A very important person who passed away recently is reported to have reflected profoundly on life and death, on his sick bed. Some others dismiss the story as a sham. At any rate, as the Italians say, si non è vero, è bene trovato – even if it’s not true, it’s well said. Reflections on the mystery of life and death hold important lessons for the human soul.

As Christians, we should be concerned about the life we lead, for upon that will depend our fate in the afterlife. It’s futile even for a churchman to bend over backwards to “save” a departed soul whose fate is practically sealed; and no amount of adulation can change their post-history. It is equally absurd to try and “modify” the image they’d carved for themselves. In short, it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for history to be rewritten convincingly and abidingly by PR men. Truth always prevails.

Lent is an apt time to reflect on our personal history and on meta-history. The season reminds us that we are dust and to dust we will return; it points to our impermanence and to the limited time at our command. But, alas, as Helen Keller notes, “Most of us, however, take life for granted. We know that one day we must die, but usually we picture that day as far in the future. When we are in buoyant health, death is all but unimaginable. We seldom think of it. The days stretch out in an endless vista. So we go about our petty tasks, hardly aware of our listless attitude toward life.”

It is undeniable that each day brings us closer to death; then, why not prepare for it while it’s time! There should be no regrets when the hour strikes. Étienne de Grellet says very evocatively: “I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” Truly, if we have lived with loving kindness, at the end of our earthly journey we will not fret about how history will remember us. In the memorable words of King Dom Pedro of Brazil, we will die in peace, “serenely awaiting the justice of God in the voice of history”.

But isn’t all this easier said than done? Yes; as frail human beings, we’re prone to fail. Hence, the accent should be on mending our ways and getting back on track. On the very first day of Lent, the Holy Scripture counsels us: “Rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:12). It’s a clear invitation to look inside ourselves and pluck out the evil lurking there. A time-tested prescription for a change of heart is prayer, fasting and alms-giving, provided we don’t practise our piety before fellow humans in order to be seen by them; or look dismal when we fast, like the hypocrites do; and, when giving alms, don’t proclaim it from the rooftops.

But that’s not all. In our Information Age, we might well summon up another pertinent Biblical prescription: “Let what you say be ‘yes, yes’ or ‘no, no’” (Matt. 5:37) This Biblical instruction rounds it up for our social media-savvy generation for whom praying, fasting and giving alms may not be an issue at all but taking a position may feel politically incorrect. For instance, a Christian who has the impudence to refer to the sufferings of a politico, a mere mortal, on a par with those of Christ may well have betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of silver.

Steve Jobs, the man who hyped the Apple bite in the digital age, is also credited with a soulful quote recorded in his last days. He is said to have dubbed the modern, consumerist individual a “twisted being”. This is nothing new; it comes across as a newfound truth only because a latter-day ‘saint’ uttered it. The more important point to take in is that we shouldn’t leave plain truths such as these to startle us at the eleventh hour, when all along we’d learnt that our real treasure lies in Heaven.

We Christians who have gone through Lent year after year should have known better. Our catechesis should have set us thinking not only about life but about the afterlife as well. All things considered, Death lets us appreciate the meaning and purpose of Life – and this is perhaps one of the most important lessons we can draw from Lent.

First published in Renovação, 1-15 April 2019

and in The Stella Maris Bulletin, Lent 2019