Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

My dear friend’s dog, Remus, is dying of cancer. Remus is a beautiful greyhound who my friend, Brad, emancipated from a cruel life of racing. When I heard of the diagnosis, I wrote a poem to him. After writing it, I realized that I was actually writing a prayer. I was praying to a dog, and the moon.

THE MOON 

Full moon shines tonight

you see it, brother, better than I

it was your kin who once howled

and I simply gaze, amazed

at how your pain must ring

outside my senses

It is round, a star, a stare

a gaze for me

but for you —

you must sense more and more and more

So as I read and hear

sad reports of pain and death and loss

I cannot mourn you, properly

For those who gaze at stars

can never howl at them

So howl a prayer for me

and I’ll whisper one for you

to the moon we can both understand

on dark nights like these

+++

During the winter, North Dakota has dark days, too. The sun is scarce and the intense, bitter cold brings a certain darkness with it. It scares me. I understand why Dante made the ninth circle of hell, Satan’s den, cold instead of hot.

There is something lenten about late winter. The charm of snow and the fashion of layered clothes has worn off. Christmas is gone. Ordinary time begins to weigh and accumulate towards spring. The sooner the better. Lent mediates between the seasons, it sends us from death into life.

But life doesn’t come cheap. There is no cheating death. No way around Gethsemane or Golgotha. We all die, everyone knows this, but that is just the beginning. More than the generic certainty of dying, we all fall down.

+++

I used to see Lent in the opposite way: a time of not falling down. I would set my goals and giving-ups and prayers and fasting and fish-eating. Then I’d stick to them, no matter what. You don’t fall down during Lent. No cheating. There was a punitive, disciplinary quality about Lent.

A good Lent was one where I didn’t fall.

There is something counterintuitive about this, but, in practice, it became the whole of Lent for me. It was a spiritual, Church-sponsed, family-approved exercise in self mastery though externals. Worse of all, it became a game.

+++

I love games and to say that I’m competitive fails to convey how crazy I am about competition. Lent fed into that craze for me. It became a competition, an extreme Catholic sport. I lost my way because Lent, like my sense of competition, was all about ME.

It took a long time of wandering around, trying to find my way back to the Lenten rigor of falling down. In a way, it took lent to find Lent. One Lent, I gave up Lent for Lent. I ate meat every Friday and fasted from nothing, from everything. I don’t recommend this practice for everyone, but, for me, it was an important, broken step.

+++

The paradox is fully present today, Ash Wednesday. We are reminded of our mortality, a sign of our brokenness and weakness. We are fasting. We are fallen, but we wear our marks with pride. We observe Lent with stickers of penance and ascetic badges of honor.

What’s going on?

I don’t know exactly, and I’m not sure that it’s all that important to know, but I do know this: Lent isn’t a game or a sport. There is no winning and there are no prizes.

No prizes?—Yes, I know what Paul said about running the race, but surely he wasn’t making holiness into cheap sport. If Lent is a sport, it is a mad, wild, irrational sport, verging on suicidal, where we play for nothing but nothing. Nothing but the Cross. Everything is at stake.

+++

This Lent my thoughts and prayers go back to Remus. He will soon pass away, like me. Unlike me, God willing, he will probably die during Lent 2013. I wrote this final poem to him, a Franciscan death wish, a panentheistic a Dios: 

A DEATH POEM, FOR ANIMALS

We met in a pavilion.

A park. A picnic.

Do you remember? I do.

It’s not so important now.

Time and place sort of shrink

When death is near.

There is futility in speaking,

Writing, reading—but I’m

Not a dog as you.

I sense some things you don’t.

And you sense; I don’t.

But I know you can feel

A kind hand that touches

You and know that it’s safe.

Safety comes at a price.

No running, no nothing.

But I know you were

Loved and whatever

Your dog equivalent is for that

Is good enough for me.

Do you know fear?

Shame? Regret?

Memory?

Does death look the same?

How about pain?

I’m not a dog and you’re

Not a man.

But I’m an animal like

You—we share that.

So die like an animal,

You beautiful animal.

Pray that I may do

The same, too.

  • The Pachyderminator

    One Lent, I gave up Lent for Lent. I ate meat every Friday and fasted from nothing, from everything. I don’t recommend this practice for everyone, but, for me, it was an important, broken step.

    I don’t understand this. You redeemed your practice of Lent from being all about you by giving up the forms of penance both prescribed and practiced by the universal Church, and instead indulging in a solitary, self-defined spiritual conceit? Why was that an important step–simply after the fashion of a spiritual wanderer who, as many saints have done, must leave the Church before he can come fully into it? But if that’s the case, you shouldn’t stop at not recommending it for everyone: you should make it clear that you recommend it for no one, because sin is sin even when done with the highest spiritual motivations, and sinful creatures should never try to use sin as a devotional tool. Only God can be trusted to do that.

    You just can’t do it that way. You can’t respond to the difficulty of doing penance with the right mindset by opting out of the struggle. If we find ourselves turning Lent into an unholy competition with ourselves or others, it might be a good idea to dial back our voluntary penances a little, but what must be done still remains, and we can only do it as prayerfully and humbly as we can. What I don’t find anywhere in this post is an acknowledgement that fasting is also about obedience. It’s not all about choosing our own paths for our own spiritual enlightenment. It’s also about following the path pointed out to us by our mother the Church, because we trust that she knows better than we do.

    Otherwise, why are you Catholic?

    • srocha

      This wasn’t a post about fasting, per se. I think I’ve already written something on that and it follows closely to some of your observations here. About the giving up Lent for Lent, and related to the ascent you’re pointing to: I didn’t write about that time glowingly or without complication; I was quite intentional about the fact that by giving up nothing I gave up everything, I lost Lent. But this loss turned out to be a catalyst for grace, a reorientation that then and now allows me to be Catholic, to not try and escape or feel the need to abandon it. It is testimony, first and foremost, not a prescriptive or how-to post.

    • Petro

      “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

      Sometimes obedience itself is spiritually vacuous. This is the point that Christ is trying to make to us in today’s Gospel. Why are we doing what we are doing? Is it because we follow a tribal instinct that tells us that this is what you’re supposed to do, or because we seek the spiritual blessings of God’s grace through what we do?

      Sam is making clear that God’s grace was not really important to him at that time in which he engaged in what he identifies as a sport. The self-aggrandizing way in which he was celebrating Lent was wrong, and most likely sinful. His way of refocusing himself on the grace of God was to step out of that sin by avoiding the prescriptions that made him elevate himself in spiritual superiority over others. That was a beautiful thing to give up for Lent. And, it appears to have worked the very well.

      There is sin in believing that we are morally superior through the act of doing something alone, without the love and charity behind it. The Holy Father covers this thought in a different context in Caritas in Veritate. The Lord addresses the obverse of this in the Gospel. If we can, as the Lord says, commit adultery through merely conceiving of the act, then we can make a good act sinful through the rejection or corruption of its intent.

      Perhaps it is true that no one else should attempt what Sam did. But I think that it is far more likely that many need just this type of examination of their consciences and conversion of their spirits in order to enter more fully into communion with Christ and His Church.

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