This morning an MFA graduate student led our class and led us through several poems relating to Lent. I did not realize this would our class and it is coincidental that I have been considering writing some poetry (and wrote some doggerel as a student, but have not tried anything lately). I am inspired, but I am not sure if it is to write yet. One I found particularly moving is “Facing It” by Daniel Berrigan. I thought I would share it.
Who could declare your death, standing
obedient as Stylites, empty as death’s head
moving gently as the world’s
majestic sun into light?
It was as hollow death; men
dread it like plague. Thieves die this way,
charlatan, rejects. A good man’s thought recoils;
his best years, aspiration, children
beckon a different road. To grow old yes,
gently one day to stop breathing, home and faces
drifting out of mind. Abrupt violence even
he can countenance, a quick mercy on disease.
but not this. The mother’s face
knotted, mottled with horror.
a few men destroyed.
It is always like this; time’s cruel harrowing,
furies at the reins of fortune
wild horses dragging
the heroic dishonored body on time’s ground.
O for an act of God! we cry, before death utterly
reduce to dust
that countenance, that grace and beauty.
I had several and many thoughts about this poem. This Lent several people close to me or close to people I know have died, brining home the reality of our mortality in an uncomfortably direct way. I just heard, an hour ago, that my friend and colleague Brian Hesse, just succumbed to a pulmonary problem. He was director of our Jewish Studies program and when I was ordained into the priesthood sent me a very generous gift for vestments.
As Berrigan says, “A good man’s thought recoils; his best years, aspiration, children beckon a different road. To grow old yes…” I travel a lot in my role as dean and with young children I find myself always considering the consequences of my passing. Not that I was keen to die before we had children, I think I would always struggle to say with Paul, “to die is gain” though I strive so that “to live is Christ.” As I was traveling this past week I was listening to a Radio Lab podcast on mortality. The final piece is particularly jarring, though it is a story of a man dying at the age of 92, after a long and healthy life.
This is Lent, a time that begins with remembering our mortality and that we are but dust and ends with the death of the Christ. It is sadly fitting then to be considering and contemplating death.
And yet, I am afraid that we (and by we, I mean “I”) spend our Lent reflecting on our physical mortality when I believe that we are actually to be concerned with the death of sin and our sinful ways. It is a bit of a cop-out to simply consider what limited time I have on This Earth without considering why I am here and how I should be living the life that God has given me. I will get on the plane this Friday because I need to continue living and doing (and this particular case, I am traveling to go and bring comfort to those who grieve). The death on the cross brought about the death of sin and while it confirmed what we all knew, this flesh is but dust, the resurrection affirmed the whispered rumor, that we will live again. How then shall I live?