Listen To Article
You are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Ian Thomas, a young Silicon Valley app designer, rented a room in the Brooklyn apartment of publicist Hansa Bergwall to stay at while in New York to take a class on artificial intelligence. One night, the two got to talking about the ancient Bhutanese maxim that, in order to achieve happiness, one must think five times a day about death. That night, the app WeCroak was born.
There are myriad mindfulness apps that attempt to cure us of our phone addictions and their injurious effects — apps to regulate screen time, apps to improve breathing, apps that track the time you spend on other apps. WeCroak’s approach is simple and stark: five times a day, your device of choice buzzes ominously with this reminder: “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.”
The reminders, like death itself, arrive at random. When you click the alert, a sentence-length quote from a poet or philosopher awaits:
“The grave has no sunny corners.”
“The whole future lies in uncertainty.”
“The other side of the ‘sacred’ is the sight of your beloved in the underworld.”
I heard about WeCroak reading an article in The Atlantic in which the reporter described her experience of using the app for several weeks — how it unsettled and frustrated her, but also shook her out of distraction and emancipated her from the loop of never-ending scrolling through Twitter, Instagram, Tick Tock.
As I paged through the article, I chuckled a bit, and thought of this day: Ash Wednesday. Christians for centuries have been, in prayer, silence, and ash, offering this same, sober reminder — and you don’t even need to download it from the app store.
Don’t forget. You’re going to die.
September 1, 1939
We need this uncompromising annual announcement. Left to ourselves, we stream and scroll our way through every waking moment to medicate our boredom. We lotion, color, and liposuction away any bodily evidence of our inevitable aging. At any cost, we avert our gaze from our unavoidable mortality.
Almost a full century ago, the poet W.H. Auden authored a vivid picture of our predicament. In his poem September 1, 1939 (the day Germany invaded Poland, sparking the outbreak of World War II) Auden portrayed the blissful distraction so many of us content ourselves to languish in:
“Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.”
Ash Wednesday shakes us from our perpetual distraction and invites us to see where we really are: lost, afraid, haunted. As I smudge ashes onto the foreheads of congregants, friends, and especially my own beloved wife and children, it shakes me awake to our shared brevity, our mutual mortality. This awareness shapes humility in me — but not of the puritanical, groveling variety.
Ash Wednesday imparts humility in the sense conveyed from its linguistic roots: “from the humus”; “grounded”; “from the earth.” Ash Wednesday grounds me, roots me in the truth of who I am, and who I’m not; earths me in the honest reality of my limits and creatureliness.
There’s honesty in those ashes — but there’s grace in them, too. The mark of our mortality that I’ll give and receive today is offered in the shape of the cross. The cruciform smudge smeared on my forehead tells the story, yes, of my own brevity. But it also announces that the One who made us from the dust became dust for us. That Jesus, in descending into death, raised us from the ashes of our own darkness and death. And so, Ash Wednesday is an invitation to both honesty and rest.
My friend Chuck DeGroat, in a Lenten guide he wrote called Falling into Goodness, puts this beautifully: “On the ground and in the dust there is no façade. No more hiding. Only rest. And it’s where Jesus can find you. Jesus came down, you see. To the dust. In the flesh. And so, you no longer need to prove yourself or protect yourself. There is no ladder to climb, no stairway to the pearly gates, no performance strategy, no purity ritual. Only surrender. Only rest.”
So, don’t forget. You’re going to die.
But, rest in the good news: Jesus died.