Mary Marrocco

Mary Marrocco

Dr. Mary Marrocco is an associate secretary for the Canadian Council of Churches. She is also a teacher, writer and lay pastoral worker. Her column, Questioning Faith, features topics about the teachings of our church, scriptures, the lives and writings of the saints and spiritual writers and theologians. She can be reached at marrocco7@sympatico.ca.

Are New Year’s resolutions still popular? Probably: gyms tend to be flooded with new members in January. Sometimes we make resolutions knowing we won’t be perfect, but committing to the walk anyway.

Several decades ago, the Catholic Church resolved to work towards full communion with other Christian communities. At times, we’re unaware of the pain of non-communion; when we do feel it, it can be powerful.

Years ago, a friend of mine volunteered to teach in a Haitian orphanage. When she returned home temporarily due to political upheaval, I was rapidly educated about this country, its beauties and its pains.

Among many discoveries was that Canadians waste water. Growing up surrounded by fresh water, I’d never considered that water might be finite and we could waste or should conserve it.

Long ago, I let a friend down. It’s still vivid in my memory. I’d promised, but at the last minute I phoned up and cancelled, leaving her in the lurch. She was cold and angry on the phone; we hung up quickly. I couldn’t blame her; I’d hurt her. Though I’d apologized, the effects remained.

I don’t know what happened with her, because she stopped speaking to me. But for me, a burden was created which I long carried: guilt. A paralysing burden. Perhaps part of me was reluctant to put it down, as though staggering under it would gain me points, and enough collected points would earn me forgiveness. This type of guilt, someone observed to me, is like a knapsack full of rocks strapped to one’s back: a dead weight that gradually, increasingly wearies the bearer.

We wanted late-night refreshment. A lengthy search uncovered one place open, a fast-food restaurant with golden arches. We thought we’d just be getting beverages; we also got a glimpse of the eternal. Serving customers was a young woman and man. As we imbibed our tea, she said loudly enough that we could hear clearly: “It’s not that God doesn’t talk to people. It’s that we’re always feeding the flesh. So the flesh gets big, and the spirit gets small and can’t hear God speaking.”   

Why doesn’t God speak to people? Or if He does, why so obscurely? Has God been speaking in ways I haven’t been hearing? Perhaps the young woman knew that the opposition between flesh and spirit is not dualistic. It’s not that body is bad and soul is good; this idea has always been considered heretical. Rather, it’s “spirit” in the sense of all that belongs to God and leads us to God; “flesh” in the sense of what drags us down, away from God.

In a retreat I led, we talked about healing broken relationships: not just fixing something, but the new life that can come out of broken places. In the process, a real life is established, for underneath the relationship that broke is a life in need of deep healing.

Forgiveness can’t happen unless we’re willing to let go of winning or losing, being right or wrong. (Fortunately, God forgives — thereby unlocking the door to the process.) This is not to say there isn’t hurt and responsibility, and we may need to sort out what we’re responsible for and what we’re not.

What needs to be let go of? It’s almost never what you think; the surprise of it is part of the joy.

Some hours after this discussion, I was in the garden weeding, during free time after lunch. A participant was on the porch changing a diaper. She lingered, enjoying the beauty of the woods, the sunshine, others’ presence. She broke a long silence by asking me, across the garden: “But how do I let go?”  

This summer, I visited Ellis Island, the “Golden Door/Island of Tears” by which 12 million persons sought to enter the United States between 1892 and 1954. Sailing from Italy, Russia, Poland and other countries, many travelled steerage, like sheep. Black-and-white photographic portraits of travellers look out from the walls of the huge building, now a museum, formerly dedicated to sorting and processing the newcomers. One portrait, of a beautiful young Italian with pensive eyes, reminded me of photos of my grandmother, who came to Canada in similar circumstances at age 18, alone, parted forever from her home and family, unable to read or write or speak English.

Remembrances by some who made the journey are recorded there. “This is my native land now,” said one; “I don’t ever want to see Russia again.” What broke, between this man and his birth country? Did that rupture somehow find healing in the new land he took as his own? Broken relationship and new life: what’s the connection?

As novelist Ernest Hemingway observed, “Life breaks us all; and afterward, many are strong at the broken places.”

A group of Christians, of different traditions, was discussing business at a Canadian Council of Churches meeting. I didn’t realize the word “discernment” kept coming up until a guest leaned over to me. She’s fluent in English, but it’s not her first language. “What does ‘discernment’ mean?” she asked. I opened my mouth with a ready answer but an inward pause. It’s simple enough to define, at first blush, but less simple to understand.

And why is it so often so difficult to do? Christian traditions have produced many ways of discernment; it’s an art, a science, a way of the cross, traversed with blood and anguish. It might seem, too, that trying to consult God just makes things tough; don’t our atheistic friends have an easier time of it? How does it differ from decision-making? Does discernment involve faith?

A secular definition of “discern” speaks of coming to see, or otherwise recognize; such as discerning a sail on the horizon. A spiritual definition of discernment might also refer to seeing: learning to see as God sees. “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face-to-face,” says St. Paul (1 Cor 13:12); St. Augustine  picks this up, saying faith means knowing now, darkly, what we shall then see directly.

One day I was in one of those giant supermarkets. The produce department opened out before me like a football field; within it, a vast bin overflowed with tomatoes. I started picking through them, then realized this activity was a waste of time, as they were all identical, all perfect. Each sphere had a thick, tough pink skin, without dent, spot or mark, all the same size; I knew they’d be relatively tasteless.  

My mind flashed to earlier days, to shelves lined with rows of deep red, thin-skinned tomatoes. These did require selection because some would be bruised or split, sizes varied from tiny to huge, and each was a juicy tasty treat of which its contemporary counterpart offers but a faint memory.

These tomato changes, it occurred to me, are like what’s happening to us: we’re expected to look, smell and feel the same as one another, to have tough skins that never bruise or break, and to be easily gathered, stored and marketed in large quantities. We’ve been standardized; normalized; uniformized.

Uniformizing, toughening people up and making them tasteless aren’t hallmarks of Christianity. At least they oughtn’t to be.
March 30, 2011

Toward Jerusalem

Christ we set our face towards Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). We must enter into the twin questions of death and sin.

We’re surrounded by them all the time. Lent asks us to turn to them, not by way of giving up, nor to fight or overcome them, but simply to be with Christ who set His face towards both.  

Every day we face death, often unaware. This unawareness is a gift, because we mostly aren’t ready to face the vastness; God doesn’t ask us to stand always at the edge of the abyss. Rather, He showers us with life, in the flesh, and encourages us to grow strong in this. Still, we receive the gift of life amidst death.