To dust you will return

‘Remember you are dust and to dust you will return’. 

I’ve been thinking about these words a lot over the last week – it’s what they say at the Ash Wednesday Service at the start of Lent as they smear a cross of black ash on your forehead (and then I wonder why people are giving me funny looks as I walk through the city centre only to be reminded as I glance in the mirror when I get home).

The physicist Brian Cox explored a similar theme in his eye watering series The Wonders of the Universe  this Sunday. The proximity to Ash Wednesday was, I’m sure, coincidental but the resonances were startling as he explained how every atom in our bodies, every atom in the universe, was formed in the heart of burning and dying stars. Their detritus is flung across space by supernova explosions burning, momentarily, billions of times brighter than our sun. I’ve known this for years, but every time I hear it again my jaw drops in wonder as if hearing it for the first time.

And just as we are formed from the dust of dying stars so to dust we will return as our sun, in billions of years time, expands to a red giant, swallowing Mercury and Venus until it fills Earth’s horizon, boiling our world dry and searing it with fire. Everything is temporary; the pyramids will one day return to the desert, the mountains will one day fall into the sea and the earth will one day be swallowed up as a cinder.

I wonder if this is depressing or awe-inspiring to you. The more I think about it the more I see the beauty in the transient. If someone asks me whether there is anything beyond death I say I don’t know, but more than that, I don’t really care – does the searing pain of grief and loss go away if we persuade ourselves that there is?

Life does not lose its meaning if it doesn’t last for ever, just as a film or a novel doesn’t lose its power because it ends. In many ways its meaning becomes more intense, more beautiful – life blazing so brightly for a moment and then the silence of dust.

As I look towards gathering up the children of clay I know that some have already vanished and some have turned to dust. But they were never made to last for ever and therein lies their beauty.

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Details of opening times for the wilderness exhibition, of which this work will be a part, are now available at www.wilderness-exhibition.com.

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