Some Dust Still Walks
Many years ago I stayed at New Melleray Abbey (near Dubuque) for a week under their "monastic associates" program where I sang in the choir wearing a brown robe, worked in the garden, ate in the refectory, and had lots of time for reading, devotions, and reflection. Since that time I have returned to the Abbey many times to join in worship (no longer as part of the choir), do some reading, pray, and reflect. The community at Iona Abbey (the ecumenical community on a small Scottish Island) is not cloistered but follows some of the same Benedictine principals of worship and work (work and worship being one) that the community here at New Melleray does. I have renewed and deeper respect for ancient rituals that help us connect our bodies and emotions with what we believe. Even being on sabbatical already, I drove so many hours last week that I didn't have much time for rest or reflection - so I took a two-day retreat. In the early 1960's there were something like 140 monks and they had a thriving lumber business, but now there are about 30 monks - which is part of the reason the monks got so good at building caskets (many of them were dying). Monks and local artisans build caskets and cremains boxes out of wood grown mainly on the monastery's woodlands and market them all over the country. Some very dear friends of ours are buried in Trappist caskets. In the casket showroom is the painting of the angel at Jesus's empty grave; the artist takes license to have the angel be female (Biblical angels are generally male messengers) and the grave to be a large ossuary box (rather than a shelf in a cave-like vault). Still, it's a beautiful painting. Buried not a mile down the road are some Slatterys - probably relatives of my great grandpa on my Grandma McKinstry's side of the family. Greatgrandpa Slattery came straight from Ireland to Dubuque, married a German immigrant, and homesteaded near Bernard, Iowa - just a few miles from the Abbey. He's buried at Bellvue, IA (just south of DuBuque) in a Roman Catholic Cemetery.
An old rock song says "all we are is dust in the wind" but modern science tells us that our dust is the stardust from stars formed at the beginning or creation. So very close are we to the Creator that this dust is able to contemplate its meaning and purpose and even to glimpse (by the grace of God) the Creator. The derivation of the word for the first human in the Bible- "Adam"- is from the word for dirt, "adamah," but we are all also made in the image of God - capable of love. We are living in a time of great transition when large parts of the church cling to "flat Earth" science and corresponding "flat Earth" theologies that modern people increasingly reject, often falsely thinking that there are no understandings of the Christian faith that offer both deep spirituality and respect for God's gift of rational intelligence. We offer faith which knows we are mere dust and in our humility can never comprehend ultimate truth, so that our understandings must change over time. As the saying in the United Church of Christ media campaign says, "God is still speaking." Soon enough our bodies will be dust and perhaps some descendants of ours will get their shoes soaking wet by walking through a cemetery early in the morning looking for some evidence we once walked the earth. While we live may we give passionate and reasoned witness to the God we know and love.