The Divine Hours of Lent

Last week-end, I was in Michigan, that most cordial and beautiful of states, when it happened again. It was Friday, and the luncheon spread for the meeting I was addressing was a buffet of roast beef and thin-sliced, baked ham for sandwiches, with some nice cheese choices as supplements or substitutes. There was the usual, if somewhat antique, chatter about Friday in Lent and how much better the ham and/or beef looked than did the cheeses. Being a vegetarian, I had no problem, but clearly some of my fellow-grazers did. I turned to one woman who was hesitating and said, “Just do what my husband does. Pick up the beef, put it on your plate, and say, ‘Born a cow, died a fish.’”
I was trying to be funny, admittedly; but I was not lying or even fantasizing. I’ve heard Sam Tickle cross a hunk of beef and bless it with, “Born a cow, died a fish” more times than I could even hope to count. When our children were at home and we were more strenuous about Lenten fasting than we are now, he did it routinely. He especially did it when, after enough weeks of foolishness, his natural craving for beef overcame his sense of holy intention.
But the woman to whom I said the words, set down the slice of beef, turned all the way to me, and said, “What did you say?” And I repeated myself: Born a cow, died a fish.
“Oh,” she said, “I just love southernisms. I wish I knew more of them.”
I don’t know whether or not she went back later to get the beef she obviously wanted, but I do know I chewed on her reaction for the whole meal. It has happened to me before, that reaction. It has happened many, many times, in fact. I can remember, for instance, when, in a sales conference of serious proportions in PUBLISHERS WEEKLY’s New York office, I was a brand-new staff member. I was, in fact, the new Religion Editor where previously there had not ever been one. Some well-meaning and certainly bright sales rep suggested some off-the-wall way to sell ads to religion publishers who never before had advertised in a secular trade journal. I don’t remember what the cock-a-mamey idea was, but I do remember knowing it was blatantly stupid and inappropriate for the market we were seeking. What I said, then, was perfectly simple and straight-forward to me. I said, “Nope, that dog won’t hunt in my woods.” There was dead silence, then a titter, and then the question: What did you just say?
“I said,” I repeated, “that that dog won’t hunt in my woods.” The whole meeting broke into applause…not because of my acumen, but because of my mode of conveying it. The “that dog won’t hunt in my woods” words became a kind of mantra thereafter, but the immediate response was, “Boy, that’s a great Southernism!”
“No, it’s not, “I thought to myself. “It’s a perfectly clear and very tactful way of saying that an idea, while obviously an idea, is the wrong one for the purpose you’re trying to apply it to. Beyond that, my way of saying that something won’t work is much clearer and considerably less obfuscated than is the more urbanized way of talking about cultural resonances and contextual dissonances, etc., etc.”…which was when it dawned on me what had happened.
Neither the hunting dog nor the cow-transposed-to-fish nor a baker’s dozen of other such parts of my region’s daily conversation are Southernisms per se. Yes, they exist regionally…or they have survived in the South, may be a better way to put it. But what they really are is a reflection of people who still live in fairly close juxtaposition to the land and to the physicality of life. In Lucy, TN, we have little use for contextual resonances, though we know what they are. We just prefer coon hounds and the reality of where they will and will not hunt. It’s a cleaner and sharper and far more pictorial way of delivering the message.
Religion…and especially the Christian religion…is very physical and very pictorial in its images, metaphors, and tenets, too. That, I suspect, is one of the reasons that the so-called Bible-belt of Christian America still runs through the Southern states. What the real disjuncture may be, though, is in the space that accrues between very pictorial and physical scriptures and the life experiences of those who have little or no engagement with the unpremeditated, un-mediated experience of the physical.
It occurs to me, in fact, that when we find today’s emergent Christians, especially the young ones, yearning toward the ancient disciplines of fixed-hour prayer and fasting and Sabbath-keeping and toward the worship forms of liturgical dance and of holy fools or toward the plastics arts of weaving and pottery in worship, what we may really be seeing is a yearning to come home to the physicality of Christianity as it truly in essence is. I hope that is what is happening anyway; because at heart, I think, Jesus was a Southern boy who would probably like to see at least some of us begin to say things His way again.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus