Lent Begins

crucifixion from Anchor Commentary on MarkDear Friends of Kenilworth Union Church,

If I were banished to a desert island with a single book, I might take a novel by Peter DeVries, the funniest author in American history and one of my heroes. And also a Chicagoan, by the way.

I’ll tell you more about him someday, but for now, I just want to share one of his inimitable puns: “Like the cleaning lady,” says one of his clever protagonists, “we all come to dust.”

The pun is not one of the higher art forms, but this one is actually quite profound, not to mention existential. The most pious and observant among you will know why I’m bringing this up on Ash Wednesday: dust is what Ash Wednesday is all about.

If you come to Church this evening at 7:30 p.m.—as you surely will, right?—you will witness one of the strangest and perhaps grimmest of Christendom’s rituals. The ministers will make the sign of the cross with a smudge of ash on the foreheads of hundreds of the devout—well, maybe scores; OK, 12 or 13 at least—and declare these words: “Jo, Katie, Bill, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

We do this on the first day of Lent every year because it is important to know ourselves and to keep our sometimes inflated egos in proper perspective. “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” we say when we return our loved ones to the ground from whence they came.

We need to know where we came from in the beginning, where we will return to at the end, and what we are made of all the days between. No pun intended—well, I guess this pun is intended—but the dust and ashes of Ash Wednesday help to ‘ground’ us, to keep us anchored to the earth rather than careening around the room like an escaped balloon.

At a recent Faith and Leadership event, Jo’s friend Tom Tropp, Vice-President for Corporate Ethics and Sustainability at Arthur J. Gallagher and Co., said that the single most important virtue which makes a leader great is humility. Not intelligence, not charm, not imagination, not hard work, but humility.

If you are going to lead people—in business, at school, in church, or in politics—you need to keep yourself in check and, as St. Paul puts it in his little letter to the Philippians, “consider others as better than yourselves.”

‘Humility’ is not what I expected Mr. Tropp to say, because, I guess, humility is not the first thing you notice among the skilled, self-confident, ambitious folk who rise like eagles to the apex of our human organizations—in business, academia, religion, or statecraft.

But the more I thought about great leaders in my own life and experience, the more I found myself agreeing with Tom.

Ash Wednesday is the perfect day to start a 40-day reflection on the virtue of humility. As you know, the English words ‘humble,’ ‘humility,’ and ‘exhume’ all derive from the Latin humus–dirt, ground, earth. The name of the first human—‘Adam’–comes from the Hebrew Adamah–earthling, groundling, dustling, ashling.

If you feel a little unanchored just now and need to be ‘grounded,’ this is the place to be on Dust Wednesday.

–William A. Evertsberg