The Divine Hours of Lent

A friend of mine—a bookseller, in fact, and therefore a colleague as well as a friend—told me a story the other day. She was driving me to the airport; and we were just making conversation, when she chanced to say that Lent always forces her to revisit a time many years ago when she spent two weeks in the Dominican Republic. The poverty there at the time, she said, was overwhelming to her—so far beyond any prior experiences she had had as to be almost impenetrable as well emotionally devastating just to observe.
But, she said, after the first three or four days of her stay, and as she began to travel easily among the Dominicans, she became more aware of their happiness than of their poverty. Within another day or two, she was forced to admit that, abject poverty or no, these were a singularly happy people. She realized, as well, that she perceived abounding happiness in a people of terrible poverty as somehow incongruous or contradictory, if not almost scandalous. Smart enough and trained enough to understand that the problem was hers and not theirs, she also concluded that it was a direct result of some cultural construct or other she had brought with her. She just couldn’t figure out what. Finally, she said, she gave up pondering and decided to ask.
“What,” she said to the owner of a restaurant where she was taking her meals each day, “What is the reason for such happiness among your people?”
“Ah,” he said, “our happiness is in our death.”
“So what is one to make of that?” my friend asked me, turning so completely in my direction that the car swerved a little. “You can call it fatalism, or escapism. Or you can say that in a tropical climate people who are denied all the ‘stuff’ of life, day in and day out, are free of any obligation to anything and anybody beyond what the moment itself brings.”
She drove almost a mile before she said, “And then, of course, you’ve got cultures like ours where death has become the enemy. I had a friend—she died last summer, actually—who fought it so hard that her whole last three years was just a miserable wrestling match, and her family still acted surprised and offended that the cancer had finally won. It was almost as if they blamed God for creating death.”
I had had several similar experiences myself and said so. “Yes,” she said, negotiating the turn into the airport’s “Departing Passengers” lane. “And then there’s all those good folks I can’t for the life of me understand who think that this life is all about dying so you can just get into Heaven somewhere else, which is kind of a Christianized variation on the Dominicans’ take on the thing.”
“The other side of the coin being,” I said, “the ancient one that death is just a shady never-never-land of nothing.”
“Or,” she added, “the one that’s coming back more and more nowadays. I see it in the store a lot in what people buy and in what they say about what they’re reading…that belief that death is just THE END, period. There is nothing after that. It’s all here and now and only for as much purpose as any single one of us cares to give it.”
“So?” I said.
“Well, so let’s face it, how you understand death is how you will live..maybe not all that intentionally or awaredly, but what any one of us thinks of death and how we envision it is the real determinant about how we envision life and embrace it.”
Then she added, “Too bad Lent is the only time we really give a lot of concentrated attention to it, isn’t it?”
“Yep,” I said and got out of the car to retrieve my bags, too stunned by what she had just opened up for me to even say thank you. Maybe sharing her wisdom here is a better way of saying thank you anyway. I hope so.

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