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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve just returned home from Jerusalem, mind and heart overflowing. Of many illuminating experiences requiring reflection and expression, I begin with my visit to Calvary.
“Why am I alive and on this Earth? Why doesn’t anyone care about me? I can see why nobody cares about me, but why must I end up alone? What’s the point of my life?” These questions are interspersed through my friend’s conversation, as though looking for an answer but not really expecting one. It’s just as well, as I have none, none.
Late one pleasant evening, I was putting out the garbage. A neighbour stepped out with her garbage, too. Seeing me, she came over; I know her only by sight, but I like to get to know my neighbours, so I was pleased. Momentarily.
Elinor had been trying to mend a family relationship but found it ever more broken. She had done all she could think to do, including incessant prayer.
A colleague drove me home, a long trip across the city. I volunteered directions. He, absorbed in the dulcet tones and colourful maps offered by his GPS (Global Positioning System), didn’t listen. The computer knew better than I did where I lived and how to get there. “Her” regularly interjected directions were the influential force of that journey.
Visiting a friend, I picked up a handsome book, a collection of Icelandic Sagas to pore through. They were wondrous, and not just because some of my ancestors were Vikings. The stories led from Denmark to Iceland and on, to the land they called Vinland, our Newfoundland. There Eric the Red and company arrived in 1001, the first Europeans in the New World. During their second spring there, birch-bark canoes landed near them: their first encounter with native inhabitants. They killed them. The next spring, the natives’ kin found the Vikings and, in their turn, killed as many as they could.
While the Lord is experienced in positive and negative ways, He is always love
A man’s heart cries out. For years, Jeff has tried to follow God, but hasn’t found his dearest dream: a woman he could love and be loved by, who wants God as the foundation of their marriage. Why the rejection? Isn’t God love? Isn’t this cruel?
Other Christians have experienced God as silent, steel, remote, distant, stingy, unyielding, ruthless, “the great vivisectionist.” At other times we know Him as tenderness, gentleness, beauty, life, creativity, kindness, compassion, intimate presence. Who is He really?
“You’ve got to learn to wrestle with God!” Our model is Jacob, who spent the night wrestling someone (Genesis 32). At dawn, Jacob’s adversary wounded him, blessed him and gave him his name, Israel. In the struggle with God, we may discover our true name, and our real self — wounds and all. At least by wrestling, we dare to show what’s going on inside us.
The Church helps us wrestle by giving us Lent. Ash Wednesday, Feb. 13, shows Lent is physical as well as spiritual: we mark our bodies with a reminder of mortality, we take on spiritual disciplines that affect us in the flesh. It’s total; we use everything we have and are to communicate with God.
In its early centuries, the Church wrestled with many questions about God, including this: how could there be any true communication, any meeting-point, between the real God and us? Wouldn’t humans be lost in God’s vastness or God somehow be made less by being grasped?
Wrestlers get so intertwined that they look almost like one person. They feel each other’s strengths and weaknesses, bodies and spirits. Could it be like that between us and God? Could Jeff, by not giving up but coming back and back with his question, be in true communication with the living God?
Among us humans, communication happens through electronic forms known as “social media.” These involve much self-presentation: showing photos and videos of ourselves, our friends, food or pets or silly moments; we write bits of news about what we were thinking just before breakfast; we put together montages revealing our thoughts and desires, without discrimination, the painful and the odd, the beautiful and delightful. It allows for creativity as well as self-exposure.
It’s as though people are holding their faces up to an invisible mirror. Through it, they see their own reflection and invite others to see it too. Like the ordinary, visible mirror, this sort of self-study can be destructive, as in the myth of Narcissus: the youth whose handsomeness broke many hearts. One day he saw his reflection in a still pool. He had nothing to prepare him or help him understand it. He fell in love with his own beauty, but died because he couldn’t touch or fulfill his love of the image he saw.
Underneath the Narcissus story, and behind the passion for electronic self-exposure, lie understandable human desires. We want to see and know ourselves, to contemplate our image — though we can’t see our own faces. We want to show ourselves to others, be reflected back, have someone find us beautiful and interesting and love us. We want to dig inside ourselves and find creative ways to bring forth what we discover inside. We want these things even though we fear they’re impossible, since we also experience ourselves as ugly, unimportant and unlovable.
These desires reflect a divine movement: God beckoning, reflecting back our true image, the image of beauty He called forth in us. God “bending the heavens,” as the psalm says, to show us we’re beloved. God doing the impossible to call us to this truth of ourselves, beyond the scars of sin — our own and others.
Deepest, truest, wildest in us is our desire for God, without whom we can never find rest. Our need to communicate, to be seen, can’t be fully satisfied by any human communication, by electronic self-disclosure or song and dance or feasting, by studying ourselves or even by loving one another — though all these things may, and some must, bring us closer.
That’s why human communication always involves frustration, even when it’s exhilarating. Whatever we seek is never truly found except in God. And He’s completely beyond us, though nearer to us than our fingernails to our fingers.
How could there be a meeting-point between God the Creator and us His creatures? Only in the one who in Himself unites human with divine. There’s no humanity without God — and because of Christ, there’s no God without humanity.
That’s the intimacy we seek, whether through electronic media or dances in the village square. It’s what we invite through our Lenten spiritual practices. They prepare us to receive the fullness of God’s love without any shadow or cruelty or pain.
No wonder we experience Him in negative as well as positive ways: thirst and hunger, pain and longing, cruelty and ruthlessness. Gentleness, kindness, wonder, delight. And love.
He’s in everything, even in Jeff’s long longing.
A young couple was crossing the Atlantic by boat. During the trip, they got to know their fellow passengers, some of whom were Christians. The couple were atheists, and having Christian friends was a new experience for them. They were astonished to discover that people of faith could also be people of intelligence and sense. Then, they were astounded to realize that they’d always assumed otherwise. Why shouldn’t faith and intelligence go together?
It’s a perilous journey, but one that is filled with hope
A funeral draws us into eternal life that Jesus’ death made possible
A friend described a memorial service he’d attended. He was directed to a room with a video screen to watch images of the service happening elsewhere.
Increasingly, memorials occur with little or no physical connection to the dead. Last year, I searched the rooms of a funeral parlour for several minutes before realizing there was no body at the wake.
This approach to death may be enlightened and compassionate. We “celebrate” the dead person’s life; we remember their aliveness, and all that made them dear to us. We look around or over death as though it weren’t there. We make a toast, and carry on. It’s a determinedly cheery approach. Is it a Christian approach?
Varied, even competing, views of death abound. It’s seen as the final terminus of physical life, a passage to God, an illusion, a cure for suffering, the thing we all fear most, a glorious destiny, a means of punishment. Our attitudes to death speak about our attitudes to life.
Oftentimes memorials tell us “do not mourn,” “do not weep.” St. Paul, on the contrary, doesn’t tell us not to grieve, but urges, “do not grieve as those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). What is the Christian hope? That we’ll remember the good things of our beloved deceased? That we won’t have to mourn? That they didn’t really die? That we won’t die, or won’t suffer in dying?
An atheist I know says of death: “they close the lid, and that’s it.” He at least has the courage to confront nothingness. Such courage may have a better chance of moving God than pretending death doesn’t exist, or ignoring the questions and discomforts it presents. Entering the unknown requires a true letting-go. Jesus’ friends didn’t learn to forget Him after His death; they didn’t find closure. Following His lead on the cross, they surrendered into it, and this opened everything, including their hearts. They learned, and told us, that love is stronger than death.
The Gospels go to great lengths to show that Jesus really died. He bled. He suffered. His breath stopped. His body was broken. It was taken lifeless from the cross, and placed in a tomb. It was really there. He was dead. Like Lazarus before Him, so long dead that the smell of death hung around. Whatever the Gospels are about, they haven’t been passed down through 2,000 years to help us think death away.
Nor to seek death as an antidote — or a tool in the tool kit of physicians, or of the state. Death isn’t an answer to suffering, to mental illness, to sin or crime or disability or imperfection. It’s an implacable, irrevocable reality that applies equally to us all. Because sin entered the world, through human hearts and actions, therefore we are broken and divided by death. Death, remorseless and anguish-producing, is a witness of the rupture between ourselves and God, by which we also become enemies of one another.
Confronted by His friend’s death, Jesus was moved to tears, not to celebrating Lazarus’ life or telling the dead man’s sisters to look for their brother in the next room. He didn’t treat death as a balm or pretence. He acted against it, thereby foreshadowing the real Good News: that when He Himself lay dead in the tomb, it couldn’t hold Him. He was so alive that death itself broke.
We don’t get around death, but through it. Though it may be painful, we need to contemplate death — together, not alone; with Christ, not without Him; with all the helps the Church can give.
Especially in November, the Catholic Church invites us to spend time with the dead, and to stand at the edge of death. We don’t stand there alone: the veil between the living and the dead is thin. This truth is echoed in the back-to-back solemnity of All Saints and commemoration of All Souls which usher us into November. We pray to and for the dead, inviting them to be present to us. C.S. Lewis (The Great Divorce) suggests the reason we can’t perceive the dead isn’t because they’re insubstantial, like ghosts. It’s because they are super-substantial, so solid, so alive, that we seem insubstantial to them. They died; death is real. More real, more solid than death is love.
There is a communion between people through death. Universally, a funeral or memorial service includes eating and drinking. Food is the way we live communion. It helps us receive Eucharist, and deepen our communion with the One who has died, risen and broken the lock of death.
A Catholic funeral isn’t a celebration of a dead person’s life. It’s a eucharistic service which makes us present to Christ. It draws us into the eternal life-with-God that Christ makes possible. This is our hope, that in our surrender to death — the little deaths-to-self, the deaths of persons we know and letting-go into our own death — we meet Christ who conquered death.
(Marrocco can be reached at email@example.com.)