Fire & Wind:
Building a Refuge that Belongs to Christ
by Mary Marrocco
Catholic New Times, October 29, 2006.
In the summer of 2004, after several years' prayer, work, planning, dreaming and searching, we (a small group of slightly foolish, mostly devoted, Christians, working on behalf of a non-profit corporation) purchased country acreage with a cottage. Thus was born in the flesh St. Mary of Egypt Refuge. Many hands worked to fix up the cottage and area, where we are creating a refuge where those in need can come for a short-term or long-term stay.
Then, in November 2004, the original home burned to the ground in a sudden fire resulting from a windstorm, only a few weeks after we had, through donated labour and materials, re-shingled the roof in order to validate our insurance policy.
We had come so far on this project, and have felt so led by the wind of the Spirit, that this kind of wind and fire took us aback. We have been reminded that the work is not our own, and certainly not in our control.
What a shock it is to realize that when Jesus speaks about clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, raising the downtrodden, he is speaking about me: me, not as the one doing the helping, but as the one needing the help.
Oddly enough, this is the realization that came upon me like a fever when I began really trying to clothe the naked and feed the hungry. I have also discovered that the response Jesus wants to evoke in us by such pronouncements is not guilt. He is out to make us feel loved; and once we know ourselves loved, then we are able to discover our own poverty, our own need, and, paradoxically, our capacity to give. That is when real action can begin, action rooted in faith ... for love, we are told, is faith in action.
Let me give a small illustration. The small illustrations are often the great ones.
I was working one evening in the little office at St John the Compassionate Mission, a small but huge outreach to the poor in Riverdale, east end Toronto. Seated at the computer, I was putting together some highly important, highly erudite letters asking highly important, highly erudite people for donations.
I was asking for donations to help build St. Mary of Egypt Refuge, a home and refuge in the countryside for persons who need g place of welcome and healing, a deeper connection with nature, and (beneath all that) who thirst and hunger for God and community. The refuge itself is the real point of this story, but let me tell you first how I was, at this opportune fundraising moment, subject to the breaking-in of the Gospel.
The office I was borrowing is used by St John's Bakery, which employs the unemployable to produce bread. Quite tasty bread, I might add. So it feeds the hungry in many ways at the same time. While I was absorbed at the computer, two things happened: a ragged man came in and sat in a chair at the other end of the office, and Nick, one of the bakers, came in a moment later with a basket of banana bread for the two of us to sample.
By the time I detached myself from the letters to take a piece, most of banana bread had disappeared into the hungry emptiness of the ragged man. It was only now that I noticed his raggedness. "Good bread, isn't it?" I remarked.
He nodded, "Very good." Then added, "Excuse me, ma'am, do you think the church would have any socks left? My shoes are chafing at my feet."
And I, yes I did, answered before returning to my charity letters, "Come back tomorrow; the Mission will be open then."
Nick the baker came back in for the basket. "What happened to your socks, man?"
"Well," came the reply, "I've just got these gloves on my feet, and they keep slipping down into my shoes."
Finally, I turned and looked at the ragged man, looked at his rice, his eyes, his dilapidated shoes, and his cold bare feet that he had taken out of those shoes to demonstrate to Nick how his glove system had failed him. Putting down my letters, I said, "I'll go upstairs and see what I can find."
When I returned a few minutes later with several pairs of warm women's socks, and a hat and scarf, my ragged friend was full of gratitude. I apologized that we had no men's socks, and asked if he needed anything else, but he was simply grateful for what I had brought.
I remembered how the newspapers had questioned the Prime Minister for waiting five days before returning from holidays to contend with the Asian tsunami. Why did he wait five days? Why did I wait five minutes?
Luckily, I am assured (through St. Paul) that it is in our weakness, not our strength, that Christ does his best work. This is a comforting reminder, as my weakness, in its various forms, seems to turn up fairly regularly.
I had discovered long ago that the Gospel is best heard out of poverty. Here I had been privileged, once again, to meet Christ himself in this sock-less man, and find that he was offering me, once again, a chance to "serve" and "be served" at the same time. I was writing those fundraising letters, after all, because I had found that joy comes in such meetings. I wanted to build a place where such meetings could happen.
So, in the very act of doing paperwork for the refuge, I was reminded that Christ is found among the poor, and that this is where he loves to build his church.
In this country, we have many social services, funds, programs, charities all doing good work that needs to be done. The refuge is not trying to compete with any of these services. Rather, we are longing to live with Christ, and seeking him where he is most readily found--in poverty, in giving and receiving, in need and in hunger.
The refuge is a 260-acre tract of land, beautiful healing living land, a three hours' drive east of Toronto. It is gorgeous and hidden, with a lovely river running through it, yet within fifteen minutes' drive of not one but two Tim Horton's! Just right for those in need of a break, peace and quiet, prayer, work, and companionship.
We have already begun to live a life of prayer and to build a home to which those in need can come, especially single mothers and their children.
Thanks to our generous donors and their faith in this vision, construction on our new house began on October 2. We still need to supplement the building fund and will soon need furniture and labour of many kinds. We need help in order for it all to happen. As usual, we do not know where the help will come from, but we know that the breath of the Spirit comes with it.
We also need people who long to "live something," something real, unpredictable, ordinary and yet glorious. "The glory of God," wrote St. Irenaeus long ago, "is the human fully alive; and the life of the human is the vision of God."
St. Mary of Egypt, Inc., is a not-for-profit corporation and a registered charity. For more information, call 416-629-8264; write Box 75645,607 Gerrard St. East, Toronto, M4M 3M5; or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Mary Marrocco, Ph.D. is a theologian whose commitment to those in need has been reflected in CNT pages over many years.
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