Wednesday, April 23, 2014

This Week in Madonna House - April 15-23

“So, what do you do in Madonna House for Easter?” The question was asked me at the parish mission I did in Orangeville just before Holy Week. It was hard to answer in a few words – this past week in MH is one of the richest, fullest, and most varied weeks of our year, and is exceedingly beautiful to boot. So, what exactly did we do this week in MH?

First, there’s what most of us didn’t do this year for once, due to inclement weather. It’s hard to believe, since we are now in a thoroughly spring cycle of days, but just a week ago most of the MH priests trying to go to the Chrism Mass in Pembroke were stymied by snow and ice rain which virtually shut the highway down—one last blast of winter that seriously messed up our plans that day.

But Holy Week continued on regardless. That evening, we had our communal penance service, being shriven so as to enter the Triduum together washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. The next evening, we had our customary egg dying night, coloring and painting in festive liturgical symbols the hard boiled eggs that would be our fast-breaking after the Vigil on Saturday.

In all these days, the customs I am going to describe are of course surrounded by intense work—cooking, decorating, cleaning, music practices, and so forth. It is the busiest week of the year in many corners of MH.

First came Holy Thursday. The tables of the dining room, normally set up in three rows, were turned around end-to-end to create four long single tables, covered with tablecloths to create the effect of a banquet hall. A mosaic of Christ the lamb shedding his blood for us dominated the front of the room, along with a head table and ornate candelabra. This was the setting for the Supper of the Lamb, one of our most beloved customs. It is not a seder meal, exactly, but a Christian version of that

At the beginning of the meal, the candles are lit with a prayer of blessing. Then the paschal lamb, a slain lamb, roasted whole, resting on a cross-shaped frame and supported by loaves of bread, is solemnly carried into the dining hall while we sing a psalm of praise to God. It is placed at the head of the room, and an ancient homily speaking of Christ the Lamb of is read. It is processed out, and then we have a truly wonderful, joyful meal of lamb, bread, wine—the liturgical symbols blend with life seamlessly.

At the end of the meal a long portion of the Farewell discourse from John’s Gospel is read, connecting the agape of our meal, the agape of the Eucharist, and the call to love one another beautifully. After all this, of course, we have the evening liturgy, familiar to all Catholics, with the washing of feet and the solemn procession of the Eucharist to the altar of repose. All accompanied by truly gorgeous music ably led by our schola cantorum.

Good Friday is hot cross buns for breakfast (keeping within the fasting rules, of course), the use of a clacker instead of bells, and the traditional afternoon service. For supper we fast on plain boiled potatoes, and then in the evening we have the Byzantine service of the Burial of Christ, a most beautiful and beloved gift to us from our Eastern heritage. This is, essentially, a funeral service for Jesus, in which the sorrow of his passing repeatedly gives way to anticipated joy in his coming resurrection.

It is impossible to describe the beauty of this service. The heart of it are three cycles of praises of our fallen hero, modeled on pre-Christian forms of odes. ‘How can you die, O my Life, how can you be buried?.. O life-bestowing one, it is right indeed to magnify you… The most handsome of men is today laid in the tombs, all the armies of the angels were dazzled, and they glorified your burial divine… ointment bearing women came to your tomb singing a hymn of victory…’ At this latter verse, one of the priests goes around the chapel sprinkling everyone with perfume, the burial ointment of Christ (which the women did not, after all, have to use!) becoming the sweet fragrance of joy and life for us.

There is much more to the service—the prophecy of the dry bones from Ezekiel, a haunting chant where Joseph of Arimethea pleads with Pilate for the body of Christ—‘Give me that Stranger, who being a stranger, has nowhere to lay his head… Give me that Stranger, of whom his mother cried out when she saw him dead, ‘My Son, my senses are wounded, and my heart is torn, but trusting in your resurrection, I glorify you.’ There is whole funeral procession around the chapel with the epitaphion, the shroud of Christ, with the solemn Trisagion intoned in many languages. At the end, then, we all in solemn assembly one by one pass under this shroud, holding lit candles. We extinguish the candle, say ‘Glory to your long suffering O Christ our God’, and pass under. Going into the tomb with Christ, we come out the other side, now bearing the light of Christ in our mortal flesh.

Saturday brings the Vigil, which I was privileged to celebrate this year. We all know how that goes—in MH we have opted to do all the readings and take our time with them, too. After the Vigil, so around midnight or so, we have a festive collation together, where we break our Lenten fast with the previously mentioned hard boiled eggs. One person says ‘Christ is risen’ and the other replies ‘Truly he is risen’ and they smash their eggs together and eat the contents.

What else goes on? Well, we have pascha and koolitch, the traditional Russian Easter foods, the one a sweet cottage cheese paste enriched with eggs and butter and raisins, the other a special sweet bread. We have three days off, with a relaxed schedule and some leisure time together. We have much singing at the meals, people bursting out with variations of the great Easter troparion ‘Christ is risen from the dead, trampling on death by death, and on those in the tombs, lavishing life’. We have Ukranian pysanky eggs everywhere—hanging from the ceiling, laid out on every flat surface… everywhere.

Beauty, beauty, beauty everywhere. And I guess that’s what Holy Week and Easter in MH is all about—making the beauty of our faith visible in manifold customs and rites. And that’s what happened this week in our corner of the world.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

It's Always About Love

Strange, isn’t it, that on this seemingly sorrowful day pain and joy meet. And this is the cross - the cross that everybody is running away from - and I include everybody! We don’t want it - we like the cross on a table - we like the cross on a wall - we don’t mind it in a church - but when we say to ourselves, “Ah, he loved me unto total emptiness, even unto hanging naked on the cross, I must do likewise” and we turn the cross around so that we know that this is the place where we should go - we break it apart! We think of something else, and yet we miss the whole thing!

Did you ever stop to think of the love with which God loves? There is a fantastic joy. Did you ever think of a saint who is not full of joy? Is there a sad saint? Well, he ain’t a saint; he is a sad sack! You just don’t think of a saint as sad. It is impossible! How can a person who practically sees God with the eyes of faith so closely be sad? How is it possible?

Good Friday is the meeting place of the Lord’s joy. Do you know why he was joyous also? He fulfilled his Father’s will! Now we go around saying that we want to fulfill God’s will because we are all ready to be emptied, but the way we say it is like this - like a little girl here in Madonna House - she said, “The Holy Spirit told me not to go to the laundry today.” “Oh,” said I, “what did he tell you to do?” She said, “He told me to sit outside and read a book!” I said, “Good! Why don’t you take that book home with you, pack your bags and go!” Uh-uh! that is not the Holy Spirit, that is telling her stuff! It is somebody else!

The will of God I know through somebody else. Very rarely, unless you are great prophets and what have you, do you personally know. And even if you do, be sure to check with your spiritual director. At all times, obedience is poverty! People want to run around doing anything - my thing! You want to love as Christ loves - do the other people’s thing! That will help you. Forget all about your thing.

God surrendered to his Father’s will unto the cross, because of love of the Father and us. What about us? Are we going to allow today the joy of beholding his total love for us, bring ourselves to the surrender which he did for us, to obey his Father’s will? For I am a sister of Jesus Christ. He said, “I am the way to the Father.” Kenosis, surrender, emptying of self, is part of the Way of Jesus Christ.

Today is a strange day.. Quite strange! A day when joy meets pain, and pain begets joy. And if we enter into the heart of that hurricane, because it is a hurricane of pain and of joy, we shall be empty too.

This is the hour... this is the day ... in which God who doesn’t speak much, but in his silence and in his agony, says, “Love me as much as I love you!” It is a solemn day. It is a day in which we can descend into the well of our heart and find out how much we love him who loved us so much.

Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Spiritual Reading, Good Friday, 1974

Reflection – This is the last of the Good Friday spiritual reading from Catherine, and my last blog post for a little while—I will keep the Triduum as days of silence and recollection (at least as far as social media go), and then enjoy a few days off from blogging over the Easter octave. Probably back mid-week, next week.

At any rate, this is vintage Catherine—some have argued that the early and mid 1970s were really the apex of her spiritual reflection. Her story of the young girl deciding the Holy Spirit wanted her to read a book on the lawn rather than go to the laundry is a favorite of hers. God’s will coming to us through the duty of the moment as revealed by other people and (in the case of a community like MH) obedience to one’s superiors is a basic doctrine of hers.

But it’s always about Christ, always about love, always about this intense personal awareness and desire to be one with the One who gave everything to be one with us. And that this is joy, true joy, everlasting joy. To so utterly surrender one’s own will as to have no care for anything but that Love be loved, that God be served, that the will of the Father be done on earth as it is in heaven.

It is painful, true. It is cruciform. But it is the narrow gateway into life, and it is exceedingly beautiful to pass through this gateway. Let us pray for one another this Easter Triduum that we behold the face of Love, and beholding it, receive it, and receiving it, live it in our lives. Amen.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Buried Treasure of the World


Now the great question that stands before us on Good Friday is: are we going to empty ourselves in answer to his emptiness? Because if we are, the moment we empty ourselves, at that moment we shall know the joy of Christ! 

Notwithstanding his pain, notwithstanding all the things that happen today and tomorrow - the pain, the cross, the tomb - if I empty myself because I am in love with God, the God who emptied himself for me - when I say, “Yes, here I am Lord! Take out of me anything that is displeasing to you. Empty me... (the Greek word is ‘kenosis’) Let me enter into this kenosis that you have entered into for love of me”--the moment I have accepted to be emptied, that very moment I shall know joy.

This is why in the Eastern Church it says that Good Friday is full of flowers, is full of joy. It is like a person stepping out on a sunny day, like our days here, still with snow on the ground - and suddenly, through a quiet breeze through which God usually speaks, I feel spring! So standing under the cross, tears falling down my cheeks, pain racking me - shall we say ‘in union with his’ I feel arising from my heart a joy.

Out of the depths of my heart arises the sound, the smell, the joy of spring! Resurrection!

Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Spiritual Reading, Good Friday, 1974

Reflection – I am continuing to blog this excellent Good Friday meditation from Catherine. The intersection of pain and joy, the strange union of the two, is among the greatest ‘buried treasures’ the human race doesn’t know too much about, honestly.

In fact, reading Catherine on this subject is, for many, the strange experience of reading someone who is using a series of ordinary English words, not one of them hard to understand in themselves, yet put together in what is essentially a nonsensical fashion. ‘Joy’, as we normally understand it, arises when everything is just the way we want it, when we get our desires met, when we have our way with things. ‘Pain’ is the antithesis of all these things. How can joy arise from pain, and how can pain and joy be one?

Love is the answer to this question, as it is one way or another to most human questions. It’s actually all quite logical. Joy is, indeed, that which we experience when we receive what we want. Joy is ‘resting in the good’, according to the old scholastic definition, the bliss of obtaining the object of our desires.

If we love God, our desire is to be one with Him. We becoming one with Him by living His life, by sharing in His love. We become one with God by being crucified with Christ, by our self-will and selfishness being nailed to the Cross and our love being poured out for neighbor as his was poured out for all humanity. This, of course, hurts.

So if we love God, joy and pain are one reality, the Cross and the Resurrection merge into a single movement of love, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are, in a sense, one single day, one single revelation of love—on the one part showing forth the cost, the strain, the anguish of it, on the other the radiant beauty and victory.

Without love, everything I have written in the above two paragraphs is sheer unadulterated nonsense. With love, everything I have written here is pellucidly clear. I think a parent will understand this dynamic easily—if one’s child is really suffering, you will be happy to cut off your left arm to alleviate that pain. At any rate, it is quite true, and reveals to us so much of the secret of life and love, happiness and the deep truths of our humanity.

It is not suffering that saddens us ultimately, but selfishness. It is not pleasure that gladdens us, but love. The whole orientation of our being, the whole spectrum along which joy/sorrow, happiness/misery runs is very different from what it seems at first. It is indeed a question of getting what we want, of being fulfilled in our desires, but it is even more so, much more so, a matter of wanting the right thing, wanting that which actually is commensurate with the fullness of our human dignity, our greatness, our divine capacity.

We are made to be sharers of the divine nature, made to be lovers with the scope and extent of Love Himself, cosmic and total. The expansion of our being to our divine destiny hurts us, because we have clung to all sorts of things that limit us to lesser goods, but as we tear free from those bindings, Lazarus-like, we are pulled even in the pain and distress of it into a new freedom, a new horizon of love, a new expansion into a way of life and love that is wholly one with Christ, wholly joyful and radiant with the light of the endless Easter day.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Difficult Beauty, An Uncomfortable Truth


Well, the week that is called ‘holy’ is intensifying itself, and today pain and joy meet. It is a strange meeting point. An apex of sorts, a fantastic mountain of the Lord. Moses climbed a mountain and God spoke to him, and he returned and his face was so shiny that people could not look at it. He had to put a veil over it.

But today God who has incarnated himself, who came down from the mountain through his Incarnation, lived amongst us, strangely enough today he is lifted up again on such an unspeakable, incredible mountain that anyone who thinks about it feels a strange tension - a sort of feeling of total incredulity - that for me, who am so poor, God sent his Son to climb this mountain which is just a Cross. A plain, wooden, unplaned cross!

To think about it holds you tight. Not in the sense that people say - I am uptight. It holds you close. It holds you close to a love that is incomprehensible, incredible, but so true!
Now, this God of ours was born like all of us, naked. But he chose to be naked on the wood. When I say he chose, that is what happened to him, and probably to all those who were crucified.

Now, the meditation of Good Friday goes in depths. It does deeper - in some sort of depths of my heart that perhaps I have never looked into before. To be naked for the reasons of poverty - total poverty - of total surrender - even unto the clothes that I possess, is something that shakes you.

We are supposed to understand that God came and took upon himself the shape of a servant, a slave... us, the body. But he went further. He surrendered everything including that body for the love of us. He emptied himself.

Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Spiritual Reading, Good Friday, 1974

Reflection – I won’t be blogging during the Triduum and over the Easter holiday, but I very much wanted to share with you this magnificent talk Catherine gave on Good Friday, a mere three days from now. Certainly all of Holy Week is meant to be a prolonged meditation on this mystery of what our God has done for us to save us.

The theme of poverty has been much to the fore in the Church since Pope Francis was elected, and this is a very good thing. It is, by definition and strict necessity, an uncomfortable topic, and that is good, too. Why should we be comfortable, in a world where so many of our brothers and sisters are without?

So often in our discussions about poverty, the subject is cast solely in terms of social justice—we who have much should have less so that the poor of the world have more, essentially. And of course this is very true—the requirement to share the world’s goods fairly and to not be living in luxury while people are starving in shacks is plain to see.

But Catherine—who had a great sensibility around that and could talk very passionately about that aspect of it—always went somewhere else in the poverty question. Namely, for her it was inextricably and intimately bound up with her love of and union with Christ. God was born naked and died naked, chose to be born in the lowest of circumstances and chose to die the contemptible death of a condemned criminal.

Poverty for her was always a question of just how many layers of padding and fabric and belongings, how much sumptuous food and how much comfortable surroundings we could surround ourselves with, wrap ourselves tight with, and still be passionate lovers of this naked man, this naked God.

On one level, for her it was never about quantities and dollar figures—it was about love and union and caring about nothing so much as whether or not we are one with Christ in his passionate love of the world. She would happily send members of MH off on trips to the ends of the earth to learn this skill or gain that experience that would help them be better lay apostles… and she would be very disturbed to see someone take a second cup of coffee or a third helping.

It was never about the thing, it was about the cling—our hearts grabbing onto that cup of coffee, that piece of cake, that material reality as if that was our life and our security. But Jesus, the Son of God, was born naked and died naked—his life and his security was to do the Father’s will, his food and drink, his only home was the call to love and to die for his people.

So this is Good Friday and its depth of meaning, and I want to spend the next couple days before the blog goes dark listening to what Catherine has to say about it. It’s not comfortable, not easy, and I make no claim to my own living of it very well at all… but it is very beautiful, and above all it is true. It is Truth, and it is the truth we are to contemplate in this Holy Week.