One day my brother put a book in my hand. The book, a biography, appealed to me. I read it into the small hours of that same night.
Have you ever found it easier to accept sorrow than joy? This time, seduced by the word “joy” in the title, I was drawn by the story into the big, tough questions of life. By then it was too late to put the book down.
Attracted by the people in the story, I accompanied them into those questions. There was Job’s question: Why do good people suffer? There was the question of our day: Does the suffering person have any value, even if she cannot do or produce anything, and might actually cost the rest of us? Here, the questions were not abstract, but enfleshed in the young lives of Chiara Petrillo and her husband Enrico.
Why should their story, which could be labelled tragic, be claimed as a witness to joy?
It wasn’t a trick, giving a joyful title to a book about something else entirely. Rather, the subtitle, “Witness to Joy,” gave a key, alerting the reader to the tension between joy and suffering — the tension on which human living happens. “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked,” wrote poet Kahlil Gibran. “And the self-same well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
“And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
Chiara and Enrico, the story tells, by the time they were married, already were learning the dance of sorrow and joy. Then, when Chiara conceived, shadows quickly threaded their way through the light. An ultrasound revealed the child was anencephalic, and would be unable to live after birth. Chiara feared her young husband, who couldn’t attend the ultrasound, wouldn’t agree with her instantaneous decision to bring the child to birth, against physicians’ advice and far outside the medical comfort zone. A joyful and unitive encounter resulted; Enrico unhesitatingly reacted precisely as his wife had. This early question-and-answer between them strengthened them as a couple.
Another source of strength and joy came from deep within. In the various kinds of distress surrounding them over those next months, Chiara found sustenance from Maria, the child she was carrying. She and Enrico withstood much pressure to have an abortion. Little Maria helped and carried her, even as she was carrying little Maria. How did Chiara know to turn within, and draw from the life within her? How did this mother and daughter discover and nourish each other?
It’s difficult, in times of distress, or in ordinary times, to look within. We’re the lost son of Jesus’ parable (Luke 15:11-32), who ran away from home, seeking outside what was waiting for him inside. Even in our worst, most lost places, there is a “wholly intimate instruction from within,” as St Augustine put it, waiting for us to turn, listen, receive, become.
In receiving that “wholly intimate instruction,” Enrico and Chiara were joined more deeply. Maria, the littlest and most vulnerable one, the disabled and weak one, helped them receive it — and rejoice in it. Rather than being a burden that damaged them, Maria was a source of strength that guided them through criticism, opposition and grief, helping them witness joy amidst suffering.
They prayed Maria would be born alive so they could hold her and have her baptized. Maybe Maria shared that desire. She lived half an hour after birth.
Maria’s birth and death helped shape the lives of her parents, her siblings yet unborn, the hospital staff, and many more. Who would have guessed that they would be asked again to carry a child who couldn’t live after birth. The natural fear during the second pregnancy — anencephaly — wasn’t fulfilled. Inexplicable to medical wisdom, the second child, Davide, had a different condition but the same prognosis of death at birth. The sorrowful joy of Maria’s brief life accompanied them through Davide’s. A third child, Francesco, came to birth healthy and well, but again God surprised them. Chiara was diagnosed with oral cancer during the third pregnancy, but delayed treatment till after Francesco’s birth. About a year after his birth, he and his father bid the final farewell to Chiara, who died June 13, 2012.
We may find ourselves unable to receive as this young couple did. We may fail to give life when the opportunity comes. We may reject or scorn the vulnerable — the vulnerable other, or the vulnerable parts of ourselves. Let us not allow such decisions to make us bitter, or prevent us from accepting forgiveness and healing. It would be false to their joyful witness if we used it to vilify those who aren’t able to withstand the pressure to have abortions, or conclude that holiness means being dour and lifeless. What if a “wholly intimate instruction from within” invites us to receive mercy, and joy? Would we say yes?
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