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.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Dawn is Coming, No Matter What

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
 until the destroying storms pass by.

I cry to God Most High, to God who fulfils his purpose for me.
He will send from heaven and save me,
he will put to shame those who trample on me.
God will send forth his steadfast love and his faithfulness.

I lie down among lions that greedily devour human prey;
their teeth are spears and arrows, their tongues sharp swords.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let your glory be over all the earth.

They set a net for my steps; my soul was bowed down.
They dug a pit in my path, but they have fallen into it themselves.
My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast.
I will sing and make melody.

Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn.
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens;
your faithfulness extends to the clouds.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens.
Let your glory be over all the earth.
Psalm 57

Reflection – We have been trodding slowly through the ‘gloomy 50s’ in the book of psalms—an unbroken succession of psalms lamenting evil in the world and the sufferings of the psalmist in the face of that evil. I am somewhat amused that, as hard as I have found it to write about these psalms week after week, they have proved to be very popular posts, three of them currently being among the ‘top ten’ posts of the last month. I guess ‘gloom sells’ is the take away lesson here.

Well, the gloom is starting to lift and the light is dawning – the psalmist here is still afflicted, still besieged by enemies. But… ‘awake my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn.’ Something is changing; deliverance is coming.

The destroying storms come, and the destroying storms pass by. There are all sorts of dangers about—lions, spears, arrows, sharp swords, pits—but somehow the psalmist is unharmed. Terrible things happening around him, but not in him, where the song of praise to God never ceases.

Well, this takes us somewhere. Because of course we all know that in the so-called ‘real world’ (whatever that means, exactly) sometimes bad guys do find the mark, right? I mean… well, I guess I don’t need to drive the point home too hard after the week the world has had. The spears, arrows, and sharp swords (guns and bombs) don’t always go amiss. What about that? What about then? Where is God? What are we to do? How does this psalm apply to that reality?

It seems to me that we can go very shallow here (‘oh, it’s all good you know – la la la!’) or we can go very deep. Let’s leave aside the shallowness, which is self-refuting. The depth of it is that if we are in God—really, truly in Him—then our bodies can be pierced with bullets and blown apart by explosives, and in truth this does not harm us. It hurts us—may indeed kill us—but fundamentally it does us no harm.

If we are in God—truly, deeply, really in Him—then the death of our bodies do us no harm. The pain of injury, the pain of loss and grief, deep injustice, terrible confrontation with evil, miserable times of sorrow and tribulation—all of these are real, and are just awful to endure.

But… they hurt us, but do not harm us. If we are in God. If God is our life. If we have by His grace placed ourselves so utterly into His care and His mercy (‘Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me’) that our true life, our true self, our whole being is there.

This is not some shallow silly consolation—well, it’s all gonna work out in the end, ya know! This is the deep consolation of faith, the deep truth of God and Jesus and eternal life and heaven. The consolation of the Spirit. This psalm is not just whistling a happy tune in the dark of night; it is a solemn testimony that the dawn is coming, no matter what. Dawn is coming; God is coming. God is here. In the blackest of black nights, God is with us. And so we praise Him, glorify Him, call out to Him for mercy, and keep going no matter what.

And if the so-called worst happens—if that bullet finds us, that bomb blows us up, we will simply close our eyes in this world and open them in the next, and proceed to the next verse of the next psalm—praising and glorifying God forever in the world that has no end and is free of sorrow and pain. Nothing can harm us, if this is our life.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Water and Wine... and Refugees and Terror

Thursdays is 'Liturgy Day' on the blog. I am writing a commentary on the Mass, bit by bit, each week, with a special focus on how the liturgy informs our way of Christian life in the world.

We are at the Offertory Rite at the moment, and in my enthusiasm for last week's section, I inadvertently skipped over a most beautiful and meaningful little sub-rite within the rite. This is the ritual mixing of water with the wine, accompanied by the prayer 'By the mystery of this water and wine  may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.'

This simple little rite catches so much of the richness of our Christian faith. In the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, it is one of the lessons taught to the youngest age group, so vividly and concretely does it communicate the reality of life in Christ. The children, some as young as three, are shown this rite, with the simple explanation that  the wine symbolizes Christ, and the water us.

Their comments are telling - 'He is so big, and we are so small!' 'You can't get the water out from the wine! Nothing can separate us!' 'We are together with him.' In one small snippet of the liturgy, a ritual that most of us barely pay attention to and easily miss, it is so short, there is a whole theology of grace and communion, incarnation, redemption, and divinization.

This is so crucial when we are faced with genuinely difficult situations in life. In our personal lives, and in our communal social lives. I am thinking, like everyone else, quite a bit about violence and terror, compassion and generosity, risk and refugees. I will probably have a bit more to write about it in a few days - still formulating my full thoughts.

But do we know how much we are in Christ and Christ is in us? Sometimes when people who are people of faith discuss these matters, there seems little sense of this. Like... there's our religion over there, and we go to Church and think certain thoughts and say certain things and do this and that. But when there is a hard situation--a genuinely, honest-to-God hard situation---in the world or in our lives, our Christianity seems scarce in sight.

And I'm not just talking about the people who are all 'Kill the Muslims! Kill 'em, I say!' It's also the people who are openly scornful and contemptuous of those who are struggling with fear of jihadist terror. It's the people who, on the very day of the Paris attack, thought that the best response was to instantly start bitching about Obama or Trudeau and their lousy politics, or about Bush and Cheney and how it's all their fault. The blood was still wet on the pavements of Paris, and that's the first instinct of some? How about praying for the souls of the dead, and for their murderers?

Christ is in us. We are in Him. The water is poured into the wine. He is very big. We are very small. Yet somehow, because He loves us very much, He has taken us into His world, into His life. The beggar maid (humanity, and each member therein who accepts it) has been wed to the Great King.

So we are better than this. And yes, I think we can open our vast rich country and its resources (do we have any idea how good we have it compared to the rest of the world?) to these poor people. Even if some of them are not what they say they are. Even if some of them repay us with violence. The risk of closing our hearts, our home, and our borders is greater, I would say. We risk losing our inheritance--not the inheritance of this beautiful land or the inheritance of Western Civilization, but the inheritance of life in Christ.

At the same time, there are real fears, real concerns, real questions. And it is no part of life in Christ to mock, scorn, shame, deride, show contempt for those people who raise those questions. Can we all please show some self-control, some maturity, and maybe even some charity?

The water goes into the wine. We are not alone in this. There is grace, more grace than we can possibly imagine, available for us in this matter and in all matters. There is never a reason, never a time, a place, a situation, where we cannot be charitable. Not if we remember that water and that wine, that unity, that bigness of spirit which is ours because He came.

Let's try to remember that in what are surely going to be difficult days ahead.