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.
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.
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.
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?
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….
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.
A theological conference in Leuven included a service at nearby St. Damien Church. Entering, I met a man, a fellow conference-goer I hadn’t met before, who said, “Come down to the crypt where St. Damien is.” I followed him down, paused with my hand on the doorknob, sensing that that door led to a life-changing encounter.
Some questions seem to be our companions for life. I used to think they would get answered and go away. Now I'm less surprised to hear people of 25, 35, 45, 75, asking what I'd thought was the proper concern of the 15-year-old: "What am I supposed to do with my life?"
After intensive soul-searching and searing heartache, a person I know has divorced. She aches for her children and for herself as a Catholic facing lonely solitude. A faithful person, she thought she was following the voice of love, both in getting married and in the way she tried to live her marriage. How could love have led her to divorce?