We move through our days, many of us, with eyes on to-do lists, blissfully unaware that this moment, this very moment, could be our last. Yet, through the eyes of author Sara Miles, I have been reminded that it is profound and precious gift to remember our mortality. In City of God: Faith in the streets, we follow the author on Ash Wednesday, as she distributes ashes in a busy neighborhood of the Mission in San Francisco. For many Christians, Ash Wednesday gives us a chance, in the words of Episcopal priest Will Hocker, “to bow down in public and say, I’m not in charge; I’m not going to live forever.” This can be a freeing gift, and it reminds us of the most basic thing we have in common with one another: regardless of where you are from, what you look like, who you love, which religion you practice, you were born into a mortal body, and one day you will die. We all will. To acknowledge this is to notice the preciousness of our being here, now, together.
For the church, Ash Wednesday presents an opportunity to focus on repentance. In the words of Sara Miles, “Repentance requires paying attention to others, and learning to love, even a little bit, what God loves so much: the whole screwed-up world, this holy city, the people God created to be his own.” The city here means the author’s home in particular, but also every place any of us calls home; the people God created means all of us. We have an opportunity to leave indifference behind, and instead to turn to one another with love and compassion.
The day in the Mission is about being with other people and witnessing what God already is doing in the lives of others, through the bodies of others. As Sara Miles and her companions set out to meet others where they are, they experience God alive in everyone. There is an opportunity to connect with strangers, to share in the truth of our mortality as the words are whispered: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
We can go and do likewise. We can bless the places we live by paying attention to one another, by turning the excessive love that God has shown us into excessive love for our neighbors. The blessing is not merely within churches, but “has been set loose.” It is where we are, where we meet one another in love and tenderness.
The pages of this book are full of fierce joy and honest questioning. I particularly recommend City of God as a beautiful read prior to Lent. However, the book has a very special perspective that will be appreciated readers who are not religious as well.
This year Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, will be observed on February 18 in many denominations.
Disclaimer: No fee was received for this review. Review is written based on a personal copy of the book.