Concrete, bricks and hard feelings

  • October 3, 2013

Sharon sat on one side of it, James on the other. It was too tall to climb, too thick to break, too endless to go around. They couldn’t hear each other through its mass. The morning sun coming through the window shone on them both, but they were looking at the floor. Each felt alone, abandoned, angry and a little afraid, sitting some distance away from that wall, unmoving. Her arms were folded on her chest. He was sunk into his chair like a reprimanded six-year-old. Given its immense size and the innumerable ways it affected their lives, it’s surprising they could get so used to the invisible wall. And it ran right down the middle of their marriage.

The wall was not made of concrete or brick, but had been built slowly over the years. Each thought the other was the architect. Both were, in a way, completely comfortable with that wall between them. It gave them space to think, sometimes, and do what they wanted: from shedding tears to helping the kids with their homework.

It was … safe.

Perhaps one reason for their comfort was that each of them had an inner wall, too. A hard, unyielding place inside the heart that kept some things at bay. Like a retaining wall, designed to hold certain things back so that other things could function. Most hearts have them; not so many are aware of them. It’s hard to know you’re in prison when you don’t even see the walls. What to do with them? Where do they come from, and what are they for?

Two types of walls can be within and around us.

There are the walls we ask God to build and strengthen. “May it please you to prosper Zion, to build up the walls of Jerusalem” (Psalm 51:8). These might be walls of privacy or protection. A new couple just setting out on their life together needs foundation walls, on which to build a solid home; for instance, by not giving away their prayer time, or their time together. A young person starting a career might need to build boundary walls between her private life and her work life so she can thrive as a person. Protecting walls can give us space, a chance to get a grip on ourselves, so as not to do harm. “Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control” (Prov 25:28). These walls can create a place of intimacy. I have a photograph of the flowers blooming in my brother’s white-walled garden, a place of beauty inviting visitors to linger and encounter one another. Isaiah calls the Lord the “repairer of broken walls” (58:12). God is to be called upon for such service, since it’s hard to do it without Him.

Then there are the walls that need to be torn down, climbed over or simply allowed to crumble. Emotional walls can become so packed down they no longer serve their original purpose of protecting the inhabitant, but rather imprison him, isolating him from the companions who might bring sustenance. Anger walls can become walls of resentment or bitterness. Fear walls can become walls of shame or hatred. James and Sharon’s wall began with hurt on one side, anger on the other — a common construction style, which builds up an edifice so sturdy and durable it may seem natural and necessary. But it isn’t, and can keep people alienated, suffering and stunted.

Though they may start benignly, meant to protect or temporarily mark a space, walls can become hostile weapons, instruments of division and estrangement.

Silence can lead to shunning. Hot words can develop into outright attacks. Even inner walls, constructed to help us become mature or loving, can turn against us, turning fear to panic or solitude to loneliness.

Scripture’s habit of praying with walls reminds us they are not the immovable obstacles they may seem. It’s astonishing how even the most unyielding wall can vanish like smoke. I recall a church leader describing how two divided churches returned to communion with each other; there was a moment, she explained, when everyone in the room knew the wall between them had fallen, and it was up to them whether to walk through. Or not.

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14).

It might be frightening when the wall first disappears; sometimes open space is unbearable for us little humans. All our walls, whether built by God or by ourselves, need to be watered regularly by prayer.

Most Holy Mother of God… through your intercession…

Bring down this wall, the walls of our hearts, and all the walls

that generate hatred, violence, fear, and indifference

between people and between nations.

Prayer written on the separating wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem

(Marrocco can be reached at