By Dan Clendenin
A few weeks before the beginning of Lent, I signed up for the daily email version of Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac.” Each day features a poem, and then short vignettes about literature, authors, historical figures, birthdays, and events.
The very first day that I signed up, I received a poem by Dorianne Laux called “Antilamentation,” from her book The Book of Men (2011). The crazy title first caught my attention. I’ve subsequently thought about the poem throughout multiple readings. To say that it captured my attention would be an understatement. Here it is:
Regret nothing. Not the cruel novels you read
to the end just to find out who killed the cook.
Not the insipid movies that made you cry in the dark,
in spite of your intelligence, your sophistication.
Not the lover you left quivering in a hotel parking lot,
the one you beat to the punchline, the door, or the one
who left you in your red dress and shoes, the ones
that crimped your toes, don’t regret those.
Not the nights you called god names and cursed
your mother, sunk like a dog in the livingroom couch,
chewing your nails and crushed by loneliness.
You were meant to inhale those smoky nights
over a bottle of flat beer, to sweep stuck onion rings
across the dirty restaurant floor, to wear the frayed
coat with its loose buttons, its pockets full of struck matches.
You’ve walked those streets a thousand times and still
you end up here. Regret none of it, not one
of the wasted days you wanted to know nothing,
when the lights from the carnival rides
were the only stars you believed in, loving them
for their uselessness, not wanting to be saved.
You’ve traveled this far on the back of every mistake,
ridden in dark-eyed and morose but calm as a house
after the TV set has been pitched out the upstairs
window. Harmless as a broken ax. Emptied
of expectation. Relax. Don’t bother remembering
any of it. Let’s stop here, under the lit sign
on the corner, and watch all the people walk by.
There’s nothing remotely religious about this poem, much less Christian, but the more I thought about it, I think an “antilamentation,” amidst all our penitential repenting, deserves a place among our Lenten practices.
Laux’s poem reminded me of two Latin phrases that help me at Lent. The first one is so common that it has long since passed into our secular vernacular, and for most people has no religious meaning at all: mea culpa. “sorry about that,” or, “my bad!”
If you get a Catholic or Episcopal prayer book and turn to the right page, you’ll get the complete version — mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. This is our Lenten confession of sin, and done well, it’s remarkably liberating: “my fault, my own fault, my own most grievous fault.”
We tell the truth about ourselves. We embrace our brokenness. We don’t blame others, say the devil made me do it, appeal to our genetic inheritance, reproach our social milieu, or indict our toxic parents. True, all these factors helped to shape us into the people we are today. But when we confess our sins, we pray from the heart, “this is my own fault.”
So how do you know when you have confessed your sins adequately or fully? This brings us to the second Latin phrase that I find between the lines of Laux’s poem. Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274) gave us the startling phrase “O felix culpa!” in reference to the fall of Adam: “O fortunate crime!”
The fall of Adam was a blessing? Adam’s sin was a good thing? Yes. However radical and ugly, my brokenness is the occasion for something far greater — God’s redemptive love, grace, and mercy. In Romans 5:20, Paul says that “where sin increased, grace increased all the more.”
In the words of St. Augustine, “God judged it better to bring good out of evil, than to allow no evil to exist.”
Some time ago I was startled to read in Frederick Buechner’s book The Sacred Journey the same idea, that “sin itself can be a means of grace.”
Later still, I came across this idea three more times. Julian of Norwich (1342–1414), an English mystic who lived her life in total solitude, once wrote that “sin will be no shame but an honor.” Anthony deMello writes that “repentance reaches fullness when you are brought to gratitude for your sins.” Then Augustine once again, who wrote, “even from my sins God has drawn good.”
If we don’t pause fully enough at the first Latin phrase to acknowledge the culpability of our own sin, that the fault is our own, then the second Latin phrase about sin as a sort of good fortune can be the worst sort of rationalization. This was precisely the worry of Paul’s critics — “Shall we sin that grace might abound?” “May it never be,” said Paul.
But having confessed our sins fully and freely, we should be careful not to wallow in false guilt. Julian of Norwich offered wise advice when she wrote, “Our courteous Lord does not want his servants to despair because they fall often and grievously; for our falling does not hinder him in loving us.”
And so Laux’s antilamentation — embrace all your life. Regret none of it. Don’t regret your regrets. Trust God for all of it, for by his grace we have “traveled this far on the back of every mistake.”
Image credits: (1) BestAmericanPoetry.com.
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