Two things arrived this week: Lent and Poets and Writers. Both are a challenge. Both involve faith (mine is pretty shaky, both as a writer and a person who goes to church). Both are disciplines which make me flinch, twitch and obsess about my life.


A woman representing Lent with her sparse Lenten fare. “The Joust Between Carnival and Lent” Bruegel (from Wikipedia)

Lent: The annual “what do I give up?” “Why? What good does it do?” “What is faith anyway?” I’ve always thought I’d make a better Buddhist instead of being a mediocre Christian. Let’s face it, going to church because the music and ritual is pretty is not exactly what Jesus had in mind. As a priest friend of Anne Lammott’s said, that “would drive Jesus to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.” If you practice Buddhism, it’s a given you should renounce bad habits forever, or at least on a progressive scale. In Lent, you only have forty days and forty nights to agonize about how you’re so bad at all this stuff. I guess I’ll stick with Jesus.

If it’s tough enough to assimilate Jesus’s forty days and forty nights fasting in the wild and attended by angels, it’s harder still to assimilate the rest of his life, and owning all of that as a “Christian.” Then, there’s St. Paul to further confuse things. I wrote this little doggerel in a notebook years ago: I have mixed feelings about St. Paul./ I don’t care for the man at all.

My Lenten challenge this year is to figure out why St. Paul bothers me so much. Is he the reason that Catholic priests are all guys and even some Anglicans don’t appreciate women bishops and priests (because it’s not apostolic succession. Don’t get me started!)? And Paul is one of the reasons that simple folk pound on the Bible to condemn homosexuality. But that’s a huge question of context and translation. Depending on which version you read (even between the Oxford Revised Standard and the Oxford New Revised Standard), Paul was actually bashing pedophiles. I disapprove of homophobia as heartily as I do approve of same-sex marriage, but I’d bash a pedophile in a heartbeat.

C’mon. Who was this guy who traveled so far to convert people he used to persecute, and now wants to convince them (and me) that God’s designated representative has appeared on earth, because he, St. Paul, had a vision after the Crucifixion, which, had he been there, he would have likely cheered like a Red Sox fan?

I have problems with his veracity and sanity.

So my Lenten practice is to read all the epistles of St. Paul. I’m going to figger this guy out if I have to drink copious amounts of strong, black lapsang souchong  to get through it all. How bad can Paul be if he can write: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” (Corinthians I, King James version). That’s some good writing.

At least there’s an end to Lent and I can go back to joining Jesus at the cat bowl.

But now Poets and Writers is still another thing. It comes relentlessly every two months and stares at me in the face like a dog with a ball. I dutifully look at the articles, especially reading the ones about publishers and agents. I spend quite a bit of time in the classifieds to see if there are places to which I could possibly send my poetry, non-fiction or fiction. THEN there’s the part where I sit down and check out all the websites and submissions guidelines and cross out everything I’ve circled. In two complete afternoons of searching some thirty sites, I sent out two submissions.

This is not the best use of my time.

But it is part of the practice of being a writer. It is discipline. And I am an unruly, unwilling, even hostile participant. I know it’s good for me. If the three big questions are “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” and “What ought I to do?” I get that I’m a writer, and I’m supposed to show up – this means at the page and in the pew and at the lectern, where, as often as not, my assignment is to read the Epistle on a given Sunday. I do my homework. I practice. Maybe someday it will all do me some good. The ashes smeared on my forehead on Ash Wednesday are a pretty effective reminder why.

Here’s an old poem:

WINE – A Lamentation

 He takes a sip, prize

glass rests beside him, red

 wine glows lovelier than opal gin,

than russet whiskey,

lovelier by far than

cold tea in my old chipped cup.

 I bought the glasses, three boxes,

anticipating much celebration—but

 the birthdays come

one after another.  And

deaths.  I forgot how loss

demands an odd celebration.

Now Lent comes again. 

We make sacrifices.  His is

half-hearted—no hard liquor.  Religion

goes only so far towards redemption.

His Jesus, too close for perspective,

mine too far for faith.

Drink is habit more than sacrament.

 I watch the glow reach his cheeks.

 He talks a bit, not much, of craving golf

With nothing to loosen my tongue, I nod.

Mary Sanders Shartle (from Winterberry, Pine by Elaine Handley, Marilyn McCabe and MSS)