Dr. Mary Marrocco is an associate secretary for the Canadian Council of Churches. She is also a teacher, writer and lay pastoral worker. Morrocco explores the lives and writings of the saints, spiritual writers and theologians‚ and how they relate to contemporary life.

In our city, we make the most of friendly summer weather to treat ourselves to much-needed holidays — escape from the routine, time with family or friends, exploring new places, enjoying a hobby.

This August, I observed a different vacation plan. A friend spent two weeks teaching teenagers at a “youth camp with a difference” to hammer, saw, assemble, paint, create and perfect. Together they built a handsome outbuilding which will stand for years to come as a manifestation of the power of community (for more, see The Register's coverage of the camp at www.catholicregister.org). The camp gave priority to families who might have had trouble affording such an opportunity for their kids. The out-building they built contributes to the site so that next year's kids will have an even better place to stay. 

The youth, rather than being given entertainment, were asked to learn, create and contribute. And, as they were able and willing, to pray. I watched them blossom under the opportunity.

It was a good experience. How much of its goodness arose from my friend's gift of time and self? He voluntarily spent two weeks of his vacation time to lead the camp, as well as giving his expertise, enthusiasm and love of building and creating. The kids received all this, without necessarily being aware of it. It's good to be paid for our work, as St. Paul reminds us; but something irreplaceable comes through simple generosity.

Something else happens when we close in on ourselves and refuse to be generous. I've felt the pull of stinginess, self-protection, closing down, looking inward, being careful, cautious, safe. These impulses aren't in themselves negative; they can be tools that help us recognize necessity, and do what we need to do. But they can also be the other side of an invitation to generosity.

Lately, I've repeatedly heard the expression, “he can afford to be generous.” This sentence fills me with wonder: what does generosity have to do with affordability? Each has its own value, but they are quite different. Affordability is about measuring, counting and weighing — all necessary skills. Generosity has to do with an inner space and an openness to someone else's need. We must have an awareness that the world doesn't begin and end with our own stomachs, a sense that we've received and have something to give, something desirable and helpful to give. Generosity and joy are cousins. As my friend kept telling me during the youth camp, he was enjoying himself. 

Generosity can be difficult to the point of painfulness. Think of what it's like to be in a spat with your spouse or other intimate. You know you're right; you have a just complaint; what you're saying and doing is perfectly fair and reasonable. And you know that in this moment of struggle, you can speak to your spouse a word of kindness, forgiveness, mercy, tenderness — or you can withhold it. What a difference it can make, to offer or withhold such a word at such a moment. How hard it can be, to be generous in this way rather than cling to justice. 

It's astonishing that we do perform acts of generosity, given human nature and life's hardships — all of us struggling to survive, in a world that often seems harsh and unforgiving. Frequently, even. Unseen, un-repaid, unsung. The poet William Wordsworth referred to “those best portions of a good man's life: his little, nameless, unremember'd acts of kindness and of love.”  Where do they come from? How did we get that way?

In our impulse to generosity — and even more, in our acts of generosity — we discover something about ourselves. We learn that we're more than we know, more than an instinct to survive, more than our stomachs and bodies, more even than reason and justice. There's something limitless about us.

“The measure of love,” wrote St. Francis de Sales, “is to love without measure.” We're capable of loving beyond measure, beyond reason. How could we do this if we hadn't first been given it? How can we discover our generosity without discovering our likeness to One whose generosity has no limits? Still, He limits Himself to our size so that we can discover our built-in connection to Him. And so we can exceed our limits, and find we’re bigger than we dream.

“I measure and count myself, my God,” wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. “But you have the right to squander me.”

This is the triumph of the cross: the lived witness of the God who squanders Himself, who abandons infinity to be affixed to a piece of wood by His own creatures. And so gives us a glimpse of the infinite power of love and generosity.

It's a power we too can wield, as my friend did in his generous self-gift for other people's children. Once we start to perceive it, we might find it's far more common than we suspect. All round us and within us. Giving us life. Helping us become better, bigger, more human, more God-like.

Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, Sept. 14.

Sighs too deep for words

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Their parents discovered the two small girls going from house to house in their neighbourhood, up stairs to porches, down stairs to the next front door. On their knees.

The family had taken a trip to Martyrs’ Shrine at Midland, Ont.  Pilgrims there pray their way up the great staircase to the shrine, on their knees. So taken were the young sisters with this unusual experience that, back home, they instituted a prayer pilgrimage of their own.

Prayer seems to come easily to children, though the rest of us frequently report finding it difficult. As a friend said to me, “We’re trying to communicate with someone we can’t see, hear or touch.” Difficult!

James finds it so. His daughter Sara’s life-long health struggles have been hard on both, and James often feels desperate and alone. He also has a life-long habit of prayer, daily, regularly, incessantly beseeching God.

James has a habit of measuring himself. “I wonder,” he says. “Is it because I’m not praying enough that Sara isn’t getting better? Or am I praying the wrong way?” He looks for new ways to pray, asks priests and spiritual guides, and does spiritual reading. What’s he doing wrong? If he knew, he’d change it. In the meantime, he keeps praying.

Despite his worries that he doesn’t know how to pray, James has established and maintained a habit of prayer. Sometimes it gives him comfort, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes he can connect it with change, sometimes he can’t. He’s prayed in different ways, alone, with others, at church, but he’s never stopped.

There’s no substitute for a habit of prayer. My spiritual father began each day with three hours of prayer. Naturally a nighthawk, he eventually developed the practice of retiring early so he could rise early and keep that three-hour tryst. “Don’t you ever take a day off?” people would ask; he invariably replied, “Do you ever take a day off breathing?”

You might call James a student of prayer. You might also call him an expert at prayer. He doesn’t see it that way. But mystics, theologians, teachers down through the centuries have told us in various ways what John Paul II said succinctly: “Prayer is understood through prayer.” James is in a good position to understand prayer.

In the silence of prayer, we may discover a few surprising voices within us. We may find we approach God as if He were a tyrant and we His slaves: “He’s in charge and I’m in need, so I’d better beg.” Or as though God were a vending machine for our use: “if I say nine Hail Mary’s every day for nine days, he’ll produce what I ask for.” Or we might be treating Him rather like a parking meter: “I’ll put in a rosary a day to fulfill my obligation so I can go about my business.” In such ways, we may limit or misunderstand God. That doesn’t mean we aren’t really praying, or our prayer is bad or useless. It probably means we’re growing in our relationship with God — and need to keep up the habit of prayer!

How else can we learn that God is not a tyrant, a vending machine or a parking meter, that our prayer time is a doorway to eternity, a moment of intimate presence such as all human hearts long for?

How else can we discover that God really is God — and we aren’t? Even if we should pray perfectly, we don’t replace God, much as we might wish to when He doesn’t do our will.

We need to grow in prayer. Yet there’s no way to measure it. James doesn’t pray well or pray poorly. He prays. He prays because God is seeking him. 

The prayers we say, the words, gestures, hymns, are necessary and important, but they themselves aren’t prayer. When we don’t know how to pray, St. Paul tells us, “the Spirit intercedes, with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). There’s a deep, still place, underneath it, where our heart is always simply present to God — whether or not we’re aware of it. The habit of prayer can help us bring our whole selves to this intimate place where the heart dwells with God. That’s Paradise, Adam and Eve naked and unashamed with God. That’s heaven, you and me fully alive and fully revealed in God.

Here on Earth, it’s hard to understand when prayers like James’s for his daughter don’t bring about what he hopes. And it’s awe-inspiring to see the depth of faith and love, love of Sara and abiding love of the God he can’t understand, can’t control, can’t stay away from. My hospitalized mother said to me recently, as she struggled with pain: “You can’t have prayer without love.”

If prayer helps us “abide in His love” (John 15:10), then no wonder “more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of” (Alfred Lord Tennyson, Morte d’Arthur).

Of holiness and finesse

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A woman had a problem. Her parents arranged for her to marry. She knew it wasn’t the life she wanted; she had things to do, which didn’t involve marriage. What to do? Unable to disobey her parents, she was caught between duty and desire. She got engaged.

Before they could be married, her betrothed died in an accident.

The woman, Macrina, lived when it was difficult for a young woman to oppose her parents or to remain unmarried. They would certainly make a new marriage arrangement for her. Still, she had a desire to live her life another way.

Poetry can open us to Church’s gifts

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Jonathan recalled his conflict with a co-worker. In mid-sentence, he paused for a full minute, then said, “I’m not an angry person, am I? I don’t want to be an angry person.”

Why is it so difficult, sometimes, to acknowledge we’re angry? Even those of us who are pretty good at showing anger can find it hard to own. We might fear its power, or have experience of the ways anger can unleash terrible harm.  Yet some Church Fathers thought anger existed in Paradise: could we imagine anger an unfallen, pure gift of God? A force that works within us, creatively rather than destructively?

A child-like openness to God can help us grow in faith

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Her hands covered her face. She was weeping inside herself, her body shaking. “I know I need to let go,” she cried, “but I don’t know how. I can’t.”

Before she was 14, Marie already experienced tragedy, not once but several times: violence, betrayal. It’s buried deep within her. She carries it like an interior mountain without realizing the weight. No wonder she can’t stop clinging to the person who’s been for her a little life raft in the middle of the Pacific, but who is pulling her under the roaring waters. How can she let go of him, even though he’s harming her?

Of bones, toothbrushes and dazzled eyes

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In response to the question “How do I forgive?” I was given this answer: “By going against every bone in your body.” Forgiveness contradicts many basic inclinations, if we’re honest. It’s more natural to strike back, seek revenge, build stone walls. Forgive the one who inflicted harm? We might ask not only “how” but “why”? 

Yet, astonishingly, forgiveness happens, in small ways and large. More than once, I’ve heard someone say, “I knew I had to forgive or I was going to die, so I forgave.”

Somehow, despite all the pain and struggle, forgiveness breaks through, the real thing, like those first tulips breaking up through the winter soil.

Six ways to avoid Lent (but it won’t be easy)

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Lent this year has been going on for a while now, but it’s not too late to get around it. For those reluctant to join with the many who are making a Lenten sacrifice and are instead looking for reliable methods to escape Lent, I offer six suggestions. Use at your own pace.

1. Don’t enter a church. Lent is everywhere in there these days, in the words, the music, the smells, the wall hangings. Even if you do happen to wander into a church or two, there are still ways to avoid Lent while inside, including the techniques listed below.

From Valentine’s to ashes

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Anne was a pretty young blonde. She always had men interested in her, had friends, intelligence and a good career, and was a generous, good-hearted person. How surprising to hear, later on, she’d found her good looks a point of difficulty.

She’d learned that often people were interested in her body but not the rest of her; underneath her popularity she had trouble finding self-worth. So though she took good care of her body, she was not on good terms with it.

A few days in the abbey, no better waste of time

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Just before Christmas, I spent several days at the Benedictine monastery near Sherbrooke, Que.

Beforehand, and while travelling there, I wondered what exactly I was doing. The week before Christmas is a lively time in the city. There were plenty of concerts, gatherings, light shows, treats, sales. There were things to do to prepare for Christmas. That’s where the action would be. Where did I think I was going, and for what?

Seeing the unseeable for Christmas

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First Woman: “There’s one at Yonge and Finch. I’ve heard it’s good.”

(Me — overhearing in the fitness-centre change room — “A club? A restaurant?”)

First Woman: “I’m not sure if it’s Lutheran or Catholic.”

(Me – “I’m imagining she said that.”)

Second Woman: “I’ve been going to church for a while. I tried the Martyrs’ Shrine.”

The view from the hospital corridor

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Self-loathing.

Am I, underneath all I have and have done, worth anything at all? Or is my secret suspicion true, that I’m really nothing? Or nothing good, anyway.

When I was doing parish work, I found this question lurking hidden in the hearts of a surprising number of people — including people whom the rest of us might readily consider better, smarter or better-off than ourselves. Next time you walk down the street, imagine those you see having a huge rock on top of their head or great bulging sacks hanging from each hand and you may apprehend more than your eyes can see.