Remember, Man, You Are Dust

“We are called to take part in the Resurrection of Christ. For this appeal to resound within us with all its force ... let us realize what death means: ‘You are dust.’” —Pope St. John Paul II

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.” 

The Soldier, Rupert Brooke (d. 1918)


This week, during which we mark Veterans’ Day and the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, this classic poem by Brooke comes especially to mind. It’s not only a heartfelt reflection on the nature of the sacrifice soldiers make in defense of their country but an important lesson in the “theology of the body” as well.

Brooke’s reflections about a soldier in World War I are not aimed toward teaching us about the meaning of the person. And yet his poem has always evoked in me an idea that dominates my imagination when it comes to our bodies and especially our relationship to the earth: the human body is of the earth, and because we are embodied, we can claim affinity with the soil beneath us.

Brooke continues in his poem to say that, if he were to die and be buried elsewhere than England, he says:

                                             “There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed; 
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, 
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam, 
A body of England’s, breathing English air, 
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.” 

The “richer dust” here is Brooke’s own body, a body shaped and made by English soil. His body, like every human body, is marked with the sign of the soil, the earth from which the body is formed. We’re so used to speaking of our human dignity in terms of our immortal soul that we can sometimes forget the other half of the equation. We can forget that the human soul belongs to a human body, a body that comes from the soil. Ensouled soil; soiled souls. 

Pope Francis’ call to an ecological conversion and the importance of developing an “integral ecology” is a witness to this bond with the earth. People in rural communities know this instinctively. Their rhythms of life are ordered by the temperaments of the seasons. Fall’s swiftly changing moods give way to Winter’s quiet. Spring gets poised for a comeback – though not for a while. The farmer partners with the earth in hopes of a profitable yield; a cooperative is formed; and the fruits are coaxed from the silent strength that is nature. Bent with the shape of labor, the farmer bears in his body the signs of his commitments. The earth shapes him as he shapes the earth. 

All of us may not be not farmers, but the lesson is the same: we are all yoked to the soil, because we are, as human beings, spiritual creatures of soil, creatures for whom the earth has “bore, shaped, made aware — gave, once her flowers to love, her ways to roam…”

Because we all share this common heritage of the earth, all of us are bound to the soil in some manner or other. Whether we till the soil directly or live off the labor of those who do, everyone — each one — reveals the dust from which he or she came. Created by God and destined for eternity, the human person, nonetheless, is of the earth. To till it and to keep it is part of our promise to God and each other. 

Integral ecology demands a style of living that gives witness to this reality. The next time you walk a field, till the earth, keep a garden or simply admire a well-kept patch of land, you may want to think about the present generations that depend upon it, the future generations that will come from it. Or, in keeping with the spirit of Veterans’ Day, remember those who have yielded their bodies, their “richer dust,” protecting it.

Yes, as Catholics we know by faith that our destiny lies elsewhere, but our legacy begins and is built here, on this earth, of this earth. And our care of the earth and its resources is an extension of our care for one another, those who are willed into being by God to come from the soil and at the appointed time are laid to rest in it.

Brooke himself died en route to battle and never surrendered his life in combat directly, but the theme is nonetheless pertinent: to die is to return one’s body back to the earth. 

Liturgically, November begins with the celebration of the victory all heroes, especially the saints, and follows with a day of prayers for the dead — those who must continue on their path to redemption through purgation. We pray for the repose of their souls, yet eagerly anticipate that day, when all is said and done, each one will receive a glorious body — a new earth. 

In this meantime, we work toward a truly integral ecology – an ecology of life, and that attitude of stewardship that recognizes the importance of the earth, its resources, and the destiny of the person, each one richer dust.