The story of the proud and vital man who has lost his power and nobility is a recurrent theme, especially at the movies. Films have specialized in showing us the washed-up boxer (The Set-Up, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Fat City) and cowboy (Red River, The Gunfighter, Unforgiven).
Wasn’t it Augustine who said, evil is matter out of place? He kisses his love as he pivots from the brothel gate, his ardent heart already gritty with guilt. I imagine the big A trying to shake sin from himself as I haul our red rug out and shake it. Dear God, what we track in, how sin sifts like fine silt into our deepest grooves! And once inside, the dirt forgets that it’s our backyard. We keep tracking the outside in, sweeping it out again.
Or that’s what I get from The Confessions. How love, like soil, is out of place for, maybe, half its orbit. How sinning and repentance follow one another like all the circles on this fickle earth, rain taken up by clouds, then falling on us again. Maples spinning whiffs that grow to seedlings. Children begetting children. And every insult you bestow whirring like graying underwear in some dryer of regret.
Way back in Christianity’s kindergarten, Augustine had it figured out. He guessed our remorse and longing as he closed the brothel door, seeing a woman gaze at the sooty outline on her white sheet of a tall blacksmith the morning after.
In recent years, “No problem” has become a customary response to a “Thank you” rendered to wait staff, service providers, hosts and gift givers. By my observation, this practice of replacing “You’re welcome” with “No problem” began with the generation now in their thirties. “No problem” is now widespread enough that Judith Martin (Miss Manners) has thought it necessary to pronounce against it.
Here’s your Ash Wednesday story. A mother carries her tiny daughter With her as she gets ashed and the Girl, curious and wriggly, squirms Into the path of the priest’s thumb Just as the finger is about to arrive On the mother’s forehead, and the Ashes go right in the kid’s left eye. She starts to cry, and there’s a split Second as the priest and the mother Gawk, and then they both burst out Laughing. The kid is too little to be Offended, and the line moves along, But this stays with me; not the ashy Eye as much as the instant when all Could have been pain and awkward But instead it led to mutual giggling. We are born of dust and star-scatter And unto this we shall return, this is The Law, but meantime, by God, we Can laugh our asses off. What a gift, You know? Let us snicker while we Can, brothers and sisters. Let us use That which makes dark things quail.
Between 1990 and 2010, Iowa lost over 500 churches. The numbers reflect migration from rural to urban areas and the fewer number of people who identify with a faith community. The decline in churches is having a direct effect on the social fabric of the state. According to research at Iowa State University, nine out of ten rural people said they rely less on their neighbors than they once did. Surviving churches have gone back to older patterns to find leadership, engaging itinerant pastors or lay leaders. Some are surviving through cooperation with other denominations or with ethnic Christian groups (Pacific Standard, January 20).