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.

“If a man comes to me in confession and says he cannot care for his children properly because of his low wages, it is not enough for me to tell him to say his rosary and offer it up. To be apostolic, I must do what I can to have his wages raised.”
- Bishop F.A. Marrocco, 1951; The Light from One Candle, Rita Larsen Marrocco, 2002.

One evening, Laura passed by a Christian church on her way to kill herself. The church was offering a neighbourhood meal that evening, as it often did. Joe, standing on the front porch, called out, “Hi Laura, are you coming for supper?” As she explained afterwards, the astonishing fact that someone remembered her name and face and invited her in changed her life. She did go in for supper, and her life was saved.

Joe didn’t, at that moment, invite Laura to confession or to Mass, but he extended the most Christian of invitations by welcoming her to supper. In his offer of physical sustenance, he answered a spiritual need too. Can we expect people to experience the Eucharist if they don’t know what a meal is? Can we care for the soul but ignore the body?

It’s the Christian heresy that won’t go away: that the soul needs to get free of the body. We may worry about the opposite danger — that we’ll live only on the physical level and never get to the spiritual. In practice, that danger is more easily recognized and weeded out than the danger of making us into bodiless spirits.

My appreciation of the body-spirit dynamism comes naturally, having known it through the ministry of my uncle, Bishop Marrocco. A man of prayer and insight, well-read in doctrine and theology, he was well able to convey Church teaching to both lay people and non-Church people. To him, it was obvious that being a Christian meant working to improve people’s lives, both immediately and systemically; that responding to them spiritually included responding to them practically.

Are we quicker to say “I’ll pray for you” or to engage in issues like welfare, the minimum wage and social justice? Do we see the two as intimately connected with each other? Pope Leo XIII did. He helped give us the eight-hour work day and the Church’s commitment to actively promote justice, including decent working conditions for everyone. Every pope since has applied to his own day Leo’s visionary 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum.

In North America, where disembodied spirituality seems rampant, September and October can help us. On Sept. 26 (Canada) and Oct. 19 (General Roman Calendar), we commemorate our North American martyrs: eight French Jesuits who lived and died with the Huron people in Canada. They understood that the body, the material, is the medium of Christian witness, for Christ’s followers as for Christ Himself. Jean de Brébeuf’s down-to-earth rules on interacting with the Hurons demonstrate how thoroughly he appreciated the importance of coming to know and love the people one aims to serve. “You must have a sincere affection for the Huron,” he wrote, “looking upon them as ransomed by the blood of the Son of God, and as our brethren with whom we are to pass the rest of our lives.” He gives guidelines on living with them respectfully, not as angels but as human beings, from “Be careful not to annoy anyone in the canoe with your hat; it would be better to take your night cap,” to “It is well at first to take everything they offer, although you may not be able to eat it at all.” Christ is taught not outside our material lives, but within them; not in Paradise, but in our own messy world.

For us, salvation doesn’t mean the spirit freed from the body — as it does for many religions and philosophies, including Gnosticism. God’s Word made flesh, Jesus Christ risen from the dead in the body, is a keystone of Christian witness. What does it mean for us?

Joe lived the Eucharist by stepping into Laura’s life and inviting her in to a meal. The Jesuits were living the Eucharist by canoeing, eating, working and dying with the Huron people. It’s said that the Iroquois who tortured and killed Fr. Brébeuf ate his heart afterward because they admired and wanted to partake of his spirit. It’s a strange distortion of Christ’s command to eat His body and drink His blood, which itself was a startling act that scandalized non-Christians in early-Church days.

We sometimes forget that it’s shocking. Eucharist is at once deeply spiritual and intimately physical. This is true of the Church’s entire sacramental life, one of its greatest gifts to its people. All the sacraments carry with them a command to change the world into what they witness, the reconciliation of spirit and matter.

Christ Himself, the great sacrament of the Church, makes this possible.

Embraced by a fast-food angel

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We wanted late-night refreshment. A lengthy search uncovered one place open, a fast-food restaurant with golden arches. We thought we’d just be getting beverages; we also got a glimpse of the eternal. Serving customers was a young woman and man. As we imbibed our tea, she said loudly enough that we could hear clearly: “It’s not that God doesn’t talk to people. It’s that we’re always feeding the flesh. So the flesh gets big, and the spirit gets small and can’t hear God speaking.”   

Why doesn’t God speak to people? Or if He does, why so obscurely? Has God been speaking in ways I haven’t been hearing? Perhaps the young woman knew that the opposition between flesh and spirit is not dualistic. It’s not that body is bad and soul is good; this idea has always been considered heretical. Rather, it’s “spirit” in the sense of all that belongs to God and leads us to God; “flesh” in the sense of what drags us down, away from God.

Into the darkness, where we can let go

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In a retreat I led, we talked about healing broken relationships: not just fixing something, but the new life that can come out of broken places. In the process, a real life is established, for underneath the relationship that broke is a life in need of deep healing.

Forgiveness can’t happen unless we’re willing to let go of winning or losing, being right or wrong. (Fortunately, God forgives — thereby unlocking the door to the process.) This is not to say there isn’t hurt and responsibility, and we may need to sort out what we’re responsible for and what we’re not.

What needs to be let go of? It’s almost never what you think; the surprise of it is part of the joy.

Some hours after this discussion, I was in the garden weeding, during free time after lunch. A participant was on the porch changing a diaper. She lingered, enjoying the beauty of the woods, the sunshine, others’ presence. She broke a long silence by asking me, across the garden: “But how do I let go?”  

A view from the Island of Tears

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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.”

Our goal should be to be in harmony with God’s will

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A group of Christians, of different traditions, was discussing business at a Canadian Council of Churches meeting. I didn’t realize the word “discernment” kept coming up until a guest leaned over to me. She’s fluent in English, but it’s not her first language. “What does ‘discernment’ mean?” she asked. I opened my mouth with a ready answer but an inward pause. It’s simple enough to define, at first blush, but less simple to understand.

And why is it so often so difficult to do? Christian traditions have produced many ways of discernment; it’s an art, a science, a way of the cross, traversed with blood and anguish. It might seem, too, that trying to consult God just makes things tough; don’t our atheistic friends have an easier time of it? How does it differ from decision-making? Does discernment involve faith?

A secular definition of “discern” speaks of coming to see, or otherwise recognize; such as discerning a sail on the horizon. A spiritual definition of discernment might also refer to seeing: learning to see as God sees. “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face-to-face,” says St. Paul (1 Cor 13:12); St. Augustine  picks this up, saying faith means knowing now, darkly, what we shall then see directly.

By embracing the cross we see the Resurrection

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One day I was in one of those giant supermarkets. The produce department opened out before me like a football field; within it, a vast bin overflowed with tomatoes. I started picking through them, then realized this activity was a waste of time, as they were all identical, all perfect. Each sphere had a thick, tough pink skin, without dent, spot or mark, all the same size; I knew they’d be relatively tasteless.  

My mind flashed to earlier days, to shelves lined with rows of deep red, thin-skinned tomatoes. These did require selection because some would be bruised or split, sizes varied from tiny to huge, and each was a juicy tasty treat of which its contemporary counterpart offers but a faint memory.

These tomato changes, it occurred to me, are like what’s happening to us: we’re expected to look, smell and feel the same as one another, to have tough skins that never bruise or break, and to be easily gathered, stored and marketed in large quantities. We’ve been standardized; normalized; uniformized.

Uniformizing, toughening people up and making them tasteless aren’t hallmarks of Christianity. At least they oughtn’t to be.

Toward Jerusalem

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Christ we set our face towards Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). We must enter into the twin questions of death and sin.

We’re surrounded by them all the time. Lent asks us to turn to them, not by way of giving up, nor to fight or overcome them, but simply to be with Christ who set His face towards both.  

Every day we face death, often unaware. This unawareness is a gift, because we mostly aren’t ready to face the vastness; God doesn’t ask us to stand always at the edge of the abyss. Rather, He showers us with life, in the flesh, and encourages us to grow strong in this. Still, we receive the gift of life amidst death.  

Christ allows us to witness joy

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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.

In communion with Christian brethren

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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?

What's on your gift list?

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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.

God comes to me

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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.