I’ve never been much good at giving up anything. To temper my spiritual steel during past Lents, instead of sacrificing an indulgence—pizza or chocolate or a Hollywood melodrama of the 1930s—I have added to my daily routine a meditative or, since the Lord has chosen to give me a mind that I have not yet lost, an intellectual challenge. These include tackling a work of Greek or Roman literature I’ve long neglected because I found it too demanding, praying an obscure devotion, cracking a door-stopping 19th century European novel. I add. I don’t subtract.
This year, I dipped into Thomas Aquinas. I admit being drawn in by the few facts I did know about the life of the saint who classmates nicknamed the Dumb Ox. In spite of the exhaustive nature of his Summa Theologica—one of the foundational documents of classic and for that matter contemporary Catholic thinking—Aquinas never finished this pointed commentary on the nature of spirituality, on writing, and on life. Although the man probably died as a consequence of his ceaseless endeavors, before he went he claimed to have had a vision of heaven (and I’m not saying that he didn’t) in which all of his work appeared as so much straw compared to his glimpse of the eternal. He quit writing.
Aquinas is a painstaking read. He is in no particular hurry to get anywhere, and his exploration of esoteric concepts is shot through with frequent references to Augustine, whom I have not read, and to St. Paul, whom I have read and not understood. Two pages of Aquinas a day would have been plenty, but in the interest of honesty, I failed to accomplish even this little bit.
I ruminated briefly on one of the Angelic Doctor’s endless inquiries—deliberating, maybe, on whether perseverance is a gratuitous or sanctifying grace. Briefly, as I said, before determining that that was certainly enough of that.
Our apartment is situated on a block that abuts one of the jewels in the New York City park system, and because it’s almost always a good idea to go out for a walk—Aquinas not withstanding—I set myself on the interior path of this green space, absorbing the light and the air, breathing in the new spring.
This was a few weeks back, and the park’s dog run had yet to be padlocked. Fencing separates the turf into two sections, one for smaller breeds, and another designated for shepherds and retrievers and the like. When I approached, what I took to be a melding of bull terrier and Labrador, a popular mix and a good-sized animal, was trespassing in the small-dog reserve. His rear legs were paralyzed, and the beast was fixed to some two-wheeled contraption, dragging forward a few inches at a time on its forelegs, the hind quarters brought into pitiable motion with the wheels. An awful creature. I would have had it put down long ago, I thought as I moved on. There was something to be said, after all, for quality of life.
Two men on a bench, well past the age of any contemporary sense of usefulness, were arguing in Polish, ignoring current strictures and sitting much closer than six feet apart, maybe in order to hear one another. Perhaps they were simply discussing something. It’s difficult to discern if you don’t speak the language.
After completing a loop, I arrived again at the dog run. The wheeled mongrel, his hour of exercise expired, was leaving with his master, panting as he pulled himself through the gate. Our eyes met. The windows of this animal’s soul reflected a gentleness of nature, a sweetness, a depth of sadness. I’m conferring human emotion on a creation of the lower order, I know, but I thought I saw gratitude in the animal’s eyes, a sublime appreciation for the difficulty and the deliciousness of being.
A raindrop fell on my cheek. The daffodils, I noticed, were coming up. And luscious white blossoms clothed the most delicate branches of the trees. The squeals of distant children struck my ears. I understand that a dog perceives the reality of rain, daffodils, and the joyful shrieks of children in a different way (not thinking about them, for instance, as I do). But, I wondered, would I take any of what he does perceive away from this animal? I would not.
And in that moment, I felt a shift in my soul, a stirring that I can only attribute to the grace of God, whether gratuitous or sanctifying, I cannot say. In the event, the instant I became aware of the feeling, it disappeared. I walked on.