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 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.

You can’t connect with the spirit without connecting to the body

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“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.