Monday, March 15, 2010

March 11: Saint Pionius

Once a week, I have a man date. No, this is not a admission of sin, some great, shocking confession. Basically, I go out for Diet Dew, fries, ice cream, Shamrock Shakes, whatever, with my pastor friend. Now, you'd expect two guys to get together and go bowling or shoot pool. Maybe take in a Jackie Chan flick and then down a few brewskis. Let me state, for the record, my friend and I are manly men, completely at ease with our masculinity. So it should come as no shock that when he and I get together, we talk about and write...poetry.

For the last couple of weeks, we've been meeting at the local Big Boy. We returned there this week because they played '80s hair band music on the loudspeaker during our first visit. My friend and I are proud products of that decade. We both sported mullets back in the day, and I, personally, went through more hair colors than Cyndi Lauper (which may partly account for my current Friar Tuck look, along with genetics). Anyway, the music was good, and the onion rings were fresh.

While the music station had changed this week (I believe it was some kind of Motown mix), the food was just as good. We don't usually get right down to writing. Usually, there's a little decompression time where we both air the dirty and clean laundry of our lives. There's a sort of unspoken rule for our evenings together: what happens on poetry night, stays on poetry night. It's a safe place for us to share our problems and worries, offer advice or encouragement, and solve the problem of global warming (not to worry, guys and gals, we almost have it licked).

On our man date this week, we didn't have anything particularly earth-shattering to discuss, other than the fact that we were both pretty tired. My daughter had just received her first detention at school. That was weighing me down a little bit. The offense was of the misdemeanor variety as school offenses go, but as a concerned father, I was a little flummoxed over the cause of my daughter's foray into delinquency. I tend to over-think and over-analyze everything in my life, so I was trying to discern some deeper meaning to the infraction. Perhaps I had done something that was causing my daughter to act out. (It's no fun living in my head sometimes.)

Pretty much, though, my friend and I were just enjoying the end of a long week and anticipating a little down time, which, in both our cases, simply means a shift in responsibilities. In my case, I switch from working in a medical office and teaching at the college to practicing with my praise band, rehearsing with choirs, teaching Sunday School, and leading worship music. My friend switches to weekend pastor mode, which means running worship services, delivering messages, chaperoning youth group lock-ins, and tending to all the other congregational fires which may erupt.

After finishing our plate of onion rings and downing a couple glasses of Diet Pepsi, we got down to work.

Our task for the week was to write a poem based on a writing exercise by a poet named Lee Upton. It is called "Index/Table of Contents Exercise," and it involves doing one of two things: "invent a mock index focusing on a character or subject of your choice, or invent a mock table of contents for a future book." Upton says to include page numbers with your mock index/table. (This exercise comes from a collection of poetry exercises titled The Practice of Poetry, a book I highly recommend to other men for their nights out with the guys.)

I chose to write the table of contents of a book on the martyrdom of today's saint, Pioinius. Call me morbid, but the physical details of a martyr's death fascinate me because they often involve extreme violence, some humor, and a lot of balls on the part of the saint. The saint usually mocks, chastises, or argues, and, by the end of the ordeal, doesn't seem to suffer a whole hell of a lot. It has to do with trust and faith, obviously. For me, who can be thrown into a tailspin by a third-grade lunchtime detention, that kind of trust in the face of torture and imminent death proves that I have a lot to learn. God needs to keep me after school and make me write "I will trust in You" about a billion times on the chalkboard, or until my fingers cramp or I run out of chalk.


The poem I wrote about Pionius is based on a first-hand description of his trial and death quoted in a book called The Acts of Christian Martyrs. Most of the language comes directly from this account. I titled the poem "How to Become a Turkish Martyr":

Once upon a time in Smyrna.....1
Sacred bread with water, woven chains…..2
Idol sacrifice, forbidden meats…..2
Emperor’s edict, God’s command…..4
Men of Greece, Homer and Solomon…..5
Foreign fornication, slander, golden calf…..6
Chaff or wheat, winnowing…..7
Dead Sea, punished for man…..8
Judgment by fire, his Word…..10
Burnt alive, or to burn after death…..12
Heaven and earth, all things that are…..13
How ruddy his complexion…..15
Famine and violent death…..17
Hungry with us, tranquil, praise…..19
Trampled by swine, dragon’s tail…..22
Fiery winnowing-fork, Word of God…..25
Rebel angels, demonic ministers…..27
They would not deny, die…..29
Knotted scarf, choking…..31
“Which god do you worship?”…..33
Redemption of the world…..33
Crown, tore them apart…..35
Back to prison, mocked and beat…..37
Clubbed him heavily, wounded…..39
Name, Christ, psalms and prayers…..41
“Will you offer sacrifice?”…..42
I am a presbyter, a teacher…..44
Him who made the air…..45
“Change your mind”…..46
Rushing, but towards life…..49
Eager for death, burnt alive…..51
Removed his clothes, stretched…..52
On the gibbet, hammer, nails…..52
They are in to stay…..53
Firewood, logs, circle…..54
Flames, last Amen, joyful…..55
“Lord, receive my soul”…..55
Trust, soul, all blood, every spirit…..56
Unjustly condemned…..56
Through the narrow gate, great light…..57
Body, athlete, full array, height…..58
Ears not distorted, face, beard…..59
First blossom of hair…..60
Once again—wondrous grace!…..60

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