Sunday, May 29, 2016

These Weeks in Madonna House - May 15-29

These weeks in Madonna House have been all about the new life bursting forth all about us. It is the big push for planting on the farm—in recent weeks we have had work bees after supper to plant first onions, then potatoes, then cabbage. Broccoli awaits us this week. For some years now the community has committed itself to a weekly farm garden bee, and it has proven to be an efficient way for us all to work together to plant, thin, weed, or harvest, depending on the season.

Meanwhile it is apple blossom season, and what a year for apple blossoms it is. The central feature in the MH main house grounds is a small apple orchard next to our parking lot and the path to our chapel. The trees have been thick with blossoms this year, their delicate sweet scent perfuming the air, the buzzing of many bees letting us know that the pollinators are doing their job, too.

Best yet, the apple blossoms coincided with the first really warm days of the year. In past years we have had late frosts that have damaged (or in the case of last year, completely wiped out) the apple harvest. This year, no such misfortune has occurred, and whatever else we end up eating from our land, it would appear that we will be hip-deep in apples at this rate.

Our guest population has had a small bump, courtesy mostly of the men’s side of things. Several seminarians from Philadelphia are spending a few weeks with us after their academic year; others have come to join us as well. Now it is the women’s turn to scratch their heads as the number of women guests has dwindled to a handful. Any young ladies out there want to come for a spiritual adventure at Madonna House? The door is open!

The priests have been busy guys, running around here and there giving retreats and days of recollection. Two of them gave or helped to give retreats to seminarians; I gave a day of recollection on the Year of Mercy near Ottawa; we have had numerous requests lately to cover Sunday Masses in parishes in the surrounding towns.

A big push right now is Cana Colony, our MH family camp. For those new to the blog and unfamiliar with it, this is a six week program we run where as many as nine families can come each week for a vacation-retreat experience, with daily Mass and a conference and lots of time together as families. The season starts more or less a month from now, so there is a great deal of work to get the camp cleaned up and set up to receive the families.

This is the one apostolic work we do that actually has a papal mandate, having been the one specific thing Pope Pius XII personally asked Catherine Doherty to do when she had  a private audience with him in 1951. It has always been a very fruitful apostolate, and I personally believe it is the grace of that papal mandate at work.

Our gift shops had their big opening last weekend, which was a holiday long weekend in Canada. This is where we sell all the ‘nice’ things that come in donation here—collectibles, jewelry, objets d’art and so on—as well as our MH books and handicrafts. There is also our used book store. All the proceeds from the shops do not remain in Combermere, but go directly to missionaries across the world.

In Canada the May long weekend is the typical time people open up their cottage for the year, and this is very much cottage country, so the shops were busy as can be last weekend. It is a herculean effort to keep these shops running, but the results are beyond value—schools, orphanages, hospitals, dispensaries, seminaries, and so much more receive funding from these little shops tucked away in an obscure corner of the Ottawa Valley.

Finally, the men are hard at work on the women’s guest dorm, the upper level of which is well along with being renovated. Dry walling and painting is occurring at this point, which is always a good sign that the project is approaching completion. We have been grateful for the influx of men guests, who have thrown themselves in to that project with enthusiasm.

That’s about it for now—MH is a busy, busy place between the farm and the rest of the summer season. In the midst and through it all, be assured of our prayers for you all and for our troubled world.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Living Peacefully in a Kakocracy

Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.
Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment.
Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies…

Such are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.
All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.
For all day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning.

If I had said, “I will talk on in this way,”
I would have been untrue to the circle of your children.
But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end.

Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin.
How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!
They are like a dream when one awakes; on awaking you despise their phantoms.
When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart,
I was stupid and ignorant; I was like a brute beast toward you.

Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me with honor.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Indeed, those who are far from you will perish;
you put an end to those who are false to you.
But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge,
to tell of all your works.
Psalm 73

Reflection – We have a great love for this psalm in Madonna House. The latter verses of it were set to music by one of our talented members, and we customarily use that piece on June 8, our Promises Day, the sentiments therein being so fitting for that occasion: ‘What else have I in heaven but you – apart from you I want nothing on earth, my body and my heart faint, but God is my possession forever…’

It is significant, though, that all of this rapturous acclamation of faith comes after a fairly grim depiction of life in this world. This is a psalm about things being as they should not be, a world that is unjust. The wicked prosper and grow fat; the righteous languish and die. Innocents suffer (although unlike the psalmist we may hesitate to glibly count ourselves among those innocent), while the arrogant and proud, the evildoers go their seemingly merry way unpunished.

And the psalmist is utterly perplexed at this. As are we, aren’t we? The world has not changed all that much in the past 2500 years or so since this psalm got written. Surveying the landscape of political and economic life in the year 2016, it is hard to avoid the impression that we are living more and more in a kakocracy (that’s fancy Greek talk for ‘rule by the worst’).

Psalm 73 calls us to make a deep act of faith in the face of such realities. When the world goes awry, as it is wont to do, when all the tings that should not happen, happen, and what really should happen never does, it is meant to be a powerful reminder to us, a goad to our hearts and minds, that in fact we are not meant for this world.

We are made for God, and the happiness of the human person does not lie in riches and power, in pleasures and vanities, but rather, ‘for me it is good to be near God.’ We leave the rich and the powerful, those who do evil in high places, to the judgment of God. I for one hope that He judges them with mercy, and that all of us can find our true home in the kingdom of heaven together.

For us who have faith now, though, we have to be utterly clear about it—happiness is found not in the goods of the world, but in the goodness of God and our intimacy with Him. That is the final answer to injustice and, shall we say, ‘income disparity’ in this world. Yes, we should work for a socially just order if and as we can, but let’s not get confused about this. We’re not trying to build the kingdom of heaven on earth. We’re trying to make a world, as Dorothy Day put it, in which it is easier for people to be good.

But this goodness, this beatitude that is our true goal, is not found in any economic calculus—everyone getting exactly the piece of the pie they deserve. It is found in the embrace of God and the intimate communion we have with Him, which far exceeds anything the psalmist could have imagined. It is our sharing in the very life of the Trinity, made possible for us in Jesus Christ, that is the portion and inheritance of all who believe in Him and who seek refuge in Him. And that must always be our perspective and our purpose as we move through this unjust and at time crazily confused world.

Thursday, May 26, 2016


Our weekly journey through the Mass has taken us at long last to the end of the Eucharistic Prayer and its concluding Doxology. This prayer reads:

Through whom you continue to make all these good things, O Lord; you sanctify them, fill them with life, bless them, and bestow them upon us.
Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, for ever and ever.
People:  Amen. 

This final movement in the Eucharistic Prayer recalls us to a very simple reality that is for all its simplicity very hard for us to really hold on to, really remember and apply to our lives. It is this: Christ is everything (Col 3:11).

That is, He is the absolute center, the source, the goal of our lives. He is our food and drink, our life and our joy, our peace and our sure help in every circumstance. To Him all creation is yearning, from Him all creation derives both its existence and its meaning. He is the One, the only One, who gives us access to the Father and the life of the Triune God in which is all the delight and rapture of the human person found, and He is the One, the only One, through whom all of the blessings of God come down upon the human race.

Jesus is it, simply. And this end of the Eucharistic prayer simply expresses all of this in words of faith, and then does what is appropriate and right—we give all glory and honor to God the Father through, with, and in Jesus Christ, united by the Holy Spirit as one body to do so with one another and with Him, here and now in this liturgy, in anticipation of doing this forever in heaven.
And the people say: Amen.

So living this out seems fairly obvious to me. It’s not complicated, truly. How is my personal relationship with Jesus Christ going? How is yours? Are the words of the Gospel ever on our lips and hearts? Is the name of Jesus readily at the surface of our thoughts and on our tongues, not (as is so often tragically the case in our fallen world) as a curse word in anger, but as a prayer of grateful praise and constant intercession?

Do we turn to Him immediately for help and guidance in times of perplexity and trouble? Do we turn to Him just as immediately in times of joy and delight, with thanksgiving? Above all, do we come to the liturgy knowing that, however else we have done in our daily lives making Jesus what He truly is—the very center and source, the true King of our hearts and homes—at the very least we come before Him there to offer the worship He has commanded us to do (cf. Lk 22:19, 1 Cor 11: 24)?

To live this part of the Mass simply means to live our lives with Jesus as our constant companion, not our equal for sure, but our Lord who happens to live with us in close proximity every day. It means to live our lives in Jesus, to know that He is in fact one with us and that our lives and His life are one life and that the life we live is in fact His life in the world as His Body. 

And it means to live our lives through Jesus, always patterning ourselves on Him and on His Word, always going to Him to do, well, everything we do. When we love, we love through Jesus. When we pray, we pray through Jesus. When we work, we work through Jesus. When we play and rejoice and delight, it is through Him. When we suffer and mourn and die, it is through Him. Nothing is apart from Him, nothing is done without His mediation and help.

I don’t have much more to say about this—it is so simple, and we either believe it and try to live it, or we don’t. And of course the Lord does not leave us on our own to flounder about with all this stuff, but comes to us in a direct and concrete physical way to help us in all this. And that is where the liturgy takes us next, and where we will go next in this series.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Let's Talk About Sex

So why does the Church hate gay people? Why does the Church hate sex, generally? Women? The human body? Pleasure? Why is the Church so darned hateful, hateful, hateful? Why can’t it just get with the program like everyone else has?

Ah, gnarly questions, my new blog series! It had to come around to sex eventually, didn’t it? I want to talk in the blog post about the basic teaching of the Church regarding human sexuality—not this issue or that, but the fundamental teaching without which all the ‘rules and regs’ just seem arbitrary, bizarre, and frankly just plain mean.

Now I realize full well that at least some people read the blog who just ain’t buying what the Church is selling on this matter. I ask those people to at the very least try to understand what the Church is saying and why. At least know what it is you’re rejecting.

And of course most people reading this blog are Catholic and do accept what the Church teaches, maybe with struggles at times, but nonetheless. For all of you folks, I suggest that the basic teaching is simple enough, but there are heights and depths in it that need to be explored and that have implications far beyond the ‘rules and regs’ of what we can and cannot do in our sexual behavior.

So what is the fundamental thing at stake here, in this whole messy business of sex? The essential positive teaching, the teaching about what sex is that determines all of the negative teachings about what sex is not (and therefore what we should not do, sexually), is that sexual intercourse has an inherent meaning.

Furthermore, the meaning of sexual intercourse, the sexual act, is not something human beings have devised, which can thus be changed at will. It is not something private or individualistic—you decide what having sex means for you, and I will decide what it has for me. No, the sexual act has a meaning, and that meaning is created by God. And our whole sexuality is important—it is not some trivial afterthought of our humanity, but is a central and vital part of what it means to be human (finally, something on which the Catholic Church and the most dedicated progressive libertine can agree!).

And the meaning of the act of sexual intercourse is fundamentally a simple one. It is meant to be a physical, bodily expression of the love of God for his creation, the love of God for the human person, you and me, and specifically the love of Christ for redeemed humanity, the Church. Sex has a sacramental essence—it is meant to be a visible sign of the invisible reality of God and His passionate love for all He has made. It points beyond itself to something else

To be a faithful representation of God’s love made flesh in Jesus Christ, reflected and imaged in the actions of the body in our sexual being, means that we cannot just engage in sexual acts any old way. The way human beings have sex has to correspond to the way God loves the world, or it falsifies the reality it signifies.

And so God’s love is covenantal, faithful. God does not love us one day and turn away from us the next. God is not on again, off again. God does not use us. He is not a ‘friend with benefits’. God commits himself to loving his creation so much that when it is broken and wounded He becomes a man so as to be broken and wounded with it, and when it dies, He becomes a man so as to die with it. ‘For better or for worse, in sickness and in health…’

So sex must occur within a committed relationship, and commitment does not just mean ‘until either one of us decides we’re not happy.’ That is… not what the word commitment means, right? Commitment means for life. Commitment means marriage. Sex outside of marriage is wrong because there is no commitment of the one to the other, and so it in no way, shape, or form corresponds to how God loves us.

And God’s love for us gives life, brings life. God is the creator. His love is fruitful. This time of year the whole of creation here in the Northern Hemisphere is exploding with new life. God’s fecundity, expressed through the natural cycles of the earth, is obvious. But His love in the human person is equally fruitful. Where God is present in a person’s life, that person’s life increases, there is growth, there is newness, there is fruit. Always and at all times.

So sex that is either inherently sterile (i.e. sex between two people of the same gender) or sex that has been deliberately made sterile (by an act of contraception) simply does not communicate the nature of God’s love. The two people involved may genuinely care for one another, but nothing can come from this love—no life, no newness, no fruitfulness.

People counter that the Church has no problem with an older married couple engaging in sexual intercourse, nor with couples having sex during the times of the month when the woman is not fertile. This is because they have done nothing themselves to sterilize themselves, and the act itself is still ordered towards generativity even though the natural process of aging or the natural rhythms of the woman’s body have made it non-procreative.

The bottom line is that God’s love is faithful and committed, an unbreakable bond, and God’s love is creative and fruitful, life-giving. Sex, to be a faithful sacramental sign of God’s love, must be within marriage and open to the generation of life. And I will say more next Wednesday about all the people who, therefore, cannot have sex (at least not in their current situation) and why the Church does not actually hate these people and is not condemning them to a horrible empty life. Next week!