CNS photo/Octavio Duran

A pre-Lenten journey shows just how blessed my life is

  • April 11, 2014

Like most Canadians, the thought of travelling to the Caribbean during the dead cold of winter has always had magical appeal. That appeal has been reinforced by two teenagers who have done a pretty good job over the years of reminding me that almost “everyone we know” had taken one of those all-inclusive trips to the sun.

So finally this winter, feeling in need of something restorative after some rough times, I gave in to the lure of the sun, beaches and ocean breezes that I’ve long sensed beckoning me. I’d resisted in the past because these all-inclusive trips — all you can eat and drink, nothing but sun and fun — seemed hedonistic. Maybe it’s my Catholic upbringing, but a week without limits seemed wrong. But everyone we spoke to raved about this type of holiday. They assured me that we’d love it.

Our family holidays have traditionally included an eclectic schedule of visits to museums, basilicas, art galleries, historical sites and such. My husband, an academic, has that pasty white Irish skin and he doesn’t tolerate the sun very well. Often, I have complained about vacations that seemed much too busy, too much driving, too much like work. So when my sister and her family scheduled a week in the Dominican Republic before Lent, I booked a last-minute family trip alongside them.

Why not do nothing and be pampered for a week? Grieving the loss of my mother over the past year involved a long project of sorting through her possessions with my sister. It also involved so much spiritual work. Besides, I wanted to see for myself what the hype was all about. I felt ready to just do nothing, be shallow for a week and just relax.

I have to admit the first few days at the resort felt a little bit like heaven on Earth. I kept thinking if man could create such beauty on Earth, imagine what God has created in heaven? For days I relished in the splendour of the swaying palm trees, the clear blue ocean, the brilliant flowers, the sandy beach —  it was all so beautiful. Absorbing the glory of God’s creation took my breath away.

I was even delighted by the uniforms worn by the staff, the bowties and the crisp white shirts. Their brilliant warm smiles lifted my spirits. I loved the formality of the servers, their joyful disposition and I relished being served. As a mother, I especially loved not having to grocery shop, wash dishes, vacuum and do laundry. What a delight for a change to have no one asking me: “What’s for dinner?”

Then one day we took a taxi from the resort to visit a friend of my daughter’s, who lived just a few minutes away. Sitting in the front seat, I spotted a beautiful rosary on the rear-view mirror. The driver couldn’t speak a word of English, but when I touched the rosary and pointed to the Miraculous Medal around my neck, we instantly became united in spirit.

He pulled out a tourist booklet for English speakers and I learned about Our Lady of Altagracia. The Dominican Republic is where the evangelization of the New World began. It is under the protection of  Our Lady of Mercy, the principal patroness who was proclaimed in 1616 during the Spanish colonial rule, and the Virgin of Altagracia, Protector and Queen of the hearts of the Dominicans. Now Our Lady was calling me to take a tiny pilgrimage in the middle of my Caribbean holiday.

But I wasn’t prepared for what she showed me en route to the basilica in the city of Higuey. While my family was basking in an all inclusive holiday, minutes away people lived in abject poverty. I had trouble sleeping that night. The clash between life on the resort and life in parts of Higuey is next to impossible to describe.

Tourism is essential to the Dominican Republic economy, but I was shaken. I returned from this vacation changed in ways that were unexpected. Yes, I enjoyed the sun and was uplifted by my  introduction to Our Lady of Alagracia. But mostly I received the grace to see that my life, despite its crosses, has been truly blessed.

I have carried that grace with me throughout a Lenten season in which, more than ever, I have remembered the poor in my alms giving and in my prayers.

(Writer and speaker and consultant, Pilarski’s book, Motherhood Matters: Inspirational Stories, Letters, Quotes & Prayers for Catholic Moms, is available by calling 416-934-3410.)

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