Lent reflection 4 – hellbender graves reach skyward

And forgive us our trespasses, ..

-Matthew 5

This short story from my youth has been transported over from a simple post that I initially placed on Facebook. Here it is copied.

——- For much of childhood, my dad and his brothers would often take me fishing. Uncle —— (who is otherwise a good dude and now, -35 years later, is far more conservationist) caught a HUGE Helllbender in Indian Creek, Fayett county. He was not certain how aggressive it may be, and apparently didn’t want to find out or otherwise mess with it. After all, common water snakes similarly grow huge and are highly aggressive with a bite that carries bacteria and an anticoagulant that leaves you trickling blood for hours.

He realed it in until around 10 feet remained in the line, and aggressively whipped the Hellbender back and forth, trying to dislodge the hook. I was thinking, “Whoa, let me get my net. We’ll take it home to my fish tank or put it in the pond.” A boy that age does not think about the fact that he too knew nothing about these creatures, and it did appear…nasty. Nor do you think about the practicality of putting a nearly two foot long living creature into a 15 gallon aquarium, or the requirement of properly transporting an animal that probably requires clean and cold water with high oxygen levels. Oh, and there’s no way you tell uncle — something like that when he’s down to business. He simply does not suffer frogs or turtles or rare, poorly understand water hell demons, or anything other than a trout.

When the herkyjerks didn’t work, he dragged it over some rocks and roots to a nearby boulder, bashed its head off a rock, then stepped on the neck so it would die quickly. Now twenty feet or so away with net in hand, I stood frozen and jaw-dropped for what seemed like 20 minutes.

“Damn that thing is ugly. No wonder they call them Hellbenders, huh Bobby.”

Over the next few years I unsuccessfully searched for one of the mysterious creatures…or demons-? I wished to hook one on my fishing line, just like uncle. I will admit to hoping that if such good fortune would strike, it would be much smaller.

Ten years or so later, I finally did come across a much less intimidating Hellbender living in a small tributary of Slipper Rock Creek. I examined it for thirty seconds or so before tossing it back. It was harmless, with an appearance young in years yet ancient, of another era.

This sad reminder was written yesterday, a Friday during Lent. In some faith traditions, this is supposed to be a day of quiet prayer, reflection, and fasting. This is the time of year where I often did spend an hour on Fridays standing beside that same uncle during 5:00 Mass.

Some current friends who are historians by profession have often reminded me that historical figures should not be morally judged by modern standards. The events in this story are historical. They occurred (only?) 35 years ago, and my uncle and I are not exactly historical figures. But I ask that you would extend that grace to us. He held a Masters Degree in Education from the Indiana University of PA. Hellbenders and certain degrees of environmental conservation were on the radar of no one outside of Environmental Science majors and fringe specialists.

In those days, I learned some Scriptural things, a few liturgical things, and otherwise payed -some- attention during Mass. But “Church” was honestly more of a serious, highly valuable session of Forced Internal Quiet, passing time, mind wandering, and even some self reflection. And standing beside Uncle in church, surely there was a small spark of dissonance inside my small developing mind. I knew how we lived, mostly good but not all, what I thought and wished, and how pitifully short it all fell of the Glorious standard.

More on that in an upcoming post. But for now I’m thinking about the irony of the fact that Hellbender graves reach skyward. We have unrolled the tombstone on these and many other things ancient and priceless. Hellbenders need pristine water and larger rocks to thrive. Their habitat in lower elevations was destroyed long ago through various development. Now, their final retreat to deep forest under tree and rock cover are threatened, mostly through innocent messing with the rocks. Oh, I’ve done my share of that through critter searches, dam building, and other tomfoolery.

There’s also the irony of Cairns, the somewhat popular and fun stacking of big rocks under small ones to create a stalagmite-like pillar right in the creek bed. It’s like playing with big legos, or a more creative Jenga. I’ve also read of it being viewed as a type of spiritual practice, this gathering and shaping of odd shapes and sizes into a work of perfect balance and harmony. 🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️

The even greater irony is our own blaring unawareness, recklessness, and even ravenous ways of everyday living that lead to the loss of some of our most spectacular sources of beauty, wonder, and our very own long term well being, spiritual, physical, and otherwise. No church building can fully capture and contain this sanctuary.

I don’t know exactly how far we should go, or at this point need to go in making everyday sacrifices of convenience. There is absolutely a point where the tail wags the dog. Some kind of guilt lecture is truly not my point here. But I know that most of us have our basic necessities far more than met. May we at least carry on with awareness, humility, and a measure of restraint. There are about a million and one small and large helpful, truly sacrificial things we can do beyond cutting back on sweets or not eating meat on Fridays. May we put thought to it and find a way to make it part of our very own quiet spiritual practice.

That is why it has been written:

”Wake up, sleeper

Rise up from the dead

And Christ will shine among you!”

-Ephesians 5

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