, feminine, masculine, neuter."  

And Julia gives a link to the relevant place on her website, here.

I am so grateful.  I think it is 'parvo' I want - something small - rather than 'a little girl'.  What I am looking for is a small unremarkable object, a thing of no account - that kind of parvo. 

Monday, 4 February 2013

Mathew's year in his van

Hey friends, look at this!

Mathew in Canada has resolved to live for a year in his van, mostly parked in an alleyway I think.

Intriguing.  Nice man.

I've added it to the list in the sidebar of  'People who live without money or very simply.'

Here he is in his van: