A view from the Island of Tears

  • June 28, 2011

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.”

To be human is to be in relationship; that’s who we are (for we’re image and likeness of God who is Trinity). And for us, that means experiencing broken relationship. This is ultimately where our pain comes from, and it’s where we discover our humanity. Having a relationship break in some way doesn’t make us a disadvantaged minority. The effect can be that we feel isolated, odd, alien, cut off from humanness. Yet we all go through it; in fact, we’re born into it. By the time we come to birth, our personhood has already been called into question. There’s not a second in our lives when such a disconnection isn’t put upon us somehow — from zygote and fetus (socially considered a non-being) to old age, there is no escape. We’re constantly trying to heal and establish relationship with others.

In response, we can become “comfortably numb,” or medicate, or act out. If we don’t face it, eventually it will face us. Some people might seem successful at keeping torn relationship at bay; others may be open to healing, and that’s where mercy comes.

And vocation comes here, too: within the experience of hurt relationship, we may discover God’s desire for our life. It’s not God who rejects or hates us when our relationship tears, but we who don’t accept each other; that’s the effect of sin. Where we’ve experienced such brokenness, we’ve experienced the sin of the world. It’s not a matter of placing blame, but the reality we all partake in. That’s partly why it’s so painful. And why the healing that comes from there doesn’t just “fix” us, but brings abundant life. As we take on the broken places, and receive the place where love has wounded us, from that wound comes a new love. It’s why we kiss the wounds of Christ, not to glorify suffering, but to rejoice in the love that teaches us how to be broken.

On the first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene went into the depths of night carrying the ointment for meeting death. In this, she is the icon of suffering humanity, coming out to meet a broken body, a dead dream, a severed relationship. When she gets there, she finds what she couldn’t have expected: not only unlooked-for healing but life beyond death, and her own true name and vocation. Met and named at the tomb by the wounded and risen Christ, she becomes an apostle, witness of the Resurrection.

What is broken in us, and how can it find healing? Mary Magdalene’s story poses the question: what is the ointment for our broken places? Whether it’s a breakage between persons, or within nations (as with the Russian-American who landed at Ellis), or in the many ways humans reject one another. To take on this new question is to be engaged in the deepest part of being alive. It’s the work of Christ.

Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh created a breathtaking series of paintings: roses so alive they almost burst from the canvas, verdant cypress trees, swirling clouds in vivid skies, purple irises spilling from the vase that can’t contain them, and many more. Through his art, he points to the fire inside all things, the living water from which we draw life. He painted these at the asylum to which he’d committed himself. From his broken place he captured not only beauty, but a glimpse of life.

As we celebrate the feast of Mary Magdalene on July 22, we might look and feel around us to discover ointment we carry for the broken places in and around us.

(Marrocco can be reached at marrocco7@sympatico.ca.)