Ashes to Ashes: Decay Invades My Bones


September 1, 2005

There’s an inauspicious title for us all to mull over. Is it a complaint about lupus or osteoporosis? Is it the cry of someone reaching for a metaphor that will somehow answer to the despair that has overtaken him? Is it just a (slightly tedious) bit of hyperbole?

Its candidacy for any of these options would be eminently plausible, but as it happens, it is none of the above. The grisly picture is evoked by the author of the line—not, oddly enough, by way of complaint, much less of self-pity, but rather as an effort to get through to us the intensity of his reaction to the sight of God’s coming to the aid of His people. “You tread the sea with your steeds amid the churning of the deep waters. I hear, and my body trembles; at the sound, my lips quiver. Decay invades my bones.”

It is our friend Habakkuk speaking. If you read your breviary, you will come across this bit on Friday of week two, at morning prayer. Obviously Habakkuk’s capacity to react to the arrival of God is enormous. There is nothing blasé or cavalier about this prophet’s responses. (Alas: Where, on a scale of one to ten, might my own responses to the daily readings fall? Perhaps “fall” is the embarrassingly apt word here. How often have I found myself obliged to reach for such a violent metaphor in order to articulate the sheer force of my own response to the readings—to any of the readings, up to and including the Creation, the Flood, the Annunciation, the Transfiguration, the Passion, and the Resurrection, not to mention the Apocalypse?)

In my own case, the difficulty of responding to the Word with anything even remotely approaching what might be called adequacy is, I would guess, greater than the difficulty experienced by cradle Catholics since, having been nurtured in Protestant Fundamentalism, I was drilled (and drilled, and drilled) in the sheer content of Scripture, day after day, week after week, decade after decade. It is a stark impossibility for us mortals to maintain a state of high responsiveness to any stimulus at all, and Sacred Scripture constitutes no exception to this lackluster capacity of ours to respond to things. If you live at the brink of Iguazu Falls or on the slope of Cotopaxi, your capacity for wonder exhibits a reverse ratio to the amount of time you have lived there. If you listen to the B Minor Mass twice daily for five years, your latter responses will be feeble in comparison to those aroused in you upon first hearing the Mass.

But back to this decay in my (or Habakkuk’s, shall we say) bones. In at least two of his books (Perelandra and Till We Have Faces), C. S. Lewis has a mortal encountering a god. The sensation on the part of the mortal is of being naked: nay, of being ashamed. Ashamed because of his sin? That would certainly be appropriate. But it is worse than that: The shame occurs over the sheer fact of being mortal in the presence of the god.

This is not a stance that comes easily to us modern men. The therapy industry and all of the dynamics at work in educational theory, drummed into us from birth onward, have us getting comfortable with our feelings, or feeling okay about ourselves. The more we rummage in our emotional entrails (our very own mode of haruspication), the more fascinated and preoccupied with ourselves we become (not to mention our politics). There is no one in whose presence we are taught to bow.

If Habakkuk’s dismay in the presence of the Divine Majesty seems fawning to us—or worse, masochistic and sick—we have a situation on our hands. The bald and eternal fact is that, one way or another, we are going to find ourselves faced with that Majesty one fine morning. How do we propose to get ourselves—and our offspring—ready?


  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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