As I write, the ground outside is still saturated from the merciless rains that plagued northern Georgia last fall. During the terrible flooding that took lives and destroyed homes in Atlanta and beyond, one of the students at the college where I teach theology drowned in an overpowering current not far from campus.

We have a small student body (about 200 enrolled), so we’re a tight community, where almost everyone — students, faculty and staff — knows everyone else. Not surprisingly, this terrible event was for all of us like losing a family member. All week, grief permeated every aspect of campus life.

But so has faith.

Through these last days, I’ve marveled at the strength I’ve seen in our students as they wrestled with the sorrow and gained the upper hand, though not, of course, without bruises on their souls. They drew together to mourn and to console one another, to celebrate the life of the young friend they lost and to learn whatever lessons God might have for them through the pain.

As I recall from my own college years, the young rarely think about their own mortality. Life stretches out before them, beckoning with hopes and dreams. Surely, it seems, death is a long way off.

At a time like this, then, they learn the fragility of life. And those of us who are older than they are reminded of that reality once more — and a few more truths besides.

When this issue of TCA appears and Ash Wednesday is drawing near, the events of these last few days will take on new poignancy as the ashes are imposed on our foreheads. It won’t be as difficult to “remember [we] are dust, and to dust [we] shall return.”

We are indeed dust. God’s beloved dust, but dust all the same. And knowing that we are dust, how then should we live?

I once heard a Pentecostal preacher speak about this at a funeral.

“Can you imagine!” he shouted. “Here we are: One speck of dirt looking down its nose at another speck of dirt, and saying, ‘I’m better than you!’”

As the Lenten season approaches once again, that preacher’s insight can offer us an effective antidote to pride. TCA

Paul Thigpen is the editor of The Catholic Answer and professor of theology at Southern Catholic College in Dawsonville, Ga. You may e-mail him at pthigpen@osv.com