Do you remember the joy of the letter Q? My mother was recalling the childhood “aha” moment of realizing the difference between printing capital G and Q: lay G on its back, close the circle, make a line in the right direction, and you’ve discovered the beauty of Q.
There’s an element of discovery, of recognition, about learning to live in the world. Something in us recognizes, or connects with, something outside ourselves, as though we’d seen it before and were calling it to mind. What’s within us is linked with what’s without. We see the connections among things in ways we never did before. This dynamic is the mystery of education, of human development, even of community.
Yet somehow it’s hard for us to trust what’s within, even though it’s the key to everything we do. We prefer to arrange and control things, relying on the plodding structures we build rather than risk the inner dynamism that’s built-in. We have a deep need for security; it’s related to our equally deep need of love.
A group I’ve joined decided to sponsor a refugee family, from a natural desire to welcome the stranger. It’s a little dispiriting to see that desire pinned, like a caught butterfly, to protocols, forms and procedures, as though trying to codify every act of human existence. Possibly the protocols were created by people with the same natural desire to welcome the stranger in need. If we need forms and directives to tell us how to say hello at the airport, and how to help our family shop for food, are we really up for the task? Are protocols the hope for restoring some small measure of humanity in face of appalling inhumanity?
Perhaps it’s hard for us to trust that humans know how to be human with each other. When the simple fundamentals of community get so lost, how can we find our way back to our common humanity? A forest of measurable, evidence-based protocols might seem like the road to salvation. We design structures to protect us from what Albert Camus calls the “hell of the other,” even in performing acts of service. In a Peanuts cartoon, Linus shouts to his sister Lucy: “I love mankind . . . It’s people I can’t stand!!”
We’re not so much forbidden from the Garden of Eden as incapable of being in it, for we forget how to trust what’s deep inside us: our own humanity, and what St Augustine calls our “capacity for God” (capax dei). It’s hard for adults to remember what children know — that somewhere inside us, we’re ready for the beauty of the letter Q; that there’s a harmony inside all things, even inside of us humans. Especially inside of us humans.
Protocols aren’t our saviour, useful though they can be. There’s an order that isn’t ours to invent, nor to be masters of, but ours to discover, work with and delight in.
We forget how to trust what’s inside us, but we do know it. Mary Jo Leddy, founder of Romero House for refugees, told sponsoring groups not to worry and plan so much when feeling weighed down by red tape, because they have what it takes to care for refugees: “When people feel welcome, they flourish,’’ she said (CBC News, Nov. 28, 2015).
Augustine reminds us that if we know everything except “we belong to God,” then we know nothing at all. Salvation isn’t in creating and following the best protocols, but in discovering this relationship at the heart of us, and of all that is: the divine life of the Trinity, inviting us into the dance.
Recently a NASA representative announced, with joy in his voice, a movie the spacecraft Juno took: “and for the first time, all of us together will actually see the true harmony in nature. This is what it’s about, this is what Jupiter and its moons look like, this is what our solar system looks like if you were to move out, it’s what the galaxy looks like, it’s what the atoms look like. It’s harmony at every scale.” If the space agency can help us see the harmony in all things, as my mother glimpsed in the letter Q, then its protocols and procedures are put to good use.
This harmony can be hard to see, particularly when humanity’s inhumanity clouds and covers it over. Could we dare take the simple approach of a monk? Charged with running the monastery’s mill, he had a reputation for having the best-run, most efficient mill with the happiest workers. How did he do it? Every morning, he went to his cell to pray for each worker, remembering his story and holding him personally before God.
Perhaps our monk had protocols and procedures too; if he did, he knew they weren’t God, but existed to serve God in his beloved creatures, created in his own image. Us.
The feast of St. Augustine was Aug. 28.
Marrocco is a marriage and family therapist, teacher of theology, and writer, and co-ordinates St. Mary of Egypt Refuge. She can be reached at email@example.com