“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

The words of the minister hung in the air. I’ve heard them many times before.

At this point in life, I’ve stood at the gravesides of countless loved ones and acquaintances, and each time I am struck by something different: the circumstances of the death; the reaction of family members, especially children; the season of the year; a hymn; nearby headstones.

This time it was those familiar words: ashes to ashes.

But rather than eliciting sorrow, I felt a smile coming on. I recalled a Lenten retreat many years ago when the impassioned facilitator drew upon the title of a well-known hymn and encouraged our Lenten prayer to be, “Cremate in me a new heart, Lord.”

I also remember trying to stifle a chuckle during the retreat, especially when the leader then stressed that we should “make ashes of all that is not of God.”

Her slip of the tongue elevated an excellent retreat into an extraordinary experience for me, because, years later, I am still asking myself the question, “What needs to be cremated in my life?”

At one time the list was considerable, most of them fears of one kind or another. I’ve invested a significant amount of reflection and prayer in getting to the root of those fears so I could turn them to ashes, but their ghosts still linger at times.

I’m fine with that, because I am aware of it, and acknowledgment is the first step to change. And I haven’t given up the fight.

But there is one thing on the list that still has me stymied – attachment.

That’s a pretty big issue in the spiritual life, and the emotional life, as well.

St. John of the Cross, who taught often about the need to practice detachment in all things, encouraged, “Strive to preserve your heart in peace; let no event of this world disturb it.”

The peace to which he referred is the peace of detachment, the peace of true joy.

My attachments are most obvious in my struggle to let go, emotionally, of the homes I’ve lived in with my family.

While I was forced to let go of my childhood home when my parents died, and our home of many wonderful memories in Ortley Beach after Superstorm Sandy, I have never been back to either neighborhood to visit because it is difficult for me emotionally.

This attachment disturbs my peace. It has a control over me that limits my freedom to be present to the friends and family who are God’s gift.

While it is easy to see how we might be attached to such things as money, success, power or possessions, it is not so easy to recognize our attachment to people.

It requires an understanding that attachment, even to those closest to us, is not the same as love. Attachment is an imbalance in a relationship.

Whether spouse, child, friend or acquaintance, when we allow other people’s issues and emotions to generate a negative response within us, we give them power to change who God intends us to be.

In his Ash Wednesday homily this year, Pope Francis compared the heart to a magnet. It “needs to attach itself to something. But if it only attaches itself to earthly things, sooner or later it becomes a slave to them … whereas if our heart is attached to what does not pass away, we rediscover ourselves and are set free.”

Lent, said Pope Francis, “is the time of grace that liberates the heart from vanity. … It is a time to fix our gaze on what abides.”

What abides is Jesus, the Holy Father stressed. “From the cross, Jesus teaches us the great courage involved in renunciation. We will never move forward if we are heavily weighed down. Jesus … calls us to a life that is passionate for Him, which is not lost amid the ashes of the world.”

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