Mary Marrocco

Mary Marrocco

Dr. Mary Marrocco is an associate secretary for the Canadian Council of Churches. She is also a teacher, writer and lay pastoral worker. Her column, Questioning Faith, features topics about the teachings of our church, scriptures, the lives and writings of the saints and spiritual writers and theologians. She can be reached at

November 28, 2012

Advent, awash in paradox

It’s a perilous journey, but one that is filled with hope

A funeral draws us into eternal life that Jesus’ death made possible

A friend described a memorial service he’d attended. He was directed to a room with a video screen to watch images of the service happening elsewhere.

Increasingly, memorials occur with little or no physical connection to the dead. Last year, I searched the rooms of a funeral parlour for several minutes before realizing there was no body at the wake.

This approach to death may be enlightened and compassionate. We “celebrate” the dead person’s life; we remember their aliveness, and all that made them dear to us. We look around or over death as though it weren’t there. We make a toast, and carry on. It’s a determinedly cheery approach. Is it a Christian approach?

Varied, even competing, views of death abound. It’s seen as the final terminus of physical life, a passage to God, an illusion, a cure for suffering, the thing we all fear most, a glorious destiny, a means of punishment. Our attitudes to death speak about our attitudes to life.

Oftentimes memorials tell us “do not mourn,” “do not weep.” St. Paul, on the contrary, doesn’t tell us not to grieve, but urges, “do not grieve as those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). What is the Christian hope? That we’ll remember the good things of our beloved deceased? That we won’t have to mourn? That they didn’t really die? That we won’t die, or won’t suffer in dying?

An atheist I know says of death: “they close the lid, and that’s it.” He at least has the courage to confront nothingness. Such courage may have a better chance of moving God than pretending death doesn’t exist, or ignoring the questions and discomforts it presents. Entering the unknown requires a true letting-go. Jesus’ friends didn’t learn to forget Him after His death; they didn’t find closure. Following His lead on the cross, they surrendered into it, and this opened everything, including their hearts. They learned, and told us, that love is stronger than death.

The Gospels go to great lengths to show that Jesus really died. He bled. He suffered. His breath stopped. His body was broken. It was taken lifeless from the cross, and placed in a tomb. It was really there. He was dead. Like Lazarus before Him, so long dead that the smell of death hung around. Whatever the Gospels are about, they haven’t been passed down through 2,000 years to help us think death away.

Nor to seek death as an antidote — or a tool in the tool kit of physicians, or of the state. Death isn’t an answer to suffering, to mental illness, to sin or crime or disability or imperfection. It’s an implacable, irrevocable reality that applies equally to us all. Because sin entered the world, through human hearts and actions, therefore we are broken and divided by death. Death, remorseless and anguish-producing, is a witness of the rupture between ourselves and God, by which we also become enemies of one another.

Confronted by His friend’s death, Jesus was moved to tears, not to celebrating Lazarus’ life or telling the dead man’s sisters to look for their brother in the next room. He didn’t treat death as a balm or pretence. He acted against it, thereby foreshadowing the real Good News: that when He Himself lay dead in the tomb, it couldn’t hold Him. He was so alive that death itself broke.

We don’t get around death, but through it. Though it may be painful, we need to contemplate death — together, not alone; with Christ, not without Him; with all the helps the Church can give.

Especially in November, the Catholic Church invites us to spend time with the dead, and to stand at the edge of death. We don’t stand there alone: the veil between the living and the dead is thin. This truth is echoed in the back-to-back solemnity of All Saints and commemoration of All Souls which usher us into November. We pray to and for the dead, inviting them to be present to us. C.S. Lewis (The Great Divorce) suggests the reason we can’t perceive the dead isn’t because they’re insubstantial, like ghosts. It’s because they are super-substantial, so solid, so alive, that we seem insubstantial to them. They died; death is real. More real, more solid than death is love.

There is a communion between people through death. Universally, a funeral or memorial service includes eating and drinking. Food is the way we live communion. It helps us receive Eucharist, and deepen our communion with the One who has died, risen and broken the lock of death.

A Catholic funeral isn’t a celebration of a dead person’s life. It’s a eucharistic service which makes us present to Christ. It draws us into the eternal life-with-God that Christ makes possible. This is our hope, that in our surrender to death — the little deaths-to-self, the deaths of persons we know and letting-go into our own death — we meet Christ who conquered death.
(Marrocco can be reached at

Questioning Faith

Once, a parish priest asked me and my brother if we would offer a Bible study in the nearby seniors’ home. We invited all residents to an afternoon series in their lounge. Two or three showed up regularly, but nobody else. What were we doing wrong? Why didn’t they like us?

Finally one of the attendees, who was Protestant, acknowledged to us: “They wanted to come because they like this sort of thing, but they couldn’t understand why anybody would send Catholics to do a Bible study.” This took the pressure off!

Though it cherishes a sacred book, Christianity is not a religion of the book. It’s a way, “the way,” to use one of its earliest names. It offers life through encounter with One who is the door to life. Why then does the Church have a special book (or rather, collection of books) that it considers sacred? Where did it come from, and what are we supposed to do with it?

The Church considers the Scriptures “inspired.” Perhaps this makes them seem distant, reserved for the learned few. We may want to get closer to them, without knowing the way (which, at times, is how we feel about God, too). On Oct. 18, we celebrate the feast of St. Luke, one of the four evangelists. Luke, tradition says, was a physician and knew the Mother of God. The first semester of my theological studies included a class assignment to read a Gospel from start to finish. Because the feast day was nearby, I chose Luke’s Gospel; the experience was moving and educational. I discovered somebody behind the Scripture texts. I’d always been taught God was behind them, but now I began to see and hear a human writer. Could it be that God and Luke were writing together?

What a combination — a collaboration between God and a human, in which I could join. It was like being part of a conversation and discovering that in the process, you were getting to know God. So I learned that if the Bible is inspired, that doesn’t put it far away from me, but brings it close. It’s for me, for all of us (including Catholics)!

But what does it mean to say the Bible is inspired?

The other day I saw a photograph of a nice-looking young man. A self-portrait, it showed him wearing a black, short-sleeved T-shirt and black shorts, sitting on a column like a Greek hero. His figure exuded strength and compassion. Noteworthy, but not dominant, was the lack of three limbs, though the bare scarred skin was unabashedly visible.

While on assignment in Afghanistan in 2011, photographer Giles Duley accidentally triggered an explosive device. He endured the amputation of both feet and one hand, and resumed his photography career. Differently. He explains there are things he can’t do any more, such as keep his balance while looking through a viewfinder, and some things he can do in ways he couldn’t before, such as “focus even more on the connection with people.”

Duley’s story was inspiring to me. I imagined how I might respond to similar losses, reflected on the strength of his spirit, the human capacity to transcend itself, how it often falls short but at times rises to glory. His story, his person, evoked a deep response in me.

There are degrees of inspiration. We wouldn’t say the photograph is inspired to the degree the Bible is. We hope the inspiration we get from many things will help us learn to encounter the Spirit in the Bible, where of all books He is most meetable.

The word “inspire” means to “breathe into.” For Christians, it’s a deeply laden word with profound meaning. It reminds us that God “breathed into (Adam’s) nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). It’s the truth of our humanness, that held within us like a treasure is the living Spirit of God. The Mother of God is the archetype of inspiration, so open to God’s Spirit that the Word can take flesh within her.

“Inspiration” is not a thing, but a relationship. God breathed into Adam, but Adam also started to breathe. Scripture’s authors were inspired by God, but we too, people who read, study and pray with the Scriptures, find God’s Spirit within us helping us to understand them — we, too, are inspired. That’s why the Scriptures are the books of the Church, though the Church is not a religion based on books. It’s based on a relationship between God and us.

We need this sort of inspiration in our day-to-day lives. Otherwise we get anxious, like a tiny child whose parent is out of sight. The Scriptures help bring us into the ongoing dialogue between God and humanity, in our present affliction and struggle. They’re a unique place of encounter with God. The dialogue between God and humanity becomes a person. It’s this person whom we encounter in the Scriptures, Christ who alone fills our hunger.

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 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.

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).

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.

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?

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?

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.

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.