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 Belgium recently, someone unexpectedly crossed my path.

A theological conference in Leuven included a service at nearby St. Damien Church. Entering, I met a man, a fellow conference-goer I hadn’t met before, who said, “Come down to the crypt where St. Damien is.” I followed him down, paused with my hand on the doorknob, sensing that that door led to a life-changing encounter.

'Today, you will be with me in Paradise'

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One of my great teachers was Helen. 

She was a tiny, elderly woman with a limp from a bad hip and swollen feet, with yellow curly hair and no teeth. She loved to greet strangers, bake muffins for people, help out at the breakfast club and the mission. She smiled and laughed easily. She was a chatterer, but her chattering was generally random and disconnected, hard to follow and easily dismissed.

She herself was among the easiest of people to dismiss: an old, poor, solitary woman, living on social assistance in a squalid apartment. Though a wife and mother of many, she was quite alone in the world; long separated from an abusive husband and from her children, taken away one-by-one by the Children’s Aid Society. When I met her, Helen had largely left the world of sanity — with good reason, as refuge from the world which, for her, was a crazy and dangerous place.

When Helen had a stroke and was taken to hospital, she must have seemed an insignificant patient. Mostly incomprehensible at the best of times, she was now completely so, unable to communicate, powerless. Soon, the health care system decided she, her suffering, her life, were unnecessary. When I visited her, she had no feeding tube and was being given nothing orally. Helen died in a large Catholic hospital in urban Canada.

Why carry rocks around?

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Long ago, I let a friend down. It’s still vivid in my memory. I’d promised, but at the last minute I phoned up and cancelled, leaving her in the lurch. She was cold and angry on the phone; we hung up quickly. I couldn’t blame her; I’d hurt her. Though I’d apologized, the effects remained.

I don’t know what happened with her, because she stopped speaking to me. But for me, a burden was created which I long carried: guilt. A paralysing burden. Perhaps part of me was reluctant to put it down, as though staggering under it would gain me points, and enough collected points would earn me forgiveness. This type of guilt, someone observed to me, is like a knapsack full of rocks strapped to one’s back: a dead weight that gradually, increasingly wearies the bearer.

The cry of the downtrodden is Jesus' cry

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Years ago, a friend of mine volunteered to teach in a Haitian orphanage. When she returned home temporarily due to political upheaval, I was rapidly educated about this country, its beauties and its pains.

Among many discoveries was that Canadians waste water. Growing up surrounded by fresh water, I’d never considered that water might be finite and we could waste or should conserve it.

Called to participate in what's humanly possible

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Are New Year’s resolutions still popular? Probably: gyms tend to be flooded with new members in January. Sometimes we make resolutions knowing we won’t be perfect, but committing to the walk anyway.

Several decades ago, the Catholic Church resolved to work towards full communion with other Christian communities. At times, we’re unaware of the pain of non-communion; when we do feel it, it can be powerful.

Light over darkness

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Recently, I was chatting with a friend about many things — the state of Christianity, of the economy, the world, our lives, people we know. Finally my friend remarked, “The older I get, the more I see that there’s far more evil than good in the world.” His comment was quite understandable. Whether you look around, or whether you look within, it’s evident that evil twines everywhere, like a serpent coiling around one’s legs or a vine climbing a stone wall.

We happened to be sitting in front of a display of beautiful Christmas merchandise: wreaths, trees, toys, gifts and a stunning life-size nativity set. The nativity figures were all swathed in flowing clothes of filmy materials that enhanced their beauty, the way clothes should. The figures were artfully arranged so that they seemed to glorify one another, the way people should. The whole effect was a vision of loveliness, without shadow or pain or evil.

Time: enemy or friend?

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Last week, my aunt was taken to emergency and we heard she might not have many days. How much time, no one knew. My mother and I felt we must take the time to drive up next day and see her. We arranged our time accordingly.

Making good time, we arrived in early afternoon. We bought parking time and searched the hospital; she was still in emergency, a volunteer informed us, but time had passed and she may have been moved. The person who knew was on her time off.

Of divinity and cocktail parties

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Questions of faith come up in the most un-churchly ways and places. You might be at a cocktail party making small talk, or in a bus waiting for your stop, and hear profound spiritual questions slipping in and out amidst the surrounding dialogue. As a teacher of mine liked to say, God is not really hard to find — “He’s everywhere.”

In my practice as a marriage and family therapist, faith questions surface unsought, in their own time and way. When given the time and space, people are generally eager to talk about them. Indeed, we suffer from carrying such
questions alone, often without the resources to help us probe and learn from them. But the questions are alive and well in real life.

Through the cross, divine love penetrates our suffering

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It was a beautiful, comfortable hotel, but it couldn’t protect us from reality. Before dawn, we heard hostile voices from the adjacent room. A woman and man were arguing. Later, I went out to the elevator area to get a newspaper. Down the hall rushed a weeping woman with a suitcase; she waited for the elevator, sobbing, then exclaimed, “My sunglasses,” and went back down the hallway. Loud, persistent knocking and cries of “I just want to get my sunglasses” were followed by her hurried return to the elevator amidst a renewed storm of sobs. The doors opened and she was gone. It all took a couple of minutes.

Avoiding the detour

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{mosimage}How can I help? A question that lurks everywhere, ubiquitous with suffering.

Emerging into adulthood, I discovered the world is tilted: a few at the rich end, a multitude at the poor end. More shocking: everyone knew, and still it didn’t change. Didn’t people want to help? Or were they unable?

Recently, a 16-year-old let go his fury. He’d been raging a long time, repeated arrests, failure in school and nothing seemed better; childhood traumas had erected mountains he couldn’t scale. Family and professionals had seemingly tried and failed. Why couldn’t love help?

Breaking the lock

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Lee felt the familiar exasperation, defeat and desolation. He didn’t stop to list these feelings; they remained in the background of the all-too-foreground argument with his wife. 

“Nothing ever changes,” he said to himself, and eventually he said it out loud, in just that contemptuous tone Julia had been expecting, with dread. “You don’t change, and this so-called relationship doesn’t change,” she flashed back, as if from the script of one of those plays that run 35 years, the same dialogue repeated night after night. Theirs had run only 12 years, but both were feeling ready to shut it down forever.