Saturday, January 31, 2015

This Week in Madonna House - January 24-30

This week in Madonna House, I was actually away from the place most of the week. I was off giving a parish mission in this guy’s parish up in the north-east corner of the Pembroke diocese. I am very much in my talks-retreats-missions season of the year, and much of my time is taken up with getting ready for the next one and the one after that, while keeping up with my spiritual direction and other priestly duties. What is for most a quieter time in MH is factually one of my busier times of the year.

Meanwhile in MH, much is of a sameness from the prior instalments of this column. We continue to have a small number of guests, giving our life a quieter and more intimate feel. The work for the men has largely revolved around dealing with winter—lots of snow removal, path shovelling, wood sheds to fill. We mostly heat and cook with wood, and this is the season to be working in ‘the bush’, cutting down the trees needed for firewood and lumber for future seasons. It takes two years for the wood to cure properly for efficient burning, so this season’s wood will be burnt in 2017.

For the women, too, it is a time of year to simply keep things going. As I always say, there are perpetually meals to cook, laundry to do, office work and so forth. The handicraft center is a bit busier at this time of year than in the more outdoors seasons, and they are busy making the candles for our liturgies from all the donations of wax stubs and ends we get.

It is still a season of sickness as well, and our nurses have been kept busy enough with the various flus and other ailments. As our community ages, a certain amount of work is involved with the very simple needs of driving people to and from medical appointments and so forth.

We are getting ready for our winter staff study sessions, where we take a couple of hours on Friday afternoon to stop working and learn about some subject or other. This year, we will be looking together at various aspects of consecrated life in the Church, in response to Pope Francis declaring this year of consecrated life.

For fun, the skating rink has been a great draw this year, and there aren’t too many evenings or Sunday afternoons that do not see a crowd out there playing hockey or practicing their figure skating moves. We’ve also been having weekly documentary films in the evening on a wide variety of subjects in MH basement, calling it the ‘Basement University.’ This week’s instalment was on fractals, and someone wisecracked that it was the single nerdiest thing they have ever experienced at MH. I am not a mathematical type whatsoever, and was still away at the mission at that point. Attempts to explain to me what fractals are and why they are important met, I am sorry to say, with complete failure.

Also in the category of ‘fun’, for our post-lunch communal spiritual reading we are reading Fr. Eddie Doherty’s Cricket in My Heart, his autobiography covering more or less his meeting, wooing, and wedding Catherine Doherty, their coming to Combermere to start MH, and ending with his ordination to the priesthood in the Melkite rite. Eddie is a masterful and very funny writer, and this has been a nice light reading in what has been a somewhat heavy time (illness, death of Fr. Duffy, etc.).

It has also been a great chance for our younger members to get to know Eddie and connect with that history of the apostolate in a different way. Sadly, the book is out of print right now, so I can’t recommend it to you for purchase. (Edited to add: some of my faithful readers have pointed out that used copies are available, both at Amazon and at this link. Thanks, faithful readers!)

So I guess that’s about it for the weekly recap—at least the best I can do, given that I wasn’t even here this week! As always, know that as we go about our simple ordinary Nazareth life, we keep you all and the whole world in our prayers and hearts.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Madonna House Movie III: Family Matters

Thursday is movie day on the blog, and so here we are with part three of the twelve short films on MH we made this past year with the help of a professional film company.

This is one of my favourites of the twelve, for the simple reason that it is largely about Cana Colony, our MH outreach to families, which has operated continuously for over fifty years, and with which I have been involved for almost twenty years. Cana is a place dear to my heart filled with many treasured memories, and I know all of the couples interviewed in this video.

Without further ado, here is the video:

Notable Quotes: 
"We’ve come to other family camps, and this one’s different, because it has MH behind it."
"It’s natural that Madonna House, which has such a strong spiritual base, should minister to families."
"Way back in the 1950s, the Pope said to Catherine, don’t forget the families, because they are going to be under attack."
[MH staff] live a poverty, and it makes it OK to realize you can live a poverty as well… there’s a simple way of life that can be lived, and that happiness, that God can be found in that."
"Cana’s no easy experience when you embrace it because you usually have to clear out something that shouldn’t be in there,"
"There’s a peacefulness and a grace that comes from living this life of Nazareth that MH lives, and if we can be that safe haven and be that peace and grace of Nazareth in our families, then they can go out into the world and bring that peace and grace into society and into the world."

It is a genuinely creative decision on the part of the film makers here that, in the context of talking about MH's involvement with marriage and families, they depart from Cana to tell the story of Catherine and Eddie's marriage: the profound love they had for one another, their coming to Combermere together to what they believed would be a quiet life in the country, the beginnings of the MH community and its embrace of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and their subsequent decision to themselves embrace chastity as a sacrifice necessary for the secure foundation of the apostolate.

MH is a family, a spiritual family, and our life is so intimately connected with the kinds of things families are taken up with--small acts of humble service, the daily effort to love one another as we all share the same roof and table, forgiveness, mercy, forebearance, and a host of things that are all summed up in the commandment of Christ, to love one another as he has loved us.

Because of this, there has always been a vibrant connection between the MH vocation and life and the lives of the families who come to Cana or who live in the area. Different vocations, yes, and the differences are important, but our spirit has nurtured and nourished the lives of many hundreds of families over the years through Cana and elsewise.

All of which is to say that the Cana registration season is underway, and if all this looks interesting to you, why don't you check us out? The contact info for registration is at the bottom of the page I link to there. Come on, everybody - let's go to Cana this summer!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Spirit of Chaos, Or Making A Mess In The World

It’s Wednesday, and so time for the ‘papal examen’ once again. I have been taking the Wednesdays to go through the Pope’s wonderful address to the Curia before Christmas, which many took as a scathing rebuke of ‘those guys in the Vatican’, but which have decided to regard as ‘a mighty fine examination of conscience for all of us.’

We are at the fourth of the fifteen ailments he listed in that talk. It is thus:

The disease of excessive planning and of functionalism. When the apostle plans everything down to the last detail and believes that with perfect planning things will fall into place, he becomes an accountant or an office manager. Things need to be prepared well, but without ever falling into the temptation of trying to contain and direct the freedom of the Holy Spirit, which is always greater and more flexible than any human planning (cf. Jn 3:8).

We contract this disease because “it is always more easy and comfortable to settle in our own sedentary and unchanging ways. In truth, the Church shows her fidelity to the Holy Spirit to the extent that she does not try to control or tame him… to tame the Holy Spirit! … He is freshness, imagination, and newness”.

Now, this one is a bit of a challenge for me to write about. Anyone reading this who knows me personally might accuse me of many crimes against God and humanity, but would probably never accuse me of being hyper-organized in them. Getting everything planned out to the last detail is not exactly my normal modus operandi. Uh… yeah, no.

That being said, let’s look at this. I live in community with a couple hundred people, and do a fair bit of spiritual direction besides, so while I personally err on the side of barely managed chaos, I am certainly familiar with the phenomenon of excessive organization. I would have to say, mind you, that Madonna House tends to avoid this particular trap in general. It’s a very well-organized, well-run community, but we have learned over the years that the Holy Spirit not only wants but demands room to move in our common life.

Whenever we have erred on the side of getting things a little too planned out, God seems to delight in throwing us a curve ball—essentially whatever we planned just blows up in our face. We have experienced this over the decades so many times that most of us in MH develop a pretty good sense of when we have organized things just enough and need to stand back and leave the rest to God.

I think it is fear and a lack of faith that might drive this excess of planning, this desire to have everything nailed down. There is always, in Christian life, an absolute need really to allow the Holy Spirit to work things out. We cannot plan things so well as to be assured of a good outcome. So often, when we try, we slip into a subtle egoism: what we are seeking is not God’s will and the kingdom of heaven, but our own little ideas about what is supposed to happen.

I see this struggle in lots of circumstances and situations. Perhaps most sympathetically and understandably, I see it in the many good Catholic families I know. Mothers and fathers worry about their children—that is the nature of things, and a good nature it is. But it is a dreadful mistake to let that worry devolve into trying to control every aspect of the child’s life, of the family’s life, and to believe that if we just get everything organized rightly, establish the home in perfect spiritual and physical order, then the kids will be all right, and grow up to be good virtuous Catholic men and women.

Well, no. Human freedom and God’s grace are these irreducible realities in every human life. And this is not a bug, but a feature, as they say in the computer industry. Human virtue and human sanctity grow out of the mysterious encounter of the human soul with the Spirit of the living God, not from having everything super-organized. And we have to allow room for that encounter to happen, messy and chaotic as that may make our lives at times.

Waiting on God and waiting on one another. Whether it is in a family, a religious community, or the Roman Curia, this is the deep patience of the Gospel that we need to ensure that it is God’s will and God’s kingdom, not our will and our puny little kingdom, that we are building with our lives.

So it is a matter of not fearing that chaos, that seeming disorganization. In truth, there is a deeper order, a more profound organization that is occurring when we choose not to plan everything out all the time: the choice to live under God’s authority and listen to the Spirit in our daily lives, and so have our own souls in right order before Him.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The First of All the Creeds

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.

He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever and ever.
Psalm 23

Reflection – The Monday Psalter comes not a moment too soon this week of rabbits and punchiness, reminding us all in Psalm 23 of what is the true focus of our life, what really is that important, and the broad and deep framework into which everything else fits—the Shepherding of God which all human shepherds from the Pope to the rawest newly ordained priest are merely imperfect servants of.

I wrote a series of blog posts on this psalm a couple of years ago, and said quite a few lovely things about it then. What strikes me about it this time around is that this psalm is a wonderful medicine against fear, anxiety, discouragement—all the emotions that swirl up in us in difficult times and make us want to flee from life or give up the struggle.

Psalm 23 perpetually comes to us with a ringing, adamant, and yet very gentle and tender, poetic and lyrical expression of faith. God is taking care of us; He is giving us what we need; He is leading us through the dark times; there is nothing to fear, with Him with us; a table awaits us; we will dwell in His house forever.

Over and over again in our life, no matter what the troubles of the day are, or the troubles in our world, or the troubles in the lives of people we care about, this basic statement of faith is our sure antidote against fear and despair. In a sense, this is our first Creed, before we flesh it out with the historical details of how God is with us, how he came to us, how He is taking care of us, feeding us, leading us—the whole proclamation of Christ that is found in the various Christian Creeds—in a sense, before all of that, we have this fundamental statement of faith.

He is with us. God is good, and He is on the job for us. Trust Him. Follow Him. Keep your eyes and hearts lifted up to Him. And everything else follows from this. There is a sort of limpid simplicity to this psalm—it is short enough that a child can memorize it, the basic concepts are simple enough that anyone can grasp them, and yet the heights and depths of it take us just about as far as we are willing to go. It is psalm a mystic can pray, and never feel that he or she has gotten to the bottom of it, and yet it is given for all of us to pray, and so set our feet on that right and sure path.

So perhaps that is enough for today—I’ve been blogging a lot this week, and rather heavily. But it is awfully important for us, especially when we are struggling with this or that dimension of life or the Church or the world or whatever it is, to return to this fundamental proclamation of faith—the Lord is my shepherd; I shall want for nothing. Amen.