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.

How many times have you heard “My Favourite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi” and other songs from The Sound of Music? Probably too many. Wonderful tunes, but so familiar they’re hard to hear.

Their delightfulness was renewed for me by my niece Clare. She knows the songs and the actions that accompany them by heart. She loves to sing along — during “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” she echoes in top voice, “older and WISER!” When the children sing the good-bye song, she waves and bows, with flourish great and smile wide.  

Clare was born with Down Syndrome, in a culture which finds this chromosomal condition so unacceptable that some 90 per cent of babies known to have it in North America are aborted. She has suffered from the prejudice. But she has not forgotten how to revel in the joys of music and dance.
One day recently, a friend was wrestling with the meaning of communion. He’d heard a homily delineating the proper way to receive the host so as to avoid dropping it. All very practical. But, my friend asked, is that all there is to say? Doesn’t communion mean more to us than rubrics?
For some time, I’ve been part of a ministry called Project Rachel. Here I’ve seen women weep like Rachel (Jeremiah 31:15-17) for their children, lost to them through abortion. They carry, often for years, a many-faceted pain. It’s about death of the most anguishing kind, a child’s death; about guilt, the awareness that one’s own actions have helped bring about that death; about oppression, the tacit sense that one shouldn’t be grieving or suffering at all, because it’s a suffering our world prefers not to acknowledge.
November 3, 2010

God comes to me

How do we cope with the pain of betrayal, especially when it comes from within, from family?

Consider Jess, whose mother Kristen gave birth to her as a teenager. Kristen wanted an abortion but couldn’t get one; she’d slipped into a drug addiction that would last 20 years. She kept the child and raised her, with some help from her family and occasional help from the various men in her life, mostly fellow addicts. By the time she was 12, Jess had learned much about, shall we say, adult entertainment. She’s spent much of the rest of her life trying to distance herself from her upbringing, discover a healthy sexuality and find how to be in real relationships. Her anger against her mother is unabated; for her, betrayal and hurt came not from outside, but from within, from the one who should offer protection and comfort, support and nourishment. One of her biggest challenges is to learn to trust. By now, Jess knows how to cope, but she also needs to be healed.
“It’s hard getting to church in the city,” a man remarked. “By the time you’ve finished judging everybody you see on the subway, you’re not really in the frame of mind for church.”

Why is it so difficult for us to stop judging? Even becoming aware we’re doing it is a task-and-a-half. The subway man may be readier for church than most of us, since he at least sees that he’s judging.
Over the millennia of human existence, we’ve thought about the stars. We’ve drawn them, personified them, deified them, told stories about them, named them, speculated how to get to them. Our Milky Way galaxy is one of billions, our sun one of billions of stars in it and we’re one of eight surrounding planets (too bad, Pluto). Remember the speck of dust Horton the Elephant noticed and that it carried millions of tiny creatures? Are we at least as minuscule as that? Take a night-time trip out to the countryside and see for yourself.
One of the three things that give meaning in life, according to Viktor Frankl, is an encounter with someone or something. An unanticipated encounter I once had raised many questions about meaning and trust.  

I hadn’t seen my friend Eric in a couple of years; he’d gone one direction to attend school, and I’d gone another for a new job. Now he was in hospital, critically ill.
One of the few times I’ve been seriously ill occurred in Europe. Being away from home, it took a while to find appropriate medical help and by the time I did the pain was out of control. My mind was starting to wander down strange corridors. As I lay, finally, in hospital awaiting doctors, my brother sat beside me, touched my hand and talked to me of this and that. The sound of his voice, the touch of his hand, the physical presence of another, held and anchored me and kept me from slipping away into that alternate universe.

Human touch can actually change pain and suffering, being a powerful agent of healing. Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community, once responded to a question about how to help those whose suffering is unspoken, or unspeakable. He replied: Touch . . . human touch can unlock chambers of the heart which might otherwise become a lifelong prison.

But can we touch one another?
An unforgettable look emanated from James’ eyes as he told of the sacrifices he’d made to raise his son alone; neither boasting nor with shame, simply a narrative. He’d given up much to keep his son John, including his own family, who couldn’t accept the child. John had just been accepted into medical school — for which purpose James had for years been working overtime, postponing his own education. A look of shining peace, joy fulfilled, pain not gone or forgotten but changed, beamed from his eyes and radiated from his whole being.

In times of sorrow and suffering, joy can seem a far-off dream, an illusion. I’ve mentioned the word “joy” to people and seen the look of incredulity, as though I’d mentioned flowing waters to a Saskatchewan farmer in the midst of the 1930s drought. Could such a thing be?  Could it be for me?

It’s a trick of sorrow:  sometimes it can make joy seem imaginary. But could joy be present within the suffering that makes us sad? Joy can seem to forget sadness; but isn’t sorrow somehow present in joy, too, changed but recognizable, like the grown-up woman whom we last saw as a small child?

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked…
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,
The more joy you can contain….

(Kahlil Gibran)

James’ joy in John’s accomplishment was pure and filled the room. Yet the pain — physical, mental, spiritual — that preceded it, and helped bring it about, was somehow present too.

Christian tradition reminds us we dwell in a place where sin and suffering are ever-present; that we’ve been exiled from paradise, an angel with a shining sword guarding the gate so we cannot return. Christianity maintains joy is the eternal reality, sorrow and pain the passing ones. So often it seems the other way round; our preaching, teaching, writing, witnessing, can be the other way round, dwelling on pain and letting joy fade away.  “Rejoice!” was the angel’s greeting to Mary, at the sin-shattering moment of the incarnation. Her “yes” to God’s overshadowing her brought with it the shadow of suffering, a sword that pierced her heart even as (because?) her heart was big enough to bear God Himself. Was that sorrow a masked version of the joy the angel brought her?

We don’t dwell in paradise. But does it dwell within us? One of our earliest Christian theologians, Irenaeus of Lyons, has a unique depiction of Adam and Eve. He describes them, and therefore all humanity, as living “in the roadway to paradise.”  He portrays them as children in the garden, destined to grow, develop, change; created in God’s image, with the capacity to become ever more like God. That destiny doesn’t alter when they move from Paradise into the roadway. What changes is that now, their capacity for God is to be fulfilled within a world of suffering and sin. Now sorrow is part of joy; pain is part of learning to love.

It may not be what we would choose. Had Adam and Eve consulted us, we might have said, “No, stay in paradise, we don’t really want sorrow and suffering even if they do lead to joy and wholeness. Let’s have the joy without the sorrow.” But there’s a surprising delight in being in the roadway to paradise, in discovering here (rather than in a paradise with no shadow of suffering) our capacity for God. Joy and sorrow are inseparable, writes Gibran; “together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.” Within their relationship is the mystery of how God is intertwined in our lives.

Irenaeus reviews Old Testament history, in which humanity is tripped up over and over by sin and sadness, seemingly lost. He retells the story through incarnation eyes, showing how Christ enters into that lostness, and by taking it up and making it his own, redeems it, “recapitulates” it (Irenaeus adopts this word from Ephesians 1:10). Christ brings the incarnation into the human story, thereby re-opening humanity to the divine. Thus a history of pain and sorrow and brokenness becomes moreso a history of joy and love and fulfilment. This is how Christ recapitulates human history; and each of our histories, if we will let Him.

James was telling his history with incarnation eyes: a story not of sadness only, but of sorrow taken up into joy. If we were to allow Christ into our sorrows, might they too be taken up into joy?

One of my great teachers was Helen. 

She was a tiny, elderly woman with a limp from a bad hip and swollen feet, with yellow curly hair and no teeth. She loved to greet strangers, bake muffins for people, help out at the breakfast club and the mission. She smiled and laughed easily. She was a chatterer, but her chattering was generally random and disconnected, hard to follow and easily dismissed.

She herself was among the easiest of people to dismiss: an old, poor, solitary woman, living on social assistance in a squalid apartment. Though a wife and mother of many, she was quite alone in the world; long separated from an abusive husband and from her children, taken away one-by-one by the Children’s Aid Society. When I met her, Helen had largely left the world of sanity — with good reason, as refuge from the world which, for her, was a crazy and dangerous place.

When Helen had a stroke and was taken to hospital, she must have seemed an insignificant patient. Mostly incomprehensible at the best of times, she was now completely so, unable to communicate, powerless. Soon, the health care system decided she, her suffering, her life, were unnecessary. When I visited her, she had no feeding tube and was being given nothing orally. Helen died in a large Catholic hospital in urban Canada.