Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Feria IV Cinerum: GKC on Ash Wednesday

Our esteemed blogg-mistress is in transit, and rather than let this opening of the Forty Days pass by, I thought I would jump in with some comments, still hoping I will be able to handle tomorrow's post - tomorrow.

Of course, the problem with such a subject as "Ash Wednesday" is its size. There are so many profound things upon which we might meditate, and in the usual Chesterton manner, link idea with idea, and thing with thing. And if you have ever seen the Hepburn/Tracey movie "Desk Set" you may recall how Miss Watson explains that she "associates many things with many things" - a very Chestertonian and very Medieval habit.

Ashes are the remnants of burnt wood - we scrape them out of a fireplace and use them as fertilizer or as grit to dump on icy sidewalks, or... Or as I recall from a book I read (or had read to me) very long ago, we boil them to make soap. Yes, for some wood ashes are high in sodium and potassium hydroxide - which when concentrated is the terrible and wonderful common cleaner called "lye". Chemists call this a "base" (the opposite of an acid) and when concentrated it will burn your flesh just as an acid does. When lye is mixed with certain fats it forms sodium stearate or palmitate - which are the chemical foundations of soap! The importance of water is not to be overlooked - but then the priest sprinkles the ashes with holy water too. So are the thoughts of a chemist on Ash Wednesday.

In Latin, ashes are called cinis, cineris; they were used in scouring (cleaning pots &c) and gave rise to a proverb huius sermo cinerem haud quaeritat (from Miles Gloriosus of Plautus). The word is extended to mean a symbol of destruction, ruin, annihilation. So are the thoughts of a Latin student on Ash Wednesday.

In the song called "Presto" the rock group "Rush" writes:
I am made from the dust of the stars...
And in a text on the stars, we learn that:
The space between the stars is not empty. It is filled with rarified but exceedingly filthy gas... Interstellar gas is so filthy because many stars are furnaces of the least environment-friendly type: vast quantities of hot gas stream out of every red giant, and smoke particles condense out of this gas as it streams away from the glowing surface of the star in exactly the same way that smoke particles form in flue gas as they come off a furnace.
[Binney and Merrifield, Galactic Astronomy 131]
Elsewhere in this book these scientists explain how the various chemical elements are formed within these stellar furnaces - thereby validating Rush's lyrics: yes, we are carbon and phosphorus and iron and calcium - the flue rubbish of stellar furnaces. So are the thoughts of a stellar rocker on Ash Wednesday.

Then there are those terrible words - so terrible for almost 50 years they have been forbidden to be pronounced, due to the terror some men have in acknowledging the truth of things. Perhaps they are less fearful when merely read - but you should read them and ponder their meaning:
Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.
Remember, Man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.
Yes, that is the Latin homo which means man-as-species. (The word vir means man-the-male, as opposed to mulier=woman.) And yes, pulvis, pulveris is the root of "pulverize". You may be surprised to learn that this has a pagan antecedent which GKC knew of: during the great parade and celebration called a "triumph" part of the ritual to avoid bad luck required that a slave whisper to the conquering general "Hominem te memento": "Remember you are a man!" [see Oxford Classical Dictionary 926] This fact was known to Chesterton who paraphrased it thusly:
A man who calls himself an Imperialist is using a Roman word; but he does not necessarily mean that King George ought to ride through Wembley with a train of captives and a slave perched behind him whispering:
"Remember that you are mortal."
[GKC ILN June 14 1924 CW33:350]

So are the thoughts of a Chestertonian, who remembers that he is Man, made from ashes, the dust of the stars. Let us remember that today and always, while not forgetting this other comforting little warning:

Fear not therefore: better are you than many sparrows.
[Mt 10:31]


  1. Sorry to be a stickler, but your latin is a bit off. Homo does not mean man-as-species as opposed to vir. It means "a human being." Take for instance "fuit homo missus a Deo, cui nomen erat Iohannes." John 1:6 (I think)

  2. I suppose that you could have meant that, but when I read it I was confused. Anyway, for anyone that may have been confused like me there you go.


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