Many years ago this winter, I published my first novel. That was a proud day for me. I had a sense of maybe having achieved something of lasting significance. The novel sold reasonably well, made it into a second and third reprinting, and was even brought out again in mass-market paperback. But three or four years after it first came out, my publisher told me the novel was going out of print. There were a few thousand copies left over, and the publisher would either destroy them or send them to me for the cost of shipping.
Of course, I couldn’t bear to see my babies slaughtered like that, so I sprung for the shipping cost and my brother offered to store them in the hayloft of his barn in Oregon. As President Bush used to say, leave no child behind.
Like the rich man in the parable, I had my harvest stored in a barn. Every summer, I visited my brother in Oregon, sometimes taking a box of books home with me. As summer followed summer, however, I noticed my treasure was showing some signs of wear and tear.
It rains a lot in Oregon, and water had come through a leak in the roof and soaked some of the boxes through. Other boxes had holes chewed through the corners by mice, which also liked to digest the books themselves. The occasional box was torn open by someone curious to take a copy, which was fine with me, but the rest of the books in the open box were left to collect dust and hay and pigeon droppings. Now, after years of careful storage, my literary legacy to the world doesn’t look like much. Last I heard, my brother was using the last of the pulpy remnants to fire up his woodstove.
In the Renaissance they called this the problem of decay, the decay not only of our possessions but inevitably of our own lives. Shakespeare offers three solutions to this problem in his Sonnets. The first and most natural solution is to beget children who will survive us—children who will carry on some part of us when we are gone. But it doesn’t always work that way. Just ask the parents who are bitterly grieving the loss of their children to illness, accident, or terror. As Shakespeare puts it in his play Cymbeline, “Golden lads and girls all must, / As chimney sweepers, come to dust.”
The second way to solve the problem of decay, according to Shakespeare, is to be immortalized in a poem. For good literature lasts forever: “Not marble nor the gilded monuments / Of princes shall outlive this pow’rful rhyme.” And that may work for Shakespeare to some extent, but as we have seen, it doesn’t seem to be working for me. Shakespeare’s third way to solve the problem of decay is probably the best way. It is to take part in a love that is bigger than we are—the kind of love that “alters not,” that “bears it out even to the edge of doom”—a kind of love that can only be described as divine love.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus also describes for us the nagging problem of decay:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Matt 6:19–20, RSV)
It seems to me that Jesus’ solution might be the same as Shakespeare’s last one. To store up treasures in heaven is perhaps to devote ourselves to giving and receiving the unspeakable riches of God’s love. Anything less is dust and ashes. Anything less is a rotting barnful of books. Heaven and earth will pass away, but the saving love of our Lord is forever.
Jesus is reminding us that our many immortality projects never succeed in making us very immortal. They only succeed in making us feel motheaten, rusty, and ultimately ripped off. Ash Wednesday, with its visible sign of dust and ashes on our foreheads, is a forcible reminder of our own frailty and mortality and sinfulness. We don’t like to remember those parts of ourselves, but on this day, it is literally rubbed onto us. Scholars and monks in the middle ages would sometimes keep a human skull on their shelves to remind themselves of the brevity of this our life. A skull kept for this purpose was called a memento mori, which is Latin for “remember to die.” Remembering the end of all flesh, these monks and scholars could better hold this world in contempt and strive to devote themselves to the eternal love of God.
The mark of ash rubbed onto our foreheads can likewise serve as our own memento mori. But for us the mark is made in the shape of a cross. Thus it is not only a reminder of our own deaths but also a reminder of the death of one who suffered agony in our place, the one who loved us and gave himself for us, the one who died that we might live, that we might have treasures in heaven. And we celebrate, too, in the treasure of his flesh and his blood, the bread and the wine, the riches of his love for us.
Because of this miracle of his love, we can look on the ghastly skull of our own decay and say with the poet George Herbert:
Death, thou wast once an uncouth, hideous thing
Nothing but bones,
The sad effect of sadder groans:
Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing
But since our Saviour’s death did put some blood
Into thy face;
Thou art grown fair and full of grace,
Much in request, much sought for as a good.
For we do now behold thee gay and glad,
As at doomsday;
When souls shall wear their new array,
And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad.
And when I read these lines by Herbert it seems to me that we ourselves, one with another, redeemed by the blood of Jesus, will be our own treasure in heaven.
Paul J. Willis is a professor of English at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. His most recent collection of prose is To Build a Trail: Essays on Curiosity, Love & Wonder. Learn more at pauljwillis.com.
This essay was originally titled “A Meditation on Ash Wednesday” and published in To Build a Trail: Essays on Curiosity, Love & Wonder (WordFarm, 2018). Copyright © 2018 by Paul J. Willis. Used with permission from WordFarm.