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Unmasking God: Revealing God in the ordinary

16 August, 2011

 This is a book of reflections where the author puts us in touch with the beauty of relationship with God through the events and experiences of everyday life. Passing through the seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter, he wants us to get the big picture, to be in touch with our best selves and not to get bogged down in knocking ourselves. Thomas Aquinas, he tells us, puts the question whether, as a rule we act out of our anima magna or our anima pusila. “The one is the option for what is generous, tending towards overlooking, letting go. The other is the habit of meanness, tending toward what is closed, negative and judgmental.” This book is geared to putting you in touch with your anima magna, while keeping us aware that we also have an anima pusila. And we grow by choice.

Daniel O’Leary is a priest, author and teacher who has a gift for communicating ‘the dearest freshness deep down things’. born in Co Kerry and ordained at All Hallows College, Dublin, he was head of Religious Studies at St Mary’s University College, London and episcopal vicar in the diocese of Leeds. His website www.djoleary.com gives a good idea of his work, most of it spent conducting conferences and retreats in the UK and Ireland. He has been a regular contributor to the English Catholic weekly The Tablet.  



Waiting for the ambush
Lent is often characterised as a time of self-denial for Christians, but this is not the whole story. It can be a time of extraordinary richness in which we are able to discover the limitless power of God’s love.

What’s it to be?
Magnanimous or pusillanimous, the right option seems self-evident. But in life’s moments of great decision the way of choice is rarely so easy or obvious.

Gold in the dust
It’s hard to be good, and human beings are repeat offenders. Yet the ashes that mark foreheads on Ash Wednesday are a reminder not only of sin, and of the state to which we will return, but of the extraordinary paradoxes at the heart of the Christian faith.

Human touch of Easter
With Holy Week ahead of us, we should reflect on the full humanity of God, whose power, presence and promise can now and for all time come to us in a form and expression we can understand, and with whom we can be one.

Open your eyes
When we love someone, we draw out the beauty that is within them, our tenderness persuading their true loveliness to emerge. Similarly at Easter, falsehood melts away and things appear as they really are.

From man’s man to free man
A visit to a male prison revealed the damage that has been done to so many young men, some serving jail sentences, but most imprisoned in other ways. Yet the painful path to true liberation, through death to life, was also pointed out.

Divinely human
The explosive power of God lies in the radical nature of Jesus and his taking on of the three great sufferings of physical pain, the loss of his good name and a sense of ultimate abandonment. To deny his humanity is to deny salvation.

Find your own Calcutta
In preparing to commemorate the Resurrection, we should, rather than pursue a private line to God, be asking some very public questions about our personal life choices, such as what we buy, how we vote, how simply we live, our sense of solidarity with others.

A delight in company
For many parishioners, God remains a punitive figure, chalking up sins to be punished. Here, a parish priest describes how his rediscovery of a simpler theology of nature and grace, with God grounded in the ordinariness of people’s lives, transformed his mission.



Born to be wild
The impulse to ‘launch out into the deep’ is universal and insistent. But so is the fear and hesitation that so often prevents us from
responding to the call in the way Christ intended.

Windows of wonder
Contemplation is not a technique to be mastered but a journey inside ourselves to become one with what already is. When we do this and glimpse what is there, it takes our breath away.

Power of the real presence
It happened to the apostles at Pentecost. It can also happen to each and every one of us, but not through church mandate or spiritual exegesis. It is the inner authority we gain when through daily often painful honesty we recognise our own true soul and our own essence.

Mystery in a drop of wine
A moment at Charing Cross Tube station brings a brief revelation that, unlike between the train and the platform, there is no gap between the innate God of our hearts and the God of Jesus.

Home before dark
Advancing age is a time of looking back over the way people have come, and sorting the essence of a lifetime on earth. But it is also
a period of looking forward — to the homeland to which God calls the faithful to return.

Painful, slow redemption
Irish churchmen and women — and politicians too — should resist attempts at quick closure to the shocking revelations of criminal mental, physical and sexual abuse perpetrated on the country’s most vulnerable children. Rather, they should spend a lot of time of their knees.

Lost but for words
Jesus was not only the Son of  God, he was the Word of God made flesh. And in using words to express our love for others, we reflect his love for us.

Summer is the season of dreams
Many of its have felt the pull of something deep down inside ourselves, and also outside o f us, that we long for almost without knowing it, and that the world only lets us glimpse before it vanishes below the horizon.



The most difficult leap
It is said that only by completely  trusting at least one person can you be deemed psychologically healthy.  Similarly it is only through having complete faith in Christ, complete trust, rather than slavishly following the rules, that we will be saved.

Now and for ever more
The special graces that permeate childhood may appear lost to adults, but it is possible to believe that children glimpse a foretaste of the joys of heaven.

Miracles of hope
A trip to Knock is a reminder that some unlikely places act as repositories of memories or associations. In them, it seems possible to transcend even the darkest hours of life, and catch a glimpse of the ultimate destiny for which we were all created.

On not being good enough (15 Sept 07)
It is our fear-driven ego that makes us try too hard to give the impossible 110 per cent. How much better it is sometimes just to be
grounded in God.

Alternative healing
New Age spirituality has been condemned by a variety of voices in the church, but it would be wrong to reject its enthusiasts out of hand. Their spiritual longing, like that of many Christians, is to try their best to find the still centre at the universal heart of love.

Don’t forget to wake early
If we are in a state of depression, or prone to such states, it is at least partly our habits of thought that bring us there or keep us there. But, even on the dark winter mornings, it is possible to allow ourselves to emerge from the gloom.

Autumn song (13 Oct 07)
It is the mellow season, a time to reflect on those things that have grown, flourished and faded during the year, and, more importantly, those that remain with us — the fixed melodies of our life — to carry us through the cold of winter to the promise of spring.

Naturally blessed
Every blessing is a reminder of the original blessing — that of life itself. To administer one is to divine a wellspring of sacred presence, already secure, below the surface of everything — and in that lies the true meaning of Incarnation.

After many a summer
For us, as we now are, everything passes. In particular, we have to say goodbye at some point to those people we love most and those places to which we are most deeply attached. The emotions associated with this essential aspect of our humanity are deep and complex.



When the soul dances
Instead of being drugged and drained by relentless routine, we should sway to the present music of each new day and reconnect with the essence that we all share together.

Jump, son! Jump! (22 Nov 08)
The month of November lends itself to moods of apprehension, self-doubt and possibly despair. But there is a way through our fears – even the fear of death.

Everywhere and nowhere
It is communication that absorbs so much time in modern life. Periods of stillness are considered a luxury, yet those times of silent contemplation connect us with the earth and with God.

Paradox in a manger
It is all too easy to be seduced by the season. But Christmas is not about passive peace. It causes a restlessness, a disturbance to our complacency.

Shock waves of Bethlehem
It takes some doing to get our heads round the astonishing fact that God stole into our world in the same shape — that of a baby — in which we all started out. The simplicity of it all is almost too much for us. But then, extraordinary things happen in the most ordinary moments.

Light incarnate
A baby contains the mystery of the universe, consecrating all the day-to-day things that sustain us, while every Mass holds and celebrates the divinity of a million galaxies.

Safe haven for the lost
We are all wounded human beings, and the church is there to tell us that it is possible to start over again. But its message of the Saviour is not the preserve of the privileged, it is a beacon of love for all those struggling in the obscurity

Leap in the dark
Many of us shy away from the challenge of opening our minds and our hearts to God but unless we can surrender to him fully, we will never complete our final journey.

Painful but cleansing (16 Jan 10)
The moral authority of the Catholic Church in Ireland has been severely compromised by the disclosure of the cover-ups of the widespread abuse of children by clergy. The revelations indicate a much wider problem which Catholics must confront head-on if the church is to survive and grow.

Dear Reader,
Thank you for picking up this book. May it change your life. It will if you really want it to. All God needs is your ‘yes’. There is an ache in everyone to be happy. But people are unaware of the great secret — that the promise and presence of joy and peace of mind is already safely within the human heart — impatiently waiting to be discovered there. That’s what we mean by ‘unmasking God’.

‘Most people live lives of quiet desperation’ wrote Thoreau. There are endless reasons for this sorry truth. In a world that suffers much disillusionment — at the failings of our religious leaders, our financial advisors, our politicians — too many have lost their joy.

There is a recurring ‘absence’, a sense of something missing. How do we regain the lost light, the divine nerve to welcome each new day, come what may? How do we discover a new way of being, a new way of seeing?

The excitement that pervades these pages springs from the belief that a divine power and healing is already lying within each one of us, and within all of creation. Once this revelation is taken seriously by our churches, and by ourselves, then our efforts for peace and equality, for justice and joy, will spread like wildfire.

There is another way of living our days on this troubled earth. We almost always forget (or maybe were never told) that already within us we carry the fresh wells we thirst for, the beckoning horizons for which we long, the gold hidden in the rubble of even our most dark and difficult days.

This is the core of the gospel and is at the heart of our best theology and spirituality. It is also spread over the pages of this book. It sets out to reveal ‘the dearest freshness deep down things’ as the poet put it. In that ‘dearest’ place there is no room for anxiety, guilt, shame, worry or fear anymore.

Too often religion masks God. The emphasis in these pages is about unmasking the distant God we were often told about, and restoring to our deepest centre, a warm, human, ever-forgiving Father/Mother who is helplessly in love with us. Today we need to feel the comforting presence of God in the ordinary moments of our lives.

The unmasked God is revealed, once and for all and forever, as the innermost intimacy at the heart of our daily being. God comes to us disguised as our very lives — their pain and their joy. We are called to penetrate this disguise — and to recognise God in our blossoming.

Once we try to believe in all this astonishing good news we are left with another vital question. It was asked by the poet Mary Oliver; ‘What are you now planning to do with your one wild and precious life?

God bless and lots of love,
Daniel J. O’Leary 010111

PS An earlier book Already Within was also a collection of my Tablet articles. Thank you for naming it as your favourite religious book in 2007. I dedicate this new one to you. It gives me great joy and courage when you send in your stories about discovering the new growing, healing and personal freedom that is always transforming your life (www.djoleary.com ).


Spring: The Grace of Emerging


Waiting for the ambush

Lent is often characterised as a time of self-denial for Christian is, but this is not the whole story. It can be a time of extraordinary richness in which we are able to discover the limitless power of God’s love.

Everything about us reaches out to be loved and to love, to become the other. We long for intimacy. We are born for it. We are drawn and driven by this original and persistent desire of our being.

Astonishingly, we are already encompassed by this ultimate and unique embrace — but we will not, dare not or cannot believe it. We risk staying stuck too long in the trappings of routine religion. Beyond our familiar ‘to do’ lists for Lent — the things to give up, the tasks to take on, the prayers to squeeze in, the sins to cut out — there is a deeper horizon drawing us closer into a beautiful mystery.

The pursuit of this union with God is not hampered by our imperfections and peccadilloes. The surrender to divine love is only blocked by our own futile efforts to improve, to get better, to save our souls. Beyond such mortal strivings there is a matchless immensity around the way God lures and allures our hearts with a divine determination.

When this holy ambush happens, even partially, no one is measuring merit, progress or failure any more. It is ‘grace upon grace’. Astonished, we find ourselves sinking into the love that is now becoming the power and the presence, the very breath of our lives.
‘Hidden with Christ in God’, we care little about our standing in the hierarchies of things; we waste no sleep about what others may think of us; we are experiencing, even if only in glimpses, that unutterably sublime freedom of the children of God. Beyond creeds, formulas and rites, this deeply felt fusion with incarnate Presence reveals to us something of what falling in love with God means. In a sense, no effort is required — only the effort to let go into the pure joy of the lover’s desire, to allow the love for which we were created in the first place to happen to us. We wait for our own estranged faces to find their true beauty in the radiance of God’s features.

As the drop of rain assumes its full identity when surrendering to the sea, so with us. Kathleen Raine in her poem ‘Message’ writes:

Look, beloved child, into my eyes, see there
Your self, mirrored in that living water
From whose deep pools all images of earth are born.
See, in the gaze that holds you dear
All that you were, are and shall be for ever.

We wait for that blessed season in our lives when we empty ourselves of all that distorts the whisper of divine longing within us. All we are asked to do is to stay ready and obedient to God’s fingers and lips, making new music on the silent reeds of our hearts. This astounds us. We had been told differently. The emptier we become, the more space for God to fill. The more hollow we are, the truer the music from the lips of the Flautist. In ‘May I Have this Dance?’ Joyce Rupp has caught the meaning:

The small wooden flute and I,
We need the one who breathes …
So that the song-starved world
May be fed with golden melodies.

At some point during one special Lent, the veils will part just enough to transfix our hearts and transform our lives. That intimate moment will happen when the divine breath blows beauty into our shape, into our face and form. Everything is affected because everything is connected. The song of Creation itself is muted when the reeds of our lives are no longer receptive to the breath of God.

‘Lord only let me make my life simple and straight,’ wrote Rabindranath Tagore, ‘like a flute of reeds for Thee to fill with music.’ The melody is pure and beautiful, new yet familiar, and it calls to us like a far wave. Our stalled heart remembers, surrenders and recognises again the melody of the Maestro. It is the music from which we come; it is the music towards which we go. We need daily silence to catch those grace notes in the cacophony of our distractedness.

Falling in love with God like this is for everyone. Human hearts are fashioned for this to happen. Nor does it mean loving the world less, and the people in it. It means we love them more. Wherever we love sensitively, passionately and faithfully, we are already in love with God. Entwined with the heart of God, our love now has no fear to it. Utterly safe, we begin to play, to thank, to bless, to live, to adore as never before.

This realisation is a daily and deeply felt transformation of our way of being and our way of seeing. We do not need to be successful, liked, praised any more; these needs are transcended. We find we can forgive almost anyone for anything; it is easier than we thought. We no longer compare, compete, complain; we do not need to. We stop judging, blaming and resenting; there is no satisfaction in doing so now. Our vision of love is deeper. ‘Out beyond ideas of right and wrong there’s a field,’ wrote Rumi. ‘I’ll meet you there.’

In the still point of this bright field we come up against the edge of our darkness, the wilder frontiers of our possibilities, our passionate desire for life itself. Here in the heart of God, beyond the tyranny of a suffocating conformity, we sense the horizons for which we were created. In this silent embrace within our soul, we get younger as we grow older, we start to divine our divinity with a fiercer intent.

When we receive Holy Communion at our Lenten Mass, a transfiguration happens within us as the bread and wine die into us. Our naked souls are ravished in utter wonder. God’s desire for intimacy is becoming flesh in us. Beyond words, as John Paul II once reflected, this is embodied experience. It is the ultimate lovemaking. For one shining moment of mystery we know we are ‘of one being with the Father’. Delightedly it dawns on us that every moment can be like this moment. In ‘All Desires Known’, Janet Morley describes her experience of it:

… and I was nothing but letting go and being held
and there were no words and there
needed to be no words and we flowed
and I was given up to the dark and
in the darkness I was not lost
and the wanting was like fullness and I could
hardly hold it and I was held and
you were dark and warm and without time and
without words and you held me.

What’s it to be?
Magnanimous or pusillanimous, the right option seems self-evident. But in life’s moments of great decision the way of choice is rarely so easy or obvious.

Around this time of the liturgical season parishioners talk about how they are succeeding (or not) with their Lenten resolutions. Such preoccupations are, no doubt, useful. After decades of Lents, however, a day comes when the call is heard to begin a more challenging conversation about the state of our souls.

The conversation for me, this year, is full of tough questions about the forces that block the flow of God’s life within me. Why do we mess up the inner, divine image through our shortsighted options and selfish reactions? Why do we interrupt the divine dance in our soul, forgetting the eternal incarnate rhythm? Why do we allow the fire of inner love to grow dim because our attention has strayed?

Last month I wrote here about the basic wisdom of living our lives in an unceasing surrender to God. A reader asked about how to remain in this surrendered state: how to hold and balance the flow, the fire in our lives? Surely surrender is more than a passive state of soul? It is. Once surrendered, the soul, I believe. will discern what is called ‘the way of choice’. Much wisdom can be gathered from noticing the general pattern of our choices. How do you usually choose to respond to what dents your pride? Can you name the direction your choices usually take? Are you like St Paul, who chose the evil he wished to avoid? In his recent Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict asks us to notice how we choose ‘to deceive ourselves with hidden lies’.

Michael Lousier, in Law of Attraction, explains that we attract to our lives whatever we choose to give our best attention to, whether positive or negative. Whenever we are drawn to the need for some spring cleaning in our souls, he suggests that we first of all choose the positive horizon we wish to reach. Into this we release our energy, nourishing the vision and keeping it in focus, noticing when we allow doubts and anxieties to distract us from that horizon.

Positive and negative emotions, he writes, cannot occupy the mind at the same time. This is so significant for us. Our Scriptures have always been clear that where our heart is, there will our treasure be too. Whatever is regularly going on in our mind, that is what we are attracting more of to ourselves. Our hearts, too, are creatures of habit, gradually becoming identified with the object of their hunger.

People are surprised at the extent of the choice they have about the direction of each day’s living, leading to profound satisfaction or disillusion. With God’s power in us, we are all blessed with the grace of choosing our way of being in the world. We do not have to be victims of what happens to us; instead, we are blessed with the power of discerning our demons as disguised occasions of grace. But we do need to keep noticing the subtle ego in our desire for control, certainty and human respect: to ‘pay attention to our intention’ as James Redfield puts it in The Celestine Prophecy.

A Cherokee leader was out in the forest initiating the young members of the tribe into adulthood. In the course of the rites he told the story about the two wolves that are always fighting in every human soul – the benevolent wolf of peace and joy, the malevolent one forever on the prowl. ‘And which wolf wins?’, a youngster asked. ‘The one you feed’, was the reply. Which wolf are we feeding with every thought, word, breath of our lives?

Thomas Aquinas asks whether, as a rule, we act out of our anima magna, or our anima pusila. The one is the option for what is generous, tending towards overlooking, letting go. The other is the habit of meanness, tending towards what is closed, negative and judgmental. It isn’t about two different types of personality, more about the aspirations of each particular soul on a given day.

Imagine a horizontal line between the kinds of choices we make. At every mind’s turn we are opting to move either above that line, into the light, the space, the freedom that nourishes and saves our soul: or we are going the way of wilfulness, below the line, opting for the narrow place that stifles our spirit and closes out the light. Both worlds generate a life of their own. But we grow accustomed to one. We spend most of our thinking time there. So we eventually become those thoughts. And that means that we are carrying light or darkness wherever we go.

All of this inner work is a soul-sized enterprise. To be magnanimous is a difficult habit of the heart to form. To keep substituting the blaming, resentful thought for the liberating one is truly the work of the saint. It is a spiritual skill to pause – for the brevity of a breath or the long season of a deeper sorrow – to find that space of choice, so as to discern and purify the motivation behind our response.

To be big enough to overlook many things, to let go of resentment over minor annoyances and hurts, can seem an impossible task. Even to begin to explore the suppressed and graceless negativities that lie buried beneath the veneer of our public roles and rituals is a rare and daunting moment of conversion.

There is something pitifully seductive about the way our wayward minds keep returning to pick over the poisoned meat of resentment and revenge. Vigilance is needed to break that deadly habit, happening just below the level of our awareness. We make space for the grace to choose when we walk away from the look, the word, the thought that could hold us captive for the rest of that day. When, without looking back, we transform that moment into a kind of blessing, then we are experiencing the meaning of being redeemed.

Choosing, first in many smaller ways, to let go of resentment, anxiety and of all victim roles, while there is still time, is the only way to prepare for the final choices of our ultimate destiny. Viktor Frankl, purified in the crucifixion of his concentration camp experiences, rejoiced in what he called ‘the final freedom’ – the freedom to choose to love the one who was intent on destroying his life.

Lent is about choices. Jesus himself was familiar with that sacred space, the space between refusing and accepting the chalices offered by his Father during his brief life. On his Cross, he chose to forgive his enemies, to even love them. And later, at the moment of his death, after an intense struggle with his terrible doubt, Jesus uttered his whispered ‘yes’ to his beloved Father before his soul left him.

Our most important life choices are rarely obvious or easy. Side by side, they look alike, and often live at the same address. A friend of mine wears a small dark heart and a small bright one on her necklace. John O’Donohue hoped that at the hour of our death, when we find that through fear or frailty we chose the ‘wrong’ path, in God’s astonishing love, the untaken choice, the unlived destiny, is still offered as an open possibility.

Gold in the dust
It’s hard to be good, and human beings are repeat offenders. Yet the ashes that mark foreheads on Ash Wednesday are a reminder not only of sin, and of  the state to which we will return, but of the extraordinary paradoxes at the heart of the Christian faith.

I remember it like yesterday. My first temptation. It happened halfway through Lent in the year of my first Holy Communion. ‘Mammy, Mammy,’ I wailed, ‘I’ve committed a sin.’ I was clutching an old cake tin full of all the humbugs, jelly babies and pear drops that I had given up for Lent. It was a bizarre bargain. I would give them up for God if I could still save them up for an Easter Sunday orgy!

By now the bull’s eyes, the dolly mixtures, the pieces of Killarney sticks of rock, were all a horrible sticky mess because I took the tin around everywhere with me just to be sure, and kept opening it every few minutes to smell, stare and touch in the most pathetic and revolting manner. After my confession no words of blame came from my mother’s lips. They never did. ‘Being good is hard, Dan,’ she said, ‘and it takes a long time to be good.’

It was probably her gentle way of saying, ‘Remember, little man, you are only dust.’ There isn’t much you can do about dust to change its image. It is the graphic symbol of nothingness, of powerlessness, of anonymous insignificance. Scripture insists we are dust. We are always in the process of dying. From the moment of our birth, our sails are inexorably set for the flat, obscured shoreline of death.

Nor does Lent call us away from this depressing scenario of our finite ordinariness. It is the raw reminder of it — of the dust we came from, and to which we will return. To be a follower of the Lenten Jesus is to be convinced again and again that we are creatures of pain and weakness, continually losing our bearings in the voyage of our lives. And until we know ourselves to be lost we can never be found.

Next Wednesday we will again be given a sober appraisal of the context of our existence. That context is dust. And there are no exceptions. Much as we try to fudge it, to wriggle away from it, even to deny it, Jesus, too, was alarmingly human — and remains that way in heaven to this very day. And his wounds still bleed there.

There is no escape from the human condition. Yet that is the condition which God cannot resist. It is the very condition in which God chose to be revealed! We get to heaven, then, not by avoiding or denying the dust around and within us, but by completely entering into that darkened state. It is in our dust that we are saved. ‘The Word became dust.’ This is another way of asserting, our scriptural scholars assure us, that ‘The Word became flesh’.

That is the key which unlocks impossible doors. It is the ‘hinge’, as Tertullian puts it, ‘on which salvation turns’. Since the Incarnation, dust and flesh designate not only the hinge and pivot of the movement into nothingness and death, but also the hinge and pivot of a movement that passes through dust and death into the eternity of God.

In his reflections on Lent, Karl Rahner wrote: ‘The downward motion of the believer, the descent with Christ into the dust of the earth, has become an upward motion, an ascent above the highest heaven. Christianity does not set us free from the flesh and dust, nor does it bypass flesh and dust; it goes right through flesh and dust. And that is why the expression ‘you are dust’ is still applicable to us; rightly understood, it is a complete expression of life.’

Julian of Norwich believed that God will even use our sins to transform us. ‘Sin shall not be a shame to humans, but a glory … The mark of sin shall be turned to honour.’ True recognition of our basic nothingness, or, as Karl Barth put it, of our ‘groundlessness’, is a humbling experience, but it forces us to trust in unconditional love. ‘That’s what I work with,’ God says. ‘That’s all I can ever work with!’ It is with the flawed seed, the damaged beauty, that God does great things.

Henri Nouwen was well aware of the complicated ambiguity of life. He himself was only too familiar with the dust of the human condition – in his own unhappiness, his pettiness, his neediness, his fear.

‘There’s dust everywhere,’ he wrote. ‘It seems that there is no such thing as a clearcut, pure joy. In every satisfaction there is an awareness of limitations. In every success there is the fear of jealoust’. In every embrace there is loneliness. But this intimate experience in which every bit of life is touched by a bit of death, can point us beyond the limits of our existence.’

Thomas Merton’s famous epiphany on the corner of Walnut and 4th Streets in Louisville, Kentucky, happened in a very ordinary shopping area. ‘It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to so many absurdities, sorrows, stupidities, and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race.’

This much lionised contemplative surprised many by revealing himself as ‘noisy, full of the racket of imperfections and passions and the wide-open wounds left by sin, full of faults and envies and miseries, full of my own intolerable emptiness.’ The hidden revelation of Lent is that the gate to God is everywhere: and that it swings most splendidly in every particle of the dust of our lives.

On Wednesday the priest will trace a cross of ashes on us and tell us again that we are dust. If we only knew, these are the best words we will ever hear. They remind us, because we are sisters and brothers of the incarnate Lord who became dust for us, that in our nothingness, too, we are filled with eternity, in our futility we are redeemed, and in our sin-strewn lives we are showered with the hidden graces of true glory.

To say this is easy. To suffer it is hard. Rahner is so accurate in describing the boredom of everyday routine, the disappointments that we experience in everything – in ourselves, in our neighbours, in the church. We lose heart, he said, ‘in the anxiety of our days, in the futility of our work, in the brutal harshness of our splintered world’, and in the wretched tins of humbugs we cannot resist. Again and again we shall lie in the dust of our failures, humiliated and wanting to cry.

And yet, and yet, on each Ash Wednesday, our church faithfully reminds us that we are walking sacraments of Christian paradox. Outwardly we carry the grey cross of nothingness on our foreheads: inwardly our hearts believe that everything is already ours. Outwardly we weep and bleed as we stumble up the grimy Calvary of our lives; inwardly our dust is already shining with Easter gold.

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