I’m starting off Lent this year not in the desert but in my own Jerusalem, New York City — city of temples and towers, titans and toilers, Rev. George Rutler and the Rockettes. It is here you’ll find the best and the worst man has to offer, the supremely serious and the sublimely silly. Here we have one of the highest abortion rates on earth, and a city council that is trying to outlaw crisis pregnancy centers; here also, one of the better archdiocesan seminaries and some of the most reverent liturgies anywhere in the Roman rite. Here stands the apartment where Margaret Sanger hatched the conspiracy that became Planned Parenthood; here also the garrets where old friends of mine helped organize Operation Rescue. Here lingers the still-infected wound of Ground Zero — and the secular sacrament of the Chrysler Building. It’s a city of extremes and so points up for me a lesson on sin, grace, and nature I couldn’t learn in other places. And the dachshunds really help.
Since I gave up my rent-stabilized place in Queens to go teach in New Hampshire, this son of the city of man has had no place there to lay his head. My family all lives out in the boonies on Long Island, where white folks go to diet, and I really am too old to be crashing on friend’s couches. To squat I am too proud, to rent I am too stingy. So I’ve used my impeccable credentials as a dog rescuer to land a gig off Craigslist whereby I house-sit a lovely apartment smack dab in the city’s center, in return for offering loving care to two adorable wiener dogs. Let’s call them, for convenience’s sake, Pelagia and Agostino. And each of them carries insights about man’s fate and the usefulness of Lent on its absurdly fragile back.
While these dogs have grown old together, they have also grown apart, into habits and preferences so starkly different that they need to be walked separately. Their bladders are so small that they each need four walks a day. That adds up to eight expeditions outside with dachshunds, a routine that keeps me grounded and has begun to serve for me as a set of liturgical hours. Since dog-walking time is what I usually use for prayer and cogitation — no TV there to distract me, no books, and no computer — I’m making the most I can of these eight daily walks with the wiener dogs.
Pelagia is unfallen. Robust, healthy, and playful, she’s eager to canter along the crowded sidewalks, deftly avoiding on her own the wheels of strollers, the roller-blading teens, the deliverymen trundling carts. All I really need to do is trot along behind her, holding the leash. This is pretty much how man’s appetites (for sex, for power, for fame, for food) would have operated in Eden, allowing our reason and will to follow their healthy lead. We only would have craved our wives, our proper place in the social hierarchy, and the fruit of our own gardens. Deny the Fall of man, as the theologian Pelagius for whom I’ve re-christened this dachshund did, and Pelagia is the kind of dog you’d think you were walking. Ironically, in real life, Pelagius was no easy-going liberal but a stark, ascetical scold who thought that man could and must save himself without the Grace of Christ — who served for Pelagius not so much as a savior as a really demanding example: The Church was the Eternal Kennel Club, and Jesus was Best in Show.
Agostino, by contrast, is fragile, contentious, and a little battered-looking. His graying snout and occasional quiver make me much more cautious with this dog, who’s on pain medication for arthritis. You’d think his pain might render him both reticent and prudent, but you’d be wrong. The moment his gnarly paws hit the asphalt, Agostino makes straight for the wheels of oncoming taxis. Restrain him from that, attempt to redirect him toward a patch of grass or inviting tree, and he’ll hunker down in place, boring into you with brown, heartbroken eyes, literally shivering, raising a single paw to beg you: Please may I run into traffic? Why are you being so cruel? It won’t help to pick him up, since if you try that trick he’ll emit a bloodcurdling howl as if in agony. In case he isn’t faking, I’ve stopped attempting to lift him (however gingerly), but I really am suspicious — having come to see that he lets out the very same knifetwisting-in-the-heart sound when I take too long fishing out the keys. Agostino really is ailing, but he has learned to use his handicap to advantage: I’m desperate to keep the dog happy, to give him a pleasant walk — except that the walk he wants is straight into Third Avenue traffic. Another route I’ve tried with Agostino leads to a less congested area — and a beautifully tended garden he wants to explore. But the gates, alas, are locked. Agostino sees in this no obstacle and tries to wedge his tiny body under the fence and into Eden, where I can’t follow.
So I try my best to manage Agostino, remembering that however rebellious he may be, he really is fragile. I can try to train him a little to walk down the narrow path, but I musn’t do him inadvertent violence. Agostino, as you might have guessed, is the dog who fits St. Augustine’s account of man’s nature, which God Himself must firmly guide by gentle steps down the safe path that leads to peace.
If I were to treat Agostino like Pelagia, I would either send him to meet his maker beneath a Michelin, or accidentally break his back. Those mirror-image dangers nicely illustrate the errors into which our theologies can lead the conscience. On the one hand, we might convince ourselves that the dog has the “right” to go wherever he wants, that he knows best what is safe. Such laxism is what we’ve come to expect in modern, suburban parishes with chintzy, tacky sanctuaries and extremely comfortable seats. I’ve dubbed it “Dollar Store Pelagianism,” since its standards are set by its prices: low, low, low. Contrarily, if we believe we can, by brute force, tame and discipline this battered, injured dog, we are liable to injure or cripple the natural good that God has made. Here the emphasis is on results whatever the cost, so this approach deserves the name “Sweatshop Pelagianism.” I can do this, regardless of God, if I just tighten my belt — or whip it off to beat the dog.
The key, as I found in writing about the Seven Deadly Sins and their opposing Virtues, is that the continuum between them covers only two-thirds of the moral spectrum. As Aquinas wrote, echoing and elevating Aristotle’s ethics, a virtue resides in the Golden Mean between extremes — shunning both the reckless embrace by a fallen will of some created good, and a reckless, inhuman contempt for it. The real spectrum we daily face extends from Vice (say, Anger) through the Virtue (such as Patience), to a gnostic Neurosis (like Servility).
Perhaps the best way to illustrate this point involves not dogs but speedometers. If we think of our will as an engine, and the car as pointed toward some good thing made by God, the virtuous pursuit of this good will take place somewhere around 55 mph. A sinful addiction to it would speed us recklessly at 120 mph through a school zone. A cruel disdain for the natural good would find us blocking the entrance ramp, snoozing along at 10 mph.
Of course, such metaphors never can quite do profound realities justice — and anyway, cars in Manhattan can rarely move much faster than 10 mph. So I think I’ll return to the dogs — who anyway need to be walked again. A holy Lent to one and all.