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

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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.

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