Question One: What more did I think I wanted?
We don’t think of Ash Wednesday as a time to reflect on happiness. Isn’t it about sackcloth and guilt? But Ash Wednesday is set apart simply as a day to ponder this one fact: We came from dust, and we return to dust. When we accept this fact, we are ready for happiness. Sound crazy? Try to think of one person who’s had a near-death experience and comes back glum or depressed. They all come back radiant, on fire, because they know about the dust.
Listen to the poet, deeply troubled, taking a prayer-walk through the woods:
Again I resume the long lesson:
how small a thing can be pleasing,
how little in this hard world it takes
to satisfy the mind and bring it to its rest.
Within the ongoing havoc
the woods this morning is almost unnaturally still.
Through stalled air, unshadowed light,
a few leaves fall of their own weight.
The sky is gray.
It begins in mist almost at the ground
and rises forever.
The trees rise in silence
almost natural, but not quite,
almost eternal, but not quite.
What more did I think I wanted?
Here is what has always been.
Here is what will always be.
Even in me,
the Maker of all this returns in rest,
even to the slightest of His works,
a yellow leaf slowly falling,
and is pleased.
– Wendell Berry (from 1999, part VII)
“In the midst of the havoc”—the chaos we all live—the poet is walking the woods, and the mist and the rising trees transport him to a place of deep knowing. “Here is what has always been. Here is what will always be.” In that flash of insight he asks, “What more did I think I wanted?” At peak moments like this, when for a brilliant instant we see what’s real and true, what lasts forever, we all wonder—smacking our foreheads—What more did I think I wanted?
What more? I’ll tell you what more. I wanted to run fast enough to escape my childhood past. I wanted to be more important. After all those fights from twenty and thirty years ago, I wanted to be vindicated. I wanted to live forever.
The yellow leaf falls into the humus and disintegrates as ash, and everything we need is here, has always been here.
Question for Today:
“What more did I think I wanted?”
I shared some of what’s on my list—the “more” I thought I needed to be happy. What is on yours?
Question #2 “What is sin, really?” comes Sunday February 26th