Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Beloved Dust

Not long ago, I reconnected briefly with a friend from my Education for Ministry mentoring days: Fr. Robert Davis Hughes, III, who has taught theology at the University of the South, Sewanee, TN, since 1977. Years ago, I was privileged to have been part of a group for which Bob gave a stimulating workshop on the various stages of spiritual development, one in which he introduced us to some impressively creative ideas. My reason for reconnecting with him was the fact that I'd finally got around to reading his excellent book, Beloved Dust: Tides of the Spirit in the Christian Life (Continuum, 2008), and wanted to thank him for it. It's rich fare for anyone who feels willing to plough through a 400-page work with rather small print. I could hardly put it down. It seemed appropriate, therefore, on this day when we a lot about "dust", to share at least a few gems from Bob's fine book which I heartily recommend.

In his chapter entitled "Dust" (Part I, Chapter 4), Hughes writes: "It is time to admit…we are all dust, flesh and blood; time to sweep out the occult and the esoteric and ask what it might be for a self-conscious bag of dust and water to have something called a spiritual life." (p. 55)  He goes on to describe the human being as animated dust, spirited dust, estranged dust and redeemed dust. 

The proper subject of spiritual theology, according to Hughes, "…is the movement of the Holy Spirit in the divine economy in her mission, which has a Trinitarian rhythm to it: first, the Spirit in her hovering, firing, and resting aids the Fount in creation and covenant; then engages with the Word/Wisdom in a complex pas de deux (actually de trois) around all the mysteries of the incarnation…and then works with the other two of the Trinity to fulfill her own proper mission of the final sacramental consecration of the universal pleroma…" Hughes calls his contribution to all of this his "experiment at reinterpreting the classic Trinitarian rhythm of the spiritual life as resonances in us of the Trinitarian structure of the Spirit's mission, as if three resulting concurrent tidal currents [conversion, transfiguration, glory] were breaking on a human shore, understood in the fullness of its own complexity, but in a thoroughly material manner, as dust. The miracle is that the dust finds itself unexpectedly beloved, with a precious and costly love." (p. 370)

The Litany of Penance in the Ash Wednesday liturgy is a moving experience for me each year, and was so again this morning, because it helps us to recognize, in quite vivid terms, the fact that we're "dust", but that we're also "beloved dust". Our propensity to lose sight of that so often is, I believe, ultimately the cause of our human sadness and discouragement. In the words of the Litany: "We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us. We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved your Holy Spirit. Have mercy on us, Lord." The concluding words of the celebrant reassure us that, despite all that, God understands, that God holds out to us the real hope of never-ending life and love. 

I suspect that the 40 days of Lent are at least enough for us during which to begin to ponder these realities as they apply to us personally.

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