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The Saintly Ass has finally ginned up the courage to tell one of the most brutal chapters of his story—one that explains the origins of his tagline “the recycled saint.” It deals with the power of shame, failure, and the possibility of redemption. My hope is that this final installment of Jilted will drive home the primary lessons of the series—that no matter where in this wide world you’ve wandered off to, you are not irretrievably lost. No matter what horrors you’ve endured or perpetrated, you are not beyond the healing power of grace. No matter how useless you’ve been made to feel, the journey you’re on is exactly the one that will fit you for your new area of usefulness. My friend, you are still desirable to one who, more than loves, is Love.
All this by answering a single question: What’s the deal with the lawn ornament logo?
This is Jilted by St. Asinus, the recycled saint
You’ve probably noticed the image of the little hunk of St. Francis (or some monastic, I’m not exactly sure who) that appears on all the St. Asinus material. You may have wondered why that image?
At one level the meaning behind using a piece of shattered St. Francis should be obvious—God uses broken things, broken things still have value, and so on. Even the St. Asinus tag line—reflections of a recycled saint—is bound up with this little icon. But the key word—recycled—has a more than metaphorical meaning here.
See, if you’ve picked your way over the St. Asinus corpus, you already know that in a prior life I was a successful professor of theology and teaching pastor in a local nondenominational church. In those days I felt like Sampson. And that of course is foreshadow, because like Sampson, I found my Delilah. And a year later, I was clinically depressed, marginally suicidal, and had a criminal record—not for doing anything violent, just for something stupid and rash. I’m saving that story for a day when I’m more healed up than I am even now.
Anyway, standing before a judge in a courtroom as people say awful (and sometimes even false) things about you, and then having reporters pick up on those things, embellish them to make them sexier, and put them on the air as if they were settled fact…all that has a way of driving home the perception that you’ve pretty much wrecked your life.
That said, I am grateful that the judge in my case seemed to see through all the frenzy of the drama to simple center, which was something like I had experienced a horrible lapse in judgement and made a horrendously stupid choice, but was not the menace to society that others made me out to be. So rather that lock me away for many many years, he gave me a long probation and a stack of community service hours.
So now we pick up our story at the community recycling plant, which is where all hardened criminals like me do their community service in our little corner of the world. Now this blighted job consists of standing next to a conveyor belt for eight hours at the front end of the recycling stream. A huge front loader tractor on the ground floor below dumps never-ending buckets of every possible sort of refuse onto a conveyor, which takes it up on to the second floor and dumps it onto another manned by 20 or so heavily supervised ne’er-do-wells. It’s their job—it was my job—to make the first pass at pulling out everything that’s non-recyclable. And in my eight weeks or so of laboring there, I discovered that people try to recycle some pretty ridiculous things—old car tires, bags of clothing, hunks of wood…used diapers. Once I even pulled off a kitchen knife block, complete with the knives still in it. You can’t talk to anyone else because of the noise, and no one is really interested in talking to anyone else anyway.
It is the nosiest form of solitude you can imagine—a sort of fraternity of the damned, except without the sense of fraternity. The stream of garbage is never-ending. The sort of labor that would bore even Sisyphus.
It does, however, give you a lot of time to think, and perhaps that’s some of the point. Now being a Protestant, and the idea of penance never took up much space in my theology. But now I began to think more about the value it might have. As I stood there on sore flat feet dragging the detritus of environmental zealots off the conveyer, the idea of doing something with the body to express remorse for the sins of the soul didn’t seem like such a silly idea. So I made a bargain with myself. I would spend each four hour shift contemplating some specific named person or group I had wronged in my folly. So the morning shift might consist of intentional reflection on the elders at the church, and the afternoon shift my former Dean at the seminary. These were all people who had to pick up the mess I left behind. I spent a shift reflecting on my students at the seminary, another thinking about what all this had done to my kids, and two-whole shifts thinking about my wife, who was the most innocent and most greatly wronged party in the whole sorry business. As I neared the end, I was even able to experience enough remorse to even spend a shift thinking about the complainants in my case—a particularly humbling experience, as I also was possessed of a great deal of anger toward them for the many wrongs they had done me in the ten months preceding my folly (that’s its own story, and I won’t dwell on it here).
Nothing drives home the egregious nature of one’s combat errors than reflecting on the names of the dead and wounded. And by the time my community service hours were winding down, I was in a pretty low state. I was convinced that my imbecility was so great that, not only would I never be given a chance to do anything worthwhile again, I did not even deserve such a chance. I was like the garbage on the belt before me, cast off, unwanted. Not even a piece of glass or plastic which would travel down the belt and eventually by means of some miracle I still don’t understand be given a new usefulness by the recycling process. No, I was just one of the pieces of unsalvageable flotsam that got dragged off at the first stage and sent down the shoot, destined for the landfill.
As I was ruminating on this dark prospect, my gloved hand fell upon a piece of unrecyclable grey plastic. By rote I pulled it free from the stream and held it over the garbage shoot. Only then did my eye register what it was. Some environmentally conscious citizen had decided to recycle a shattered resin lawn ornament. At one time it had probably been a St. Francis, but now on the recycling stream all that was left was an eight inch piece of his robed legs. It wasn’t even obvious that this was what it was until I made out the small cross that traditionally hung from the waist of the monastics. I stood staring at this piece of shattered saint as the left-over debris of an enlightened civilization coursed by me on the conveyer.
Then it struck me. This was a metaphor for the whole thing. Once a respected member of the community of saints, now shattered in pieces, and consigned to the rubbish heap. At least that was what was about to happen. Old St. Francis hovered over the trash shoot, while I sorted out what I was feeling. He had no value to anyone. He’d already been thrown away once. He served no purpose anymore. He was destined for the landfill. Unless…unless the one holding him refused to let go. And for all his woes, he was still being held by someone.
It seemed to me in that moment that my own destiny hung on what I did next.
The rules had been made clear to me. Nothing was to be removed from the building under penalty of law. But hey, the reason I was there in the first place was for ignoring the law, so I supposed it was time to live up to the hoodlum’s reputation I’d been branded with. I secreted St. Francis in my sock, and wore him home like a holy shin-guard. He now hangs on the wall of my study, reminding me that, while broken things are often discarded, not always. Sometimes they get recycled. The difference lies in the worth they have to the one that’s holding them.
While broken things are often discarded, not always. Sometimes they get recycled. The difference lies in the worth they have to the one that’s holding them.
You can be shattered to the point where you don’t see any value in yourself anymore. Your friends or family may have abandoned you. The whole culture may have dismissed you based on what little it thinks it knows. All this hurts like hell. But remember, you do not lie ultimately in any of these hands. You are held in the hands of another. One who does not discard, but, shattered though you be, calls you a saint—not because your actions have always been saint-like, but because another’s holy actions have been credited to your account.
All who rest upon that savior’s actions are called saints because of him. And for him it doesn’t matter how many pieces you been smashed into. For him, nothing goes down the chute, because for him everything is useful, everything can be recycled.
So no matter how broken you are, or how much shame you carry about with you, don’t be afraid to live into your new identity, even if it is that of an Ass. Remember even an Ass can be a Saint.
This has been Jilted, by St. Asinus.
If you want to talk about your journey, get in touch with the Holy Ass through Facebook or by email, or leave a comment. He’d love to hear from you. And a special thank you to Rev. Jeremy Hatley for sponsoring this episode of the Homilies. If you’d like to help in the productions of these little essays, please visit my Patreon page. We’ll catch you next time at the Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.