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In the ancient world, potsherds, the broken remains of pots, corresponded to today’s nuisance of plastic; like plastic, the sherds were everywhere, either discarded by their owners or left in the aftermath of wars or natural disasters.

Once broken and patched, the pot could only store dry goods. Water, wines, oils, critical to sustain life, demanded intact vessels.

It should be no surprise that the commonplace sherd was often used metaphorically in the bible in its negative sense. In the book of psalms, we find:

My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.

The image is also found in the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, the book of Proverbs. Even Job took him a potsherd to scrape himself withal; and he sat down among the ashes.

But ancients also used sherds in a positive sense: to write prophetic texts and messages, to carry hot coals from one house to another, to dip water from springs or cisterns, and to cover cooking pots or storage jars.

The image of the ancient potsherd suggests the global upheaval instigated by Vladimir Putin—Its brokenness sears. Horrific gaming fills the media; killing and maiming and death leave bloody footprints and ravaged spirits; the Face of Evil leers.

Eleven days into Putin’s murderous invasion of Ukraine evidences, in my perception, the power of prayer-sherds hurled into the Universe: small, insignificant on the surface, but effective in spiriting its people, under siege, and slowing down the enemy’s tactics.

Will Ukraine become another broken pot? Become sherds for political analysis?

Grainy, sooty, found in shades of gray and black, dull or glossy, ashes form the residue of what remains after intense burning; in the eleventh century they were incorporated into today’s liturgical observance of Ash Wednesday around the world.

The 2020 Covid epidemic halted this ritual until now. Again, priests sign the faithful with a cross of ashes on their foreheads while praying, “Remember, that you are dust and into dust you shall return.” Then, and now, its observance proclaims the beginning of Lent with its practice of varied penance, and the reminder of our mortality.

In my imagination, these blessed ashes of diminishment co-mingle with the ashes left in the wake of Russian armaments blanketing Ukrainian cities, burying the living and the dead, scarring and obliterating buildings and landmarks, stultifying psyches. Ashes weep, blown by recalcitrant winds around the world.

Aside from Russia’s offensive losing its wallop, aside from the heroism of the Ukraine’s president and his people, the outcome of the conflict is uncertain.

“But, in the end, I think Ukraine’s darkest days are ahead of them…Vladimir Putin’s going to burn down Ukraine’s house.” So says Daniel Hoffman — for years, one of the CIA’s top experts on Russia.

With the burning comes more ashes of what was, the leitmotif of Ukraine’s beleaguered history, and with it, its sanctification. We’ve much to learn through prayerful weeping. 

The scene was overwhelming: Herringboned clouds bleached blueness, overhead; centuries-old oaks, freshly leafed, shaded the rolling hills, the grass resembling grown-out buzz cuts of new recruits; asphalt roads serpentined among clearly marked plots filled with the remains of women and men who had served our country in combat or peacetime. Thousands of American flags cast a pink glow upon the white oval faces of the headstones, resembling gothic doorways of ancient monks.

Cars inched around turns with tent-covered lemonade stands, with groundskeepers welcoming visitors and helping with directions. Children in T-shirts and shorts walked Indian-style behind their parents, holding pots of flowers. A heavyset lone senior leaned on her cane while scanning the row of headstones for her loved one.

It was Memorial Day, the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery outside of St. Louis, Missouri, and my first visit to this historic site.

I weep with those who weep.

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