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Dust to Dust

In preparation for Lent, as I try to finalize writing my dissertation, I have been trying to centre myself in silence. I have gone off…

In preparation for Lent, as I try to finalize writing my dissertation, I have been trying to centre myself in silence. I have gone off of social media, at least during the week, for the time period. I try to spend less time obsessing over the news from Nigeria. The morning of Ash Wednesday, however, I wake and hear a feature on Boko Haram—finally—on American national public radio. They mention an attack on a wedding in Maiduguri. When I check the news later, I read of another bomb at a football viewing centre, attacks on the towns of Mainok and Mafa in Borno. Human Rights Watch places the death to Boko Haram violence at 600 in 2014 alone.
I feel numb. There is a limit to which human emotions can go, besieged with news week after week, day after day. And yet suddenly I am weeping, audible gasps, my shoulders heaving, nose stinging, hot tears that leave itchy salt trails when they dry on my cheeks. This has been happening a lot lately, this bursting into tears. I’ve found myself in my solitary library carrel, like a monk’s cell with books all around me, silently sobbing. On a bus pressed up against other people as the bus grinds over snow, tears trembling in my eyes, head aching from suppressed spasms.
There is a certain guilt in these tears. I have not lost anyone I am close to in this crisis, although sometimes it does feel like the country I love, Nigeria, is crumbling under these attacks. I am writing from the outside now. One does not want to mourn louder than the bereaved.
And yet I find myself fascinated by these tears as well, in the way the body internalizes grief. When the mind can no longer process it, the body itself responds to the news.
I think of different bodies, both physical and metaphoric. There is the physical body of each human being, marked by sorrows tears and blood, as Fela puts it—then there are these larger metaphoric bodies built from the bodies of ordinary people. Nigeria feels to me like a person that I am mourning. A person who has been bit in the foot by a snake. The poison enters the foot and it gradually spreads through the body. It is the foot that is punctured by the snake’s fangs, it is the foot that bleeds, but the poison also affects the hands and the heart and the head.
Then there are the larger metaphysical bodies of faith, the Muslim ummah, the Christian church, both of whom have suffered massive losses in these attacks. In the spiritual world of faith, there is room for hope. Both communities believe that if justice is not done in this life that it will be done in the next. This, however, does not absolve us of effort in this life. Inherent in our periods of azumi, fasting, Ramadan and Lent, there is an idea that by taxing our physical bodies we both cleanse and centre ourselves and that we somehow build up the larger metaphysical body of believers. I cannot speak for Muslims, but let me speak from my understanding of Christianity.
The mystical Anglican theologian Charles Williams, who was a part of the literary group the “Inklings” along with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, writes in his 1941 essay, “The Way of Exchange” that the Christian idea of our “duty towards our neighbor” was “expressed in the phrase ‘bear ye one another’s burdens’. It encouraged, indeed it demanded, a continual attention to the needs of one’s neighbor, to his distresses and his delights. And it defined ‘neighbour’ as meaning anyone with whom one was, by holy Luck, brought into contact. It required, then, an active ‘sympathy’, and it spoke of something still higher, of an active and non-selfish love. It went even farther. It declared a union of existences. It proclaimed that our own lives depended on the lives of our neighbours. St. Anthony of Egypt laid down the doctrine in so many words: ‘Your life and your death are with your neighbor’” (124).
Williams quotes the Egyptian monk Thebaid as recording the words of an old man: “’It is right for a man to take up the burden for those who are akin (or near) to him, whatsoever it may be, and, so to speak, to put his own soul in the place of that of his neighbor […] and he must suffer, and weep, and mourn with him, and finally the matter must be accounted by him as if he himself had put on the actual body of his neighbor, and as if he had acquired his countenance and soul, and he must suffer for him as he would for himself” (127).
Williams continues this idea of humans sharing the same body, “we ought to be ‘members of one another’—membra, limbs, not members of the same society.” He suggests that humans can help relieve their friends of extra burdens by agreeing to bear it by act of substitution. This sort of burden-bearing is inherent in our humanity. Williams points out that “Our natural life begins by being borne in another; our mothers have to carry us. This is not (so far as we know) by our own will. The Christian church demands that we shall carry out that principle everywhere by our will—with our friends and with our neighbours, whether we like our neighbours or not.”
More recently Pope Francis, in his book Evangelii Gaudium released on the Vatican website, warns against individualism, commenting that “No one is saved by himself or herself, individually, or by his or her own efforts. God attracts us by taking into account the complex interweaving of personal relationships entailed in the life of a human community” (91). These relationships involve not merely prayer but also action. “An authentic faith—which is never comfortable or completely personal—always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it. We love this magnificent plenty on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters” (145).
This organic connection of human beings is what I think of as I begin my Lenten reflections. On Ash Wednesday, I meditate on the embodied nature of grief , the physical act of having ourselves marked with ashes, the physical act of fasting. It is as if the church body, this global community of faith, in this season takes on itself the burdens of the world—these “groans that words cannot express.” May God use the prayers of his people to grant relief to those who suffer the most.
The church on campus was crammed full on Wednesday evening, There were so many students that when the pews filled they sat on the stairs. As I sat in the balcony looking out over the sea of faces, turned towards the cross at the centre, I felt like a part of a larger pattern, of which I could see only a small piece. There were so many bodies in the tight space, that as I processed towards the centre of the church, I felt hot for the first time in months. The priest marked my forehead with a cross of ashes, speaking so low, it was almost a whisper, “Remember, you came from dust and to dust you will return.”
We spilled out into the cold night again then, the smudge of ashes on our forehead, linking us and reminding us of our membership in a fleeting humanity.

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