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

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.

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.

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?

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.”


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.