Fire and Ashes and Tried Faith
A Father Rick coda
As a journalism professional, I have no compunction about beating dead horses, in keeping with the low standards of my trade. Though I usually like to wait a few weeks or months before returning to a subject. With the short attention spans of readers these days, many won’t remember the first go-around anyway. (Not you - the other readers!)
But I’m breaking my own rule. Just a few days ago, I related the tale of my travels in Haiti with Father Rick Frechette, a genuine American badass priest (I say this as a Prot), who cares enough to make a difference in an often cruel and indifferent world. He does things like taking water to one of the world’s worst slums, rescuing kidnapping victims, and cleaning bodies out of the morgue in Port-au-Prince each week (where I went along with him, and which resembles the tenth concentric circle of Hell), burying the unclaimed dead in cardboard coffins made by his staff, to give them a modicum of dignity in death that they often weren’t afforded in life. If you haven’t read about him, you should. I put the piece behind a paywall last week for my favorite subscribers (the ones who help keep a roof over my head), but have taken that down so even shameless freeloaders can have a crack. (I will likely rerun the original 11,000-word profile I did on Frechette after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti at a later date during a week when I’m away.)
I don’t mean for this to become some holy roller site, mind you. I’ll get back to my regular irreverent and trivial bleatings soon enough. Or not. As my favorite theologian, Jim Harrison, once said, “I like grit. I like love and death. I’m tired of irony.” But since Frechette’s story and words touched many of you, I’d like to share an email he sent after I forwarded him last week’s column.
He didn’t mention whether he liked the column by the way. Which is just fine by me, considering he had more pressing concerns. Again, as I related last week, he writes letters in E.E. Cummings-fashion, with poetic line breaks, no caps, and infrequent punctuation. It’s his epistolary quirk. But I’m letting it stand, because it works for him. This is what he wrote:
you know ash wednesday has big meaning for us catholics
last week, the night before ash wednesday (typically the tuesday of mardi gras excesses)
as we offered evening prayers there was a ton of gunfire, right close to us
hoping stupidly (more to avoid reality) that they were mardi gras firecrakers
even though we long ago got good at telling the difference
it was a bandit attack on our neighborhood
we were in anguish for our children down the road, but could not approach without being killed
police finally came shooting in all directions and broke it up-
we finally learned everyone was ok
wednesday morning, ashes at 7am mass
a good blotch of ashes on our foreheads
to remind us we are dust and our days numbered-
they really are-
and to use time well
during the mass someone came to tell me
that as far as the shooting last night
it was not quite true that everyone is alright
there was a charred car, and a dead man in it burned to ashes
off we went
priestly alb and stole
loaded with very tried faith, and a handful of psalms
we made our raid on the unspeakable
on the street
with all the gawkers including school children
ashes on our heads looking at a burned skull swimming in the ashes of what was once a body
we dared to think
when everything is lost
you still have everything-
we made our prayers for nephesh
the living soul of our brother
for the safe journey to God
to quote Rumi
"when the undertaker has well tied my jaw
you will still hear my music
coming from my dead silence"
the unspeakable was spoken
as i was leaving
i realized i was standing on bullet shells
"thank GOD he was shot before he was burned"
has life become a hierarchy of horrors?
it is becoming only what we make it
When I told Frechette I wanted to run this email, he assented, though asked if I thought it was too dark. No, I told him. Those of us who publish things often tend to want to wrap life up with a tidy bow, when it is anything but tidy. From Ukraine to Haiti to people you probably know, or might even be yourself, suffering surrounds us. Such is life – it ain’t a Hallmark movie. And so I told him I wanted to run it as is. Besides, as my other favorite theologian, Tom Waits, says: “The world is a hellish place, and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering.”
Bonus mission: If you want to alleviate some of that suffering, you can check out the site for Father’s Rick’s mission, the St. Luke Foundation for Haiti. I’ve known Rick for well over a decade now, and he’s a modest person. When I asked him what was the best site to go to if my readers wanted to donate, he just insisted on giving me the general address, and readers could find where to do so if so inclined. He’s not shoving it at you. But I am. In honoring his wishes, here’s the general site. But you can find the donate button on the upper right hand corner. There are a lot of worthy causes in this world. This one is among the worthiest – I’ve checked it out myself on the ground.
Bonus track: Here’s a pristine piece of music, an underappreciated Bob Dylan song from the late nineties, “Not Dark Yet,” with a little Franz Schubert mixed in. It’s performed here by the angel-voiced Aoife O’Donovan, who is accompanied by The Jacobsens on cello and violin. Do stick around for their strings interlude at the 3:10 mark. You won’t be sorry.
Another worthy cause? Feeding my kids. Subscribe now, and don’t miss a single Slack Tide newsletter.