Sunday, November 29, 2015

This Week in Madonna House - November 22-28

Veni, veni Emmanuel! Captivum salve Israel. So began our supper last night, as the 'youngest child' of the family, a 19-year-old guest, lit the first candle of the Advent wreath which had just been blessed by Fr. David Linder, and the strains of that ancient hymn were again sung. O Come, O Come, Emmanuael, and ransom captive Israel. Advent is upon us once more, and with Advent a whole host of customs and observances.

We light the wreath at the beginning of supper each night, the first week the lighting being done by the youngest child, the second week by the 'oldest child' (the oldest member of the community), the third week by the mother of the family (the director of women), the fourth week by the father (the director of men). We sing the Veni, veni each evening, interspersed with some truly beautiful verses taken from a wide range of Scriptures. I have never been able to find out where or when or who put all those Scriptures together (we seem to have been doing this since the year one), but they make the lighting of the wreath a very rich thing, a whole catechesis of prophecy.

With Advent comes the season of intense preparations for Christmas. The kitchen is a whirlwind of special cooking projects along with their usual work of providing us ungrateful wretches with three meals a day. They made tortieres yesterday, the special French Canadian meat pies that are part of my own childhood Christmas memories.

It's not just the kitchen crew, though. The cry has gone out for all hands on deck to make cookies, cookies, and more cookies. These will be our desserts for the whole Christmas season, and so pretty much every evening any number of people crowd into the kitchen and start rolling out the dough. It's a bit like Santa's workshop, except all food related--a bunch of happy little elves working away to make Christmas happen. My personal contribution is to make the butter tarts (for my non-Canadian readers... well, you just don't know what you're missing, sorry!). Due to some strange genetic anomaly I have the ability to make perfect pie dough that never fails. My mother taught me how when I was a wee lad, and I've never looked back. So... tarts it is - hundreds of them!

We don't decorate, though, until right before Christmas. We do believe in keeping Advent, and not actually celebrating Christmas until the actual day. So the wreath is it, decoration-wise, until just a few days before December 25. But the handicraft department that oversees the decorating (again, it's an all hands on deck affair) is already quite busy getting everything ready for that.

In non-Christmas news, our directors-general are away right now visiting our house in Vancouver. This is part of the job of the directors general, to regularly go to each of the mission houses of MH. We expect Susanne and Mark back shortly, while Fr. David May is nipping up to Whitehorse Yukon to do a retreat and visit our MH priest up there who has been serving as the diocesan administrator the last while (although we got the happy news of a new bishop for that diocese this week, alleluia!).

I myself am on a sort of a mission trail, although it's all so very local I can't get too worked up about it. I gave a talk at the parish right in Combermere for the upcoming Year of Mercy, drawing on my book Going Home. Yesterday evening I began a parish mission in the nearby (well, near-ish) parishes of Maynooth, Whitney, and Madawaska. This will involve giving the same three-night mission twice, so six full evenings of mission preaching. Blogging may or may not happen, according to how the week unfolds and my wifi capability.

The house in which I live, Regina Pacis, continues to be renovated, and our days are filled with construction noises and dust and general mayhem and disruption... all in service of taking needed care of this rather old and somewhat decrepit (well, a little) building. And ordinary life continues through the place--the men are hard at work in the bush cutting down trees and choppin' them up for firewood, the 'normal' work of cooking, cleaning, maintenance, laundry, so on, so forth... all goes on day in and day out here. It's not glamorous, too much, but we do believe it is an offering for the world acceptable to the Lord, so that's OK.

Know that we are holding all of you and our whole troubled world in our prayers these days, and especially crying out to the Lord Jesus, with the whole Church, Come, O Come, and save us who are in so need of it!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Bathing In The Blood of Our Enemies (?)

Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods?
Do you judge people fairly?
No, in your hearts you devise wrongs;
Your hands deal out violence on earth.

The wicked go astray from the womb;
they err from their birth, speaking lies.
They have venom like the venom of a serpent,
like the deaf adder that stops its ear,
so that it does not hear the voice of charmers
or of the cunning enchanter.

O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
like grass let them be trodden down and wither.

Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime;
like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.
Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!

The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done;
they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
People will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
surely there is a God who judges on earth.
Psalm 58

Reflection – Well, yes. So. When I decided to do this comprehensive commentary on the psalms, I probably wasn’t thinking of this one particularly. And it would be tempting for me to simply pass over this one in silence; meaning no disrespect to the Lord or to the Word of God, it is a bit much.

But no – I am a man of my word, and a commentary on the psalms is what I promised, and what I will deliver. So we have hear this cry of rage against the wickedness of the powerful, against the sins and iniquities committed by people in high places, people in positions of authority. Abuse. Exploitation. The use of power to do evil, not good.

Well, this is real. We can, and if you’re me, usually do, try to exercise some mode of understanding or compassion or analysis of why people come to do the things they do and end up doing things truly monstrous to behold. I am not one to demonize or vilify anyone. I have never had a great urge to bathe my feet in the blood of the wicked, to be perfectly honest. Maybe I’m wrong on that point—I don’t know.

The psalms are really perfect, though, taken all together. They contain the full spectrum of human responses to God and to the world. Here, it is the seething, unfiltered rage that is ours when we do behold, not just someone we disagree with or who does things we deem a little off, but when we see real evil, real wickedness afoot in the land, especially by those who have great power.

And this is real. In our Christianity we can and must strive for a spirit of caritas, for mercy for everyone. We cannot really exclude anyone from the circle of our mercy and our love, even the very powerful who do great wrong. (I am deliberately trying not to name any names here, by the way, as I don’t want this or that politician or media figure to become the focus of this post.)

This psalm with its over-the-top denunciations of such people calls us to a stark realism in this, though. We cannot pretend that we’re all really very nice people at heart and that some people are just misunderstood or maybe confused in their minds about stuff, but that everyone’s a good person, really. No. It is possible for a human being to give themselves over to evil, to wickedness, and to dedicate their lives to a course of action that wreacks death and destruction, misery and pain far and wide in the world.

It is no part of Christian charity to avert our eyes from all that because we just want everyone to play nice. But it is also not the fullness of revelation to just stay in the Psalm 58 place—break out the blood foot bath, folks! It is OK, natural really, to go there, in the moment of confrontation with real evil, real wickedness, but it is not OK to stay there. Jesus doesn’t leave us there, and we have to go where He leads us.

We have to find a way to love our neighbors, even when our neighbors are genuine evil-doers. That love may indeed involve denouncing the evil, may even involve taking strong measures indeed to oppose that evil. I am not a pacifist.

But whatever right and just course we discern that we must do in the face of monstrous evil, if we are serious about Christianity we have to pray for a merciful spirit, a heart that desires not the destruction and damnation of our enemies, but their salvation, their conversion, their return home to the Father’s house. Even when it is people who make our flesh crawl and our blood boil… we have to want to spend eternity with them in the kingdom of heaven, or we are no kind of Christian.

Psalm 58 is good for us, even if we are not going to make it part of our daily morning prayer. It reminds us of just how hard it is to love everyone, just how real evil is, and just how heroic is the call of Christ to us in the face of it. Today, for a practical exercise, think of one powerful person who you truly dislike, distrust, maybe even despise (Obama? Clinton? Trump? Putin? Trudeau? You decide)… and pray for that person, simply, directly, mercifully.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Mould and Vinegar, Bless The Lord

Thursday’s on this blog is Liturgy Day. I am going through the Mass, bit by bit, to see how each small part of the Mass shows forth the pattern of Christian discipleship in the world.

We are at the very end of the offertory rite, with the prayer over the offerings. This is one of the changeable texts of the Mass, varying according to the season or feast or saint of the day. The liturgy always does this, referring back to where we are in time while pulling us into the contemplation of eternity. I will talk more about this next week when we discuss the preface.

This Prayer Over the Offerings sums up everything we just did, and so it is a good place to review what I’ve been talking about the previous weeks. We bring bread and wine to the priest, and he brings it to the altar. He gives thanks to God for these natural gifts ‘fruit of the earth and work of human hands’, and in various ways prays for God to mercifully accept this offering and make it His own.

The concluding prayer encapsulates all these themes in various ways. The prayer for today, for example is this: “Accept, O Lord, the sacred offerings which at your bidding we dedicate to your name and, in order that through these gifts we may become worthy of your love, grant us unfailing obedience to your commands.”

As I have discussed in past weeks, there is a certain path of Christian discipleship laid out in this simple and fairly short rite of the Mass. Going on from here, we will see what Christ does with the offering, and the emphasis surely and deeply shifts to His action, and rightly so. But at this juncture, we see our own part in it, what we are to do.

We are to bring whatever we have—the bread and wine that is the whole substance of our person, our lives and everything in them—and give it to Christ (symbolized by the priest) who brings it to the altar (to His own place of love and gift, the Cross). We are to give thanks to God for everything we are and have, that which delights us and brings us pleasure, that which is heavy and burdensome.

We are to be utterly mindful of our complete unworthiness, that the gifts we bring God—our whole life—is marred and marked by sin and selfishness. His acceptance of the gift and His choice to unite Himself to us and transform our lives into His life is a gift of mercy on His part, not anything we deserve.

We see in the prayer I quote above that He does graciously make us worthy of His love, and that He does this by giving us the grace to obey His commands. Boy, do we ever have to take this prayer to heart! I am always a little perplexed these days at some of the conversations around ‘communion and who may receive it’, when churchmen who are older than I by far do not seem to acknowledge in their positions that… well, that God’s grace is real, you know?

That we are not left orphans. That we are not left without help from on high, and that this help is specifically given to us that we may obey His commands. There seems to be some disconnect somewhere—that somehow God’s moral law is over here, but the messy reality of people’s lives is way over there… and that’s all there is to it. A gulf separating the moral law, the Divine Law which springs from the eternal Wisdom of God, and the ‘real world’ of human stumbling and striving and mess. And since it is an unbridgeable gap, let’s just ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist. Everyone come to communion, yay! Really?

Do we not believe that Jesus really has come to us to bridge that gap? That we can bring Him our messed up lives, our moldy bread and cheap vinegary wine, and He will help us to make it into pure fine wheat and choicest vintage? And that it is worth it? And that we need to have come to some basic point of obedience before we can enter the fullest depths of communion? But that even while we’re on the way, there is mercy and grace surrounding us in the process?

We have to bring our bread and wine to the Priest and lay it on the Altar—basic surrender, basic discipleship. Everyone has to do that—people whose lives are in some kind of sort of basic order… well, sort of (we’re all sinners, after all), and people who may have some terrible disorder to some degree baked into the structure of their lives—irregular marriages, homosexual orientation, cohabitation, work situations that are unethical.

We all bring whatever we have to Christ, but the bringing it to Him is the surrender of it to Him so He can purify us, not so that we can arrogantly demand He take us as we are so that we can take Him as we like. All are welcome, all are called, but the welcome and the call is to the obedience of faith, which takes the incarnate form of obedience to the moral law and to the Gospel.

So that is Christian discipleship, both revealed in the liturgy but also lived out truly in the liturgy. And that is why we cannot mess around with these things and change things carelessly out of some misguided sense of compassion. We have to help people, meet them where they are… but always in tenderness and in truth. Anything less, and we are no longer offering our gifts to the Lord, but instead holding our gifts to ourselves and demanding that God give us Himself on our terms, not His. And that is not Christian discipleship.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Works of Mercy: Giving Drink to the Thirsty

The Jubilee Year of Mercy is just around the corner, and I am dedicating Wednesdays on the blog to getting ready for it. Specifically, I am doing a series on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, which are at the core of Christian moral practice. We are not supposed to just spend our lives staying out of trouble and avoiding sin—we are meant to dedicate ourselves to doing good.

Last week we discussed that most essential work of mercy of ‘feeding the hungry’. This week’s work sounds so much like it that it may seem hard to know what to say about it. ‘To give drink to the thirsty’ – isn’t that just part of feeding the hungry? You can’t give someone food without giving them something to wash it down with, after all.

Well, there is always the question of social justice, and access to clean water. There is the tragic reality that, according to the United Nations, about 10% of the people alive on the planet do not have access to safe drinking water. And in our almsgiving, whatever else we may wish to support, we may think about that statistic, and what it means in terms of disease, infant mortality, and so forth… and may wish to give some support to groups trying to reduce that number.

Let’s leave that aside. I am not any kind of expert in global resource management, and so while the essential point is simplicity itself—help people drill a well for their village, for crying out loud!—I am not qualified to discuss it beyond that, and have no wish to lead people astray with bad advice. If anyone reading this knows of a good organization doing this kind of work, perhaps you could leave a link in the comments.

Let’s talk about something more immediate and personal about this, though. It is true that feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty are inter-related. But with the latter, it seems to me to pertain even more directly to the direct hospitality of the house. You can (and should!) support a soup kitchen, a food bank, or that needy neighbor who could use a casserole or a pot of soup.

But to offer someone a drink—this seems to pertain to welcoming someone into your own home. It is a norm of hospitality—so typical that it goes unnoticed except for when it is neglected—that when someone enters one’s house the first thing to do is to offer them something to drink—be it water, or juice, tea or coffee or whatever. There is something fundamental about that – to welcome a guest to your house is tied up with that offer.

Conviviality, in other words. Water is life, and so to offer that glass of water to the guest is to establish friendly relations at the most basic level, even more basic than food.

So the Year of Mercy should be a Year of Hospitality. In Madonna House, the word ‘hospitality’ is so important to us. I would argue that, one way or another, it sums up virtually everything we do in our apostolate. There is something so fundamentally loving and Christian about welcoming another person to come into your space, your world, your home. It is what God has done for us – our whole understanding of salvation is that God has welcomed us to share his table, to eat and drink from His life, to be part of His world.

So we should readily invite others to be part of our world, too. To come into our homes. To sit at our tables. Pope Francis has called Christians to go out from our churches to extend to the periphery of life and society. Translating that into practical action may at times elude us—are we supposed to troll around alley ways or do sidewalk evangelization work? Maybe… but not everyone is cut out for that kind of thing.

What about inviting people over? For dinner, or for lunch, or for this or for that. I think that for families in particular, the practice of hospitality is one of the most powerful ways to be an evangelizing presence in the neighborhood.

Oh, I know the objections. ‘My house is a mess!’ (Absolutely nobody but you cares about that, you know.) ‘My kids aren’t exact perfectly well behaved!’ (People need to see that Christian families are flawed and human like everyone else.)

We live in a world—especially we North Americans—where the normal pattern of life is for people to draw apart from one another, to only have the social intercourse that is absolutely required and then to withdraw into the fortresses of our homes. For those who may have little ‘home’ to withdraw into, who live alone, say, or who live in difficult and painful situations, this pattern can make the world a cold and deeply lonely place.

The open door, the welcoming hand, the cup of cold water, or coffee, the extended invitation to come in and sit with us awhile, maybe have a meal together—all of this makes that cold lonely world considerably less so. And all of that proclaims Christ and His hospitality to a depth and a degree—without a word being spoken about it—that we can scarcely imagine.

So let’s try to find ways to do that this year, OK?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

This Week in Madonna House - November 15-21

This week in Madonna House we have been very mindful of the world and its travails as we go about our daily work and affairs. Our prayers and offering of our lives has been much taken up with what is happening in so many places right now, and the fears and angers so many are carrying right now.

That being said, the pace of our life is picking up somewhat. Guest numbers remain high, with new guests coming in still every week. Somehow we find work for all of them to do, the men at the farm mostly doing some of the clean up jobs that couldn’t be done in the crush of summer work, the women pitching in wherever. One of those ‘wherevers’ is the kitchen which is clearly moving into high gear of pre-Christmas preparations.

Yes, I know it is more than a month away, but we are a big family, and it takes a lot of doing just to keep us fed the usual three meals a day. The big feasts of the year require careful advanced planning and many things made ahead of time and frozen. I believe they did the shortbreads this week.
I was going to say that it is hard to believe Christmas is so close, what with the dry ground and the warm temperatures, but we woke up this morning to snow on the ground and a nice chill to the air. Hurray – winter is come… at least for today.

It isn’t all work, of course. We had one of our sporadic ‘movie nights’ this week, watching a film on Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy and human rights heroine of Myanmar whose party recently won a decisive victory in that country. We had a staff meeting one night this week, just for the staff assigned to the ‘training center’, our main house location, on the subject of ‘what does it mean to be assigned to the training center?’ It was a rich and thoughtful conversation, as our meetings usually tend to be.

The ‘liturgy class’ began for our guests. What is the liturgy class, you may ask? It is a venerable tradition in MH, going back more than 50 years now, in which the guests under the leadership of three MH staff, learn about the Advent season, its richness and beauty, and about our MH customs around this season which are many and varied.

This ‘learning’ is not academic and notional. It is hands-on and incarnational. That is, we have them actually be the ones doing the customs and leading the community through some of them. Today they are gathering evergreen branches to make an Advent wreath, which they will do later this week. As the season progresses they will do St. Nicholas cookies, St. Lucy bread, and various other lovely traditional things. All of which I will be happy to tell you about as the weeks go on.

In the same pre-Advent vein of things, we had a music practice last night to go over some of the Advent hymns, including a new one written by our choir director and a hymn written for the Year of Mercy.

In my own week I had the official book launch for Idol Thoughts, going into Ottawa for that happy event. Three other new books from Justin Press were launched at the same time, including one on the Canadian Saints, to which I contributed a chapter. While the event didn’t have the turnout we had hoped for it, we did sell quite a few books and it was an enjoyable evening.

The bush crew has officially launched, one of the main works of our men in the winter months. This is the work of cutting down trees and chopping them up for firewood. It is arduous, highly skilled, and dangerous work. Fr. Louis who heads it up reports being quite pleased with the men he has working with him.

Another job which is not quite underway but is in the offing is renovations to the house I live in, called Regina Pacis, where currently five priest staff live. It is a rambling old house which grew in stages, and one of the older parts of the house is badly in need of renovations. So far we have only begun the process of moving all the furniture, etc., out of that part of the house.

Well, what else is there to say? While our life has had a serious tone to it lately, the world being what it is, we are not without peace, joy, and beauty, knowing that all God asks any of us to do is to be faithful to the life He has given us and the work He has asked of us, and that in this we are making the best contribution to the peace and healing of the world that we can do. But you are all in our prayers, through it all.