Tuesday, August 18, 2015


Well, it had to happen.

I am ceasing blogging.

I am sorry it had to come to this.

I know how many of you enjoy my blog posts and have benefitted from them.

But it is time for me to stop, now.

For the next two weeks, that is.

Because I am on vacation.

Blogging resumes September 6.

And yes, I am going to have fun.

Bye! (For now).

Learning How To Read

I'm going through my new book Idol Thoughts weekly on the blog, chapter by chapter. Chapter Three is entitled "How To Read This Book" (I've gotten a lot of ribbing about waiting until the third chapter to give that particular instruction).

Basically it is a chapter about how to do lectio divina, the prayerful meditative reading of Sacred Scripture. That is 'the Book' I want people to read, more than I want you to read me. But I do go into how Idol Thoughts is structured. The following eight chapters each take on of the eight 'thoughts' that lead us away from God and from happiness. Each chapter explores that thought, what it looks like, what it does to us.

And then, along with some basic spiritual practices that combat the thought (e.g. fasting for gluttony, almsgiving for avarice), I present three or four Scriptures that pertain to that thought and write a short meditation on each. I end each chapter by giving a longer list of Scriptures for further prayer and meditation of the reader. The general idea is that this book is a practical 'how-to' manual on the use of lectio divina to combat the thoughts and purify the mind of their influence. I encourage readers, if they are particularly convicted by one or another of the thoughts, to really take those provided Scriptures to heart and use them as a focussed program of prayer and reflection.

This whole business of lectio divina is so vital today, though. So many people don't know God. Even believing Christians seem to struggle with feeling this. While God is infinite mystery beyond mysteries, He has come close to us, though, and His Word is given so that we can at least begin to know HIm in this life.

A big problem today is that we don't know how to read. I'm not talking about actual or functional illiteracy, although that is a thing. I'm talking about our tendency to read in ways that the Internet has taught us--not reading, but skimming. Not really able to take in a text that has some depth of meaning, but flitting about from text to text gathering the superficial meaning we can gather without much effort or concentration.

We have descended from the heights of lectio divina down past even a normal lectio humana to the level of lectio animalia - a reading simply for immediate stimulation and satiation of appetite for intellectual input. No real engagement, no real deep analysis, no real encounter with the other through the miraculous medium of the written word.

Well, this doesn't work one little bit for the Bible. God's Word is not a consumer product that we can use and discard. God's Word is not a listicle, a blog post, a tweet, a status update to scroll past. And when we treat it that way, we do ourselves deep harm, as we have the illusion that we have 'read the Bible' without ever really reading it at all. Many of the Internet Atheists who like to pretend that they know all about the Bible and how dumb it is have approached it only in that way--scouring it only for ammo to use in their futile war against God and religion.

Lectio divina, then, first asks of us one thing, and that is to slow down. We have to read the Bible slowly these days, since we are so used to frenetically reading everything else. We have to take just one or two verses, read them slowly, repeatedly, not trying to 'figure them out' first, but just letting the words breathe, letting them live, letting them speak to us. This may take a long time, since our minds are so revved for this constant superficial level of reading.

Only after quite a time of this ponderous, slow reading should we move into analysis, into thinking about it, into 'meditation proper'. And even then, the meditation should always lead us back to the text, back to the living encounter with the One who is in the text, mysteriously, into prayer. Nothing is sadder than a Christian who gets more enamoured of their 'brilliant' thoughts and daydreams about Scripture than they are of the Sacred Text itself.

Reading, pondering, meditating--all of this is to lead us into a genuine contemplation of the written text we are with, a simple, reverent, awed beholding of the Truth who is Jesus within it. And this contemplation naturally leads to prayer, to conversation, to the simple worship of our hearts and minds in grateful praise. And this prayer and worship must then shape our lives, our choices, our decision, or it remains fruitless.

So that is how to 'read this book' - not Idol Thoughts (although, ahem, I do recommend you read it!) but The Book. And our reading of The Book is the vital need of our time, of any time really. We need to be re-Worded by the Word, so that our words and deeds are a living Gospel for the world.

So I give lots and lots of helpful examples of how to do that throughout my book, and I hope it helps you as it already seems to be helping many people.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Going Up?

 Clap your hands, all peoples!
 Shout to God with loud songs of joy!
 For the Lord, the Most High, is to be feared,
 a great king over all the earth.

 He subdued peoples under us,
and nations under our feet.
 He chose our heritage for us,
 the pride of Jacob whom he loves.

God has gone up with a shout,
the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
 Sing praises to God, sing praises!
Sing praises to our King, sing praises!

 For God is the King of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm!
 God reigns over the nations;
God sits on his holy throne.

 The princes of the peoples gather
as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
he is highly exalted.
Psalm 47

Reflection – Today’s psalm is one of unalloyed praise and exaltation of God. It is ecstatic, repetitive (sing praises… sing praises.. sing praises… sing praises…), and triumphant.

The business of ‘God going up’ probably referred in the original context to the ark of the covenant being taken in procession to the temple in Jerusalem; now in our Christian context it refers to the Ascension of Jesus Christ to the throne of heaven, the King of kings triumphing and in his triumph making all things new.

‘Praise’ is something I always want to write about and talk about in general. Those reading this who are my directees are probably rolling their eyes at this point, since they have all heard me go on about it. To praise God is the fundamental attitude of faith, along with obeying His commands and seeking His specific will for one’s life.

But to praise—this is basic, this is essential. And this is a powerful way in which our lives are made beautiful and joyous in Him. We can say ‘I trust God’, and we may even mean it. We can pray prayers like ‘Jesus, I trust in you,’ and that is good, too. But all of that can be going on at an intellectual level. Like, we know that God is all good and all knowing and all powerful, and so we know that He is trustworthy and that we should trust Him, and so we’re going to trust Him…

All of that is commendable, but meanwhile at the level of the heart, in the innermost core of the person, there can be all sorts of other things going on. Deep doubts, deep fears, deep misgivings as to whether this God of ours is even real, let alone good and truthful and in command of our situations. And of course there can be very real and very deep hurts and wounds that drive those misgivings.

One of the ways to bring trust from the level of the head to the level of the heart is, in fact, to regularly, routinely, consistently praise God for all things. This brings it to the heart level because it is an exercise of faith. If I actually do believe in the good action of God towards myself, then my normal response is to say ‘Thank you, God! Good job! Praise you!’

For myself, one of the transforming practices in my life was to habituate myself that, whenever I encounter a small obstacle or frustration or setback in my day, or anything I don’t happen to like, I say ‘Praise the Lord!’, either in the silence of my heart or out loud, depending on the context. I can testify that this little practice has worked miracles for me, in terms of gladdening my heart and deepening my trust in God.

Praise Him. Even if your life is beset with sorrows and hardship, praise Him. There is a deep choice in that to live in the bigger reality, to ‘go up’ with God into the heights of heaven even if we are going through hell on earth, and in that going up to open up to the abundance of graces He is in fact giving you right now, but that require a trusting and open heart to receive.

Praise Him, sing praises to Him, sing praises. It is absolutely of the essence in living a life of faith and beauty and love in this world that we do so.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

These Weeks in Madonna House - August 1-15

I have been neglecting the ‘This Week in Madonna House’ posts on this blog lately. As I said a few weeks ago, around this time of the summer the weeks do start to merge together a bit, as we go into high gear here around the farm and the harvest. Every week a small army of men bring another of the early crops in from the fields; every week there is a small army of women working at the farm to blanch, freeze, dry, can or whatever that crop into its preserved form.

It’s all very high energy and picturesque, but there’s not too much to say about it beyond that. MH relies on its farm for most of its food; the late summer is the peak busyness time on the farm for said food; farming is the order of the day here.

Meanwhile, our summer program ‘Love is Stronger’ has wrapped up, and seems to have been a great success all around. The talks were well received, the Saturday seminars filled with interesting questions from our guests for our directors general, and a good time seems to have been had by all.

One notable event late in the program was a music night where anyone could perform any kind of musical presentation. We do these events a couple times a year—certainly always as part of the summer program—and it never fails to amaze me the talent and variety that turns up here each time. 

This year we had a number of Celtic pieces, a Peruvian song (courtesy of a long-term guest who is from there), bluegrass, a barbershop quartet, and a performance of the pop song ‘If I Had a Million Dollars’ with a few of the lyrics altered for the MH context (‘If I had a million dollars, all the jons would have heated seats’).

The ‘big event’ of the last weeks, though, was yesterday’s feast of Our Lady’s Assumption into heaven. This has always been one of the chief feast days in MH, ranked in solemnity only behind Easter and Christmas for us. Besides being the feast that it is (see yesterday’s blog post for all the deep theology behind it!), it was Catherine Doherty’s birthday, Fr. Eddie Doherty’s ordination anniversary, and was one of our Promises Day for many years.

Because of this latter it is now the day when we honor our jubiliarians—those celebrating 50 and 25 years in promises. I usually don’t mention names on the blog, but will make and exception here—Diane Lefebvre, Arlene Becker, and Fr. Tom Zoeller were the 50 year honorees, while Pat Probst, Peter Gravelle, Lisa Coxe, Catherine Lesage were the 25 year ones (the latter two remained in their mission houses to celebrate). We are grateful to all of them for their perseverance.

The feast began the night before with the Akathist Hymn, a beautiful Byzantine prayer service in honor of the Mother of God, which we have done at MH for many years, and many of us have come to cherish deeply. It praises the Mother of God in lavish fulsome terms, an outpouring of childlike love and delight in the Woman God chose to be the vessel of salvation for the world.

Meanwhile, Assumption is the one big feast that occurs in the height of summer, and so it is the feast of flowers here. The MH dining room is filled with these, hanging baskets over all the tables making the place into a riot of color and scent. Assumption is also the great feast where God exalted the gift of the feminine in His exaltation of Mary into heaven. We echo this by honouring our women in a particular way. The men of the community pick flowers the day before and, as each woman is coming into the chapel for the liturgy on the feast, make her a corsage to wear for the day.

And so the day goes, festive as anything. For the 50 year jubilarians we had a tea in the afternoon where they were feted. Another custom of the day is that it is the time when the new applicants are announced for September 8. While my rule of ‘no names on the blog’ holds here, I am happy to say we have four new applicants accepted for the fall—two women, two men—and much rejoicing on that account. God is blessing us with beautiful young people willing to try out our vocation right now.

As I always say when I’m wrapping up this column, I’m sure there is much, much more going on in MH besides what I’ve mentioned. This place is a constant flurry of activity, and yet mysteriously peaceful in the midst of it all. Please know that we carry all of you in our daily prayers and offering, and that our little house tucked away in the Ottawa Valley is open to, and given for, the world and all who dwell in it.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

'Whoever God Loves Never Ceases To Be'

Happy Feast of the Assumption, everyone. Mary is assumed body and soul into heaven as the first fruits of the Resurrection, and heaven and earth rejoice at the sight. We are celebrating the day in full Madonna House festive style, which I will tell you about tomorrow, God willing.

Meanwhile, I thought for my blog today I would share a bit of my licentiate thesis on the theme of the Assumption. It’s a bit longer than usual, and just a bit ‘high brow’, but it’s a while since I had anything like that on the blog, and highbrow or not, it’s really such a beautiful dogma of our faith, ancient in origin, recent in infallible promulgation, entirely joyful and lovely. So, after the jump, here it is:

Thursday, August 13, 2015

How Do You Respond?

This weekly commentary on the Mass has taken us to the Responsorial Psalm, coming after the Old Testament reading. Last week I talked about how the O.T. as a whole in a sense signifies the entire experience of humanity ‘B.C.’, before Christ, the natural state of man in all his messy jumbled-up pastiche of good and evil, sickness and health, strength and weakness, virtue and sin.

And all of this is met throughout the Old Testament, and throughout our life, by the intervention of God, the action of God finding us where we are, however bloody and brutal it may be, to take us step by step to where He is. This is the whole meaning of grace in our theological language and in our lives.

Grace is the healing hand of God extending outwards to the human race, individually and communally, ultimately and essentially in the action of Jesus Christ made present by the gift of the Spirit. It finds us where we are now—whatever aspect of ‘B.C.’ there is yet in us, to bear us and sustain us into the life of the kingdom, the innermost communion of the Trinity.

I have been pondering quite a bit this summer that our capacity to receive and benefit from this constant outreach of God’s grace into our lives hinges largely upon this word that we are at in the liturgy. Namely, the word response. God is acting, always. But His action only finds a home in us and is effective in us in the measure with which we respond to it.

And so we have in the liturgy, after the reading, the responsory. There is a basic pattern of Christian life laid down here. God’s truth, and our response. God’s action, and our answering action. Our belief, of course, is that even this answering action is itself only possible by grace, but there is nonetheless the innermost core of human freedom (mystery of mysteries, truly) where we have to choose what our fate will be in these matters.

I am doing a whole series on the psalms, of course, on this blog every Monday, so won’t say too much about them specifically here. The response offered in them, though, is telling—the psalms contain every possible shade of human response to God: supplication, praise, thanksgiving, lamentation, complaint, sober reflection, submission.

The key thing here is that they, and we, respond. And this needs to be the fundamental shape of our life, then. God is acting each day upon us and on our behalf. There are graces flowing down upon and all around us continually, right now as I write this and you read it. God is doing something, right now.

Our entry into and cooperation with whatever God is doing right now hinges upon our capacity to respond to it. This is the deep meaning of the Madonna House spirituality of the ‘duty of the moment’, that as we attend to whatever love is asking of us at any given moment we enter an encounter with God in Christ and so His work in us advances to completion.

It is also the deep significance of prayer in our life, not a constant ‘gimme, gimme, gimme’ of selfish wants, but our fundamental response to what has already been ‘given, given, given.’ Our praise, our gratitude, our surrender, our yes to all of it. Like Mary at the Annunciation, God continually sends an ‘angel’, a messenger announcing to us the deed He is doing right now in our lives, in the duty of the moment. But our response, like hers, is necessary. 

Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum—let it be done to me according to Thy Word. Call, and response; action, and answering action. The work of God, and the work of man in cooperation with it. Jesus, and Mary. This is the pattern of life, and it is expressed liturgically in this moment of the Responsorial Psalm.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Take What You Like, and Pay For It

I am spending Wednesdays on the blog talking about my new book Idol Thoughts. Of course my nefarious intention in doing this is to persuade a few of my legions of blog readers (hah!) to part with a few coins to pick up a copy of said book. As it happens, today is also my birthday, so just in case you want to give me a nice thoughtful present for that happy occasion, be it known that there is nothing an author likes better than readers for his writings.

Ahem. Enough with the sales pitch. Today we are looking at what I go into in the second chapter of the book, "Objections, Overruled." The book is about the power of our thoughts to enslave us and the need for liberation from this slavery by our immersion in the mind of Christ, made available to us in part by the Word of God. This chapter deals with a couple of objections to that thesis, in the good old Thomistic style of argument where such things are front-loaded in any debate.

Since I do want you to buy the book, I won't give you the whole content of the chapter. However, one objection I cover is the common one today that concerns the nature of freedom. Freedom means that I do what I want, period. Freedom of the mind means I think what I like. Freedom of the body means nobody tells me what to do, buster. And so forth. So it is wrong and at least borderline offensive to outline eight 'thoughts' that are actually slavery and to argue that true intellectual freedom only comes from submission to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Isn't this just more Christian intolerance and judgmentalism? H8R. Bigot. Fundy. Etc. (So goes the usual level of argumentative discourse in our elevated intellectual times.)

The answer to the objection, in good old Thomistic style, lies in making distinctions between two kinds of freedom, intertwined for sure, but one at the service of and necessarily ordered towards the other. There is first the simple freedom of choice that the objection considers. Namely, I can go left or go right. I can vote for Donald Trump (!!?!) or Marco Rubio (well, neither, since I'm Canadian, but you get the point). I can write this blog post and publish it, or walk away from the computer right now.

Simple factual liberty working itself out in a thousand little decisions we make each day. Is that not freedom? What else is there to add to this? So why is the mind not free in simply thinking what it wants to think about reality? To answer this we need to understand the simple fact that very many people seem incapable of understanding today, and so get into one terrible mess after another.

We are free to choose to think and do what we like. We are not free to escape the consequences of those thoughts and deeds. Nor are we free to negotiate what those consequences are, either. 'Take what you like... and pay for it!' This old proverb has always captured for me exactly what our modern world seems determined to deny.

And so we have the second, more essential freedom, the freedom that the first kind of freedom exists in service of. Namely, the freedom to become a person fully alive, expanded to the utmost potential of human being and doing. Every choice we make, freely, is either making us more free in this second and more vital sense, or making us less free. I can choose to jump off a tall roof, but I'm not free to choose much of anything after I have done that thing.

And this extends to the thoughts. To anticipate a bit where I go in the book, I can choose to live by the thought of anger, to allow my grievances and grudges, hurts and disappointments, to become the most important and most gripping realities of my life. I am free to do that. What I am not free to do, if I do that, is... laugh, love, live, relax, enjoy the beauty of a sunset, walk in freedom of heart and lightness of spirit. I am free all right, to be angry. But my anger enslaves me in regard to just about everything else that is worth anything else at all.

And it is like that right down the line. Freedom only makes us free when it is firmly allied with truth. And truth is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in this case the truth of "Love your enemies, forgive those who have wronged you, turn the other cheek."

Anyhow, I have lots more to say about all that in the book, so hey! Here's a thought! Buy it. And have a great day of freedom and joy in the Lord's love while you're at it.

Monday, August 10, 2015

More Than A Nice Fridge Magnet

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
 Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.

 The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
how he has brought desolations on the earth.
 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
 he burns the chariots with fire.

 “Be still, and know that I am God.
 I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”
 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Psalm 46

Reflection – Sorry for my sudden lapse into ‘blog silence’ these past days– combination of busyness and fatigue, I’m afraid. Today’s psalm is one of the most beautiful in the whole psalter. In particular, the ‘Be still and know that I am God’ is, after ‘The Lord is my shepherd…’ one of the most quoted psalm verses, showing up on fridge magnets, bookmarks, and the like.

There is so little stillness in our world today. And so little knowledge of God. I wonder if the two are connected. We are an ADHD culture, flitting about from thing to thing, noise to noise, distraction here, diversion there. Taken up with whatever the latest scandal or outrage or titillation, be it Cecil the Lion or Caitlin Jenner or (ugh) Donald Trump.

So much noise to so little effect. So much fuss, fuss, fuss. So little stillness. And… so little knowledge of God. I can’t prove it, but I think it’s no coincidence that the rise of irreligion and atheism has pretty much tracked with the level of technological intrusion and ceaseless chatter in our world.

God is found in the depths of our hearts. The depths of our hearts are not available to us if we are constantly barraged or barraging ourselves with noise. The illiterate peasant of the Middle Ages had a deeper interior life than the college graduate of the 21st century, simply because his life was lived in a great silence surrounded by the mysteries and beauty of God’s creation.

There is little stillness, little knowledge of God, and so a great spirit of folly in our world today. Whether it is people so married to the absolute need for sexual autonomy that they will not admit that abortion ends a human life and so is not a Good Thing, or people so… well, I’m not sure what exactly, but so something or other that they are seriously considering electing a blowhard buffoon with a bad haircut and a filthy mouth president of the most powerful country on earth (and that’s all I will have to say on that subject), there is some terrible famine of wisdom, of basic attentiveness to truth, that bespeaks of a deep loss of interiority, of stillness, and of knowledge of God.

Psalm 46 is a needful psalm, not just a nice little fridge magnet, but a clarion call to change our way of life. If we continue to surround ourselves with noise and clamor and frivolous trivialities, borne along by whatever the zeitgeist dishes up each day, then we will continue to lack the most fundamental reflectiveness, wisdom, and essential seriousness of mind needed of adult human beings in this world.

God is real, God is a refuge and strength, God is our very present help in distress… but we need to be still to know this and act accordingly. Let us try to do so today—the world needs it, and we need it.