I came across this poem while I was on retreat last summer. It moved me deeply. Every year on Ash Wednesday I tend to give the same exhortation. I encourage fasting and discourage dieting. Fasting has to do with the soul, not extra fat.
Fasting jolts me out of my own complacency by feeling the ache of hunger. It helps me feel the daily poverty of so many in the world. When I look into the window of Maison Kaiser with my mouth watering I think of the hundreds of millions who would have to use an entire week’s salary to buy a single croissant.
When I fast I think of original sin. Why do a few have so much, and a multitude so little? When I fast I look at the cross and ask why? When I fast my soul is unsettled, yet I feel more alive. I see the world more clearly. I hope this poem touches your soul as deeply as it touched mine.
What does the bag lady give up for Lent?
she hugs the edge of pew set in shadow uncoveted by the pious and shifts her bones to rearrange ache, wipes her nose frosted in scab on an unkind sleeve, swims in the pain of throbbing corns signaling rain, cradles in her lap her lifeline sack, maternal as a tiger.
does she, as the priest exhorts, promise to fast for 40 days? does she, for Jesus’ sake, offer up butter on popcorn colored bubbles in her evening bath? does she, with Joan-of-Arc zeal, abstain from cream in her breakfast coffee and Pepperidge Farm muffins of apple and spice, and the necessary dab of chived sour cream on her daily baked potato?
does she make all things new by rising at five from cool, crisp sheets of patterned rose to sink in prayer in Persian nap? does she walk the other mile at Friday Stations in tight safe slippers avoiding the blood does she send her cloak as Martin of Tours to prove she is sister to one who shivers?
what can Lent mean to one who sits sleeping in the last back pew, sits dreaming of warmth and fresh rye bread, sits unheeding through let-us-greet and reflect and adore and repent and clasp hands in peace? what can she tithe of secrets stored in the paper vault, scorned by thief ignored by moth? one-tenth of a can of kippered sardines, black oozing banana, Saltine clones immaculately conceived hermetically sealed astutely retrieved from a discarded bowl of chili at Wendy’s?
what can she share except her inch of crucifix
By Ethel Marbach as printed in the St. Anthony Messenger, April 1982