One of the most influential Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, Romano Guardini influenced many, not least Luigi Guissani, the founder of Communion and Liberation, the philosopher Josef Pieper, and Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. The German theologian — his family moved to Germany from Italy when he was one-year-old — helped begin the liturgical movement and through that and other work affected the Second Vatican Council. Among his most famous books in English are The Spirit of the Liturgy, his devotional biography of Jesus, The Lord, and The End of the Modern World.
The insights below are taken from his book Sacred Signs, which can be read here.
Ashes [especially the ashes applied on Ash Wednesday] signify man’s overthrow by time. Our own swift passage, ours and not someone else’s, ours, mine. Everything turns to ashes, everything whatever. This house I live in, these clothes I am waring, my household stuff, my money, my fields, meadows, woods, the dog that follows me, the clock in the hall, this hand I am writing with, these eyes that read what I write, all the rest of my body, people I have loved, people I have hated, or been afraid of, whatever was great in my eyes upon earth, whatever small and contemptible, all without exception will fall back into dust.
The high “art of dying” is to accept the life that is leaving us, and by a single act of affirmation put it into God’s hands.
When he comes to die a man must decide whether he will or will not once more take his whole life in hand, be sorry for all he has done amiss, and plunge and recast it in the burning heat of repentance, give God humble thanks for what was well done, (to him be the honor!) and cast the whole upon God in entire abandonment. Or he may give way to despondency and weakly and ignobly let life slip from him. In this case life comes to no conclusion; it merely, without shape or character, ceases to be.
The deep significance of death is that it is the final sentence a man passes on his whole life. It is the definite character he stamps upon it.
The evening hour is the hour of completion. We stand then before God with a premonition of the day on which we shall stand before him face to face and give in our final reckoning. We have a sense of the past being past, with its good and evil, its losses and waste. We place ourselves before God to whom all time, past or future, is the living present, before God who is able to restore to the penitent even what is lost.