The Lord is compassion and love,
slow to anger and rich in mercy. — Psalm 103:8
Every time I read the 103rd psalm, multiple sound tracks criss-cross in my head. The bluesy “O Bless the Lord My Soul” from Godspell. The familiar setting by Marty Haugen, with its cascading opening to the last verse: “merciful, merciful.” The unaccompanied voices of the Camadolese monks before dawn in a monastery clinging to the cliffs of California. Let all my being, bless his holy name.
Regardless of the melody, the through line of this psalm is overwhelming reassurance: God’s mercy is boundless. It will restore us. Renew us. Heal us. One breath from God’s mouth and our sins are blown away like dust, flying to the ends of the earth.
But today the verset that catches my eye is this one, “he knows of what we are made, he remembers that we are dust.” In lines set down long before God set up residence in Galilee, becoming human, the psalmist reminds us that God knows what we are made of. Dust. Fragile bits of creation.
The line brings to mind Marilyn Nelson’s poem, “Dusting,” where she describes dust as “tiny particles of ocean salt, pearl-necklace viruses, winged protozoans, infinite intricate shapes of submicroscopic living things.”
Dust is not merely something to be cleared away, but contains wonders beyond imagining. Dust is God’s cache of raw materials from which he constantly renews the universe. And us.
We are fragile beings, we can crumble at a touch, but God is careful of us. Abba Mius, one of the early Christian Desert Fathers, tells a story of a soldier who wondered whether God truly closed his eyes to our sins once we repented.
“Tell me,” he asked, “if your cloak is torn, do you throw it away?” Of course not, the soldier assured Abba Mius, he would mend it and use it again. “If you are so careful of your cloak, then will God not be equally careful of his creation?” responded Mius. Neither does God discard us, but mends us that our entire being might bless his holy name.
Unlike the soldier’s cloak, which undoubtedly bore the marks of his repairs, God’s tender mending of our souls leaves no scar. It is as if it never were torn in his eyes. “When God forgives, his forgiveness is so great that it is as though God forgets,” Pope Francis noted in a recent homily. Like dust, blown away, to be reborn whole.
We are dust, God’s treasured materials. And unto dust we shall return, ever his servants, ever open to his will.
To reflect on: Marilyn Nelson’s poem, Dusting
To read: Pope Francis’ homily for the Third Tuesday in Lent
To listen to: Three versions of Psalm 103:
Chant in English from Valaam Monastery:
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, Bryn Mawr.