Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Better Than A Week At The Cottage

Little — be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.
Preach the Gospel with your life — without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.
Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.
Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour’s feet. Go without fear into the depth of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.
The Little Mandate of Madonna House

Pray always. I will be your rest. – And with this final line we come to the end of this little series of commentaries on the Little Mandate, the words God gave our foundress Catherine Doherty to be the guiding spirit of Madonna House.

I will freely confess that when it comes to this last line of the Mandate, I don’t really get what is being said here—we are all works in progress, and in my case the progress has not yet progressed to this beautiful place yet of experiencing either constant prayer or Christ being my rest. I am quite certain of the truth, beauty, and goodness of these words, but I haven’t yet reached the direct experience of them, not yet. Some day.

‘Rest’ is a big word for most people, I imagine. We are all a little tired. Nobody quite gets enough sleep. Nobody feels entirely well, entirely fresh and bouncy. Well, maybe some people do, and youth especially is known for its inexhaustible energy. But as one gets older… well, we get tired. Not sick, not miserable, not incapable of functioning—just a wee bit tired.

And so we look for a place of rest. I have my annual vacation coming up in a few weeks, and I’m not ashamed to say that I am deeply looking forward to it. I think the Lord in this line of the mandate is disclosing something to us about what it means to be at rest that takes us so far beyond this normal human level, though. For us, ‘rest’ is synonymous with ‘respite’. For God, ‘rest’ is synonymous with ‘consummation’. In other words, a being comes to a state of rest when it reaches its proper place, its home, its state of fulfillment.

Well, our proper place and home and fulfillment is not a week at the cottage sipping cocktails by the beach. Our home is the heart of God, and the heart of God is the wellspring of love in the world. ‘Pray always’, at a deep level, means the same thing as ‘love always’, since prayer is communion with God and God is Love.

Our rest, then, is found in our relationship with Him. He doesn’t say here, Pray always, and I will give you rest. He says that He will be our rest. And this takes us very deep indeed. As I finish this series on the Little Mandate, it is right and proper that the last sentence of the Mandate takes us where we really need to be taken.

Namely, to Jesus. Our life is about Jesus. It is for Him, from Him, and towards Him. He is the source of the ‘Arise – go!’, the command to movement that begins the journey of the Gospel life, and He is the destination to which we are heading, and He is the way itself of love and service in the world.

The Little Mandate of Madonna House is a 118-word revelation of the radical Christ-centred nature of Gospel life and love in this world. And it does come down to this ‘pray always’ business. If we are going to take up the cross of the poor, we have to pray always. If we are going to be little, simple, poor, childlike, we have to pray always. If we are going to preach the Gospel with our life, do little things exceedingly well for love, love without counting the cost, go into the marketplace, into the depths of men’s hearts, be a hidden light to the feet of our neighbour… we have to pray always.

We have to pray always because all of this is what Jesus does and who Jesus is for us, and our living of it is utterly impossible save by His constant intervention and help in our life. We can do nothing without Him; with Him, all things are possible.

‘Pray always’ does not mean hours spent in silent contemplation. It does mean a constant dialogue with God throughout our busy days. It does mean cultivating a habit of prayer, whereby in the midst of everything that fills our life we continually go to that place of rest—not a place of inactivity and torpor, but a place of fulfillment, consummation, intense activity of love and communion.

It is all about Jesus, all about calling on His name, seeking His face, striving to live according to the words of light and truth and pattern of love and sacrifice that He has laid out for us, and that His grace and His Spirit make possible in our lives. It is Jesus, Jesus, and Jesus again who is our rest, who is our life, who is our mandate from God. And that is what Madonna House continually proclaims and tries to live in our humble communal way of life.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Psalm of the Accursed

O God, we have heard with our ears, our fathers have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days, in the days of  old:
 you with your own hand drove out the nations, but them you planted;
you afflicted the peoples, but them you set free;
 for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm save them,
but your right hand and your arm, and the light of your face,
 for you delighted in them…

But you have rejected us and disgraced us and have not gone out with our armies.
 You have made us turn back from the foe, and those who hate us have gotten spoil.
 You have made us like sheep for slaughter and have scattered us among the nations.
 You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.
All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you,
and we have not been false to your covenant.

Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way;
 yet you have broken us in the place of jackals and covered us with the shadow of death.
 If we had forgotten the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
 would not God discover this?
For he knows the secrets of the heart…

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
 Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
 For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground.
 Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.
Psalm 44

Reflection – This is, perhaps, not a psalm most people are deeply familiar with, nor particular drawn to take up and pray on a regular basis. That’s OK, I think – while every word of Scripture is of divine origin and has its irreducible value and sacredness on that account, not every word of it easily adapts to personal prayer on that account.

This psalm, though, draws attention to the very real experience that comes to almost everyone sooner or later, of meaningless purposeless and truly unjust suffering. We can all accept (reluctantly) that if we make bad choices and mess up our life, there will be suffering that ensues from that. It may be on the small level of driving carelessly and so having a fender bender, drinking to excess and having a hangover, or much more serious and protracted problems.

Most of us can also accept that at times suffering is simply the entry fee of loving in this world. If you want to be a loving caring person, then the problems and sorrows of the people you love become in some degree your problems and sorrows. You cannot really love without a few tears being shed. Most people who opt for the ‘love’ side of the equation of life come to terms with and accept that particular calculus early on. It is better to love and cry a little or a lot than to live a loveless cold life.

But then there is this experience of suffering that doesn’t easily fit into either of the above very broad categories. The strange and painful plunge into mental or physical illness that may have more to do with pulling a bad number in the genetic lottery than anything else. Terrible turns of fortune that at times explode in our lives with Job-like intensity. Terrible sequences of deaths among family and friends, loss of job, loss of housing, loss of relationships… all these things at time become a tsunami of suffering in our lives, and it doesn’t much make sense, doesn’t seem to have much to do with our relative merits and demerits, to say the least.

It is no wonder that in every human traditional culture there is a sense that it is possible for a person to be accursed—we all know people (and maybe some reading this are that person) whose lives just go from one disaster to the next. And I would hold, simply, that there is some truth to that universal human belief.

But Psalm 44 bids us to bring this terrible aspect of the human experience to the God who is shrouded in deep mystery in the heart of it all. The psalm does not offer one particle of illumination about any of it (this is why it is not an especially popular one) but simply lays it out as an unsolvable mystery (which to us it is) and then utters the desperate cry of the human soul to God in the face of that mystery: Awake, O God! Why are you sleeping? Why do you hide your face? Redeem us, because of your love!

And… that’s where it is left. And this is not a bad place to leave it. We don’t know, cannot know, the real whys and wherefores of our lives and why things are the way they are. What we know of these matters is a small sliver of the whole of reality, and we have no way to access the bigger picture, unless it is to contemplate the biggest picture God has given us, which is the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But even in that, we are left crying out, trusting that the God who did this for us has a way to redeem us no matter how grim the situation looks. And this is at times the most we can get to—He loves us and proves that by Jesus Christ, so there must be a way through this current darkness into redeeming love. And Psalm 44 bids us to keep crying out until He rises in and for us, and leads us into the light of his love.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

I Have a New Job... Or Do I?

So, I have a new job! At least, theoretically, that is. I am now the official director of the “Spiritual Formation Program” (henceforward SFP), run by Madonna House since 1980 for young men considering a vocation to the priesthood but not quite ready to begin their seminary studies. The reason I am only ‘theoretically’ in charge of it yet is that God has not yet sent us anyone applying for the program for this coming year, so it is unknown at this point if we will run it or not.

I am pretty sure that I haven’t mentioned this program except in passing on this blog, but now that I am in charge of it (theoretically), I thought it was time to highlight this hidden contribution MH makes to the Church at large.

It was in 1980 that the idea came to Catherine Doherty, all in a flash, that MH could have a role to play in the formation of men for the priesthood in Canada and beyond. Her initial formulation of it, that we would be a ‘seminary’, proved beyond our means at that point (and still is), but a year of spiritual and catechetical formation was not. 

Unbeknownst to her and us, the Vatican had just around that time come out with its own recommendations for priestly formation, and was suggesting exactly that thing. So Catherine asked Fr. Jim Duffy to develop a ‘pre-seminary’ program, and from 1980 onwards we have offered this service to the Church.

I do not have statistics in front of me at all, but quite a number of men are serving as priests now who passed through the SFP, or are seminarians on their way to that happy state. Quite a number of men are now loving husbands and fathers, and a good few others are in other vocations. I don’t think I’ve heard of anyone who has done the program over these decades who has not reported, sometimes years later, that it was a formative influence in their lives that has helped them persevere in serving God.

The program runs more or less from Canadian Thanksgiving in early October to Easter Sunday. The men come, and for the most part live our MH life of work, prayer, and community life. They have, as all our long-term visitors have, a spiritual director from among the priests. They live with the other MH men guests at St. Anne’s, and in most regards their life is that of any guest to our community. Our belief, and it is a belief tried in the fires of long experience, is that it is our community life that is the principle formator of anyone who walks in the door to spend time with us.

But they have a meeting one evening a week to discuss their experience and to read together and reflect on significant texts on the priesthood or other key spiritual matters. They have a study day on Wednesday—in the morning all the MH guests have classes first on the Fundamentals of the Spiritual Life, then on the Catechism. A time of prayer or reading follows. In the afternoon the SFP men have a second class, which may be on the priesthood, the liturgy, Scripture, or Our Lady. A second time of study follows, then a holy hour.

During the year there may be special field trips—a visit to the Companions of the Cross, or to the bishop of Pembroke. Some years we get ambitious and do a pilgrimage to St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. But meanwhile outside of these special events, there is the ‘real work’ of the program—the Nazareth life of prayer, work, and learning to love one another in community (this latter always proves to be the toughest part of it all).

The men go away, generally, at Christmas for a break, and often this is a significant point of formation, as when they come back in January they are coming back with a new level of commitment to the process. We always end at Easter (even though some years, 2016 being one of them, the early date of the feast means the second half of the program gets a bit compressed), and a long-standing feature of our Easter feast is the young men giving a short speech to reflect on what the program has meant to them and to thank the community for its support.

It’s a really good program, and it has done a lot of good for an awful lot of young men over the years, some of whom are in turn doing an awful lot of good for the Church now. So this program has been entrusted to me now, after passing through the hands of Fr. Jim Duffy, Fr. Robert Wild, Fr. Robert Sharkey, and Fr. Tom Zoeller.

So I’m mostly asking for prayers at this point—it is just a bit daunting to find myself in this position along with everything else going on in my MH life and work. I rather suspect I won’t be going out nearly as often to give missions and talks, if this program actually happens this year.

And of course I am writing this in case any young man (by which I mean, more or less, 19-35) reads this who is looking for just what I have described or something close enough. Or any vocation director of a diocese who may have a man making inquiries who would benefit from this program, or any priest of a diocese who can forward this to his vocation director, or any lay person who knows a priest who knows the vocation director… well, you get the idea. Spread it around, in other words, folks! Get the word out! Use that share-y thing-y at the bottom of the post there…

Don’t let Fr. Denis Lemieux languish in idleness and torpor – give him a program to run! That’s the spirit! And yes, do pray for me as I take up this very beautiful and awesome work MH has done for these past 35 years.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

These Weeks in Madonna House - July 12-25

These weeks in Madonna House have primarily been all about the people. Our guest dorms are full up and the dining room is packed with dozens of guests, mostly short-term ones here for a week or two, and hospitality is the order of the day, every day.

The summer program is continuing to bless us all, with weeks on the themes of “Made For Love: A Christian Anthropology” and “Love Casts Out Fear: Accepting the Risk”. I forget if I’ve mentioned the basic structure of the program. Besides our normal MH life, the primary content of the thing is that MH staff give the post-lunch spiritual reading on Monday and Friday, both at the main house and the farm. Wednesday evening one of the priests gives an hour-long class presentation. Friday at supper there is a chance for our guests to reflect back what they heard during the week, and Saturday is the ever-popular Q & A session with our directors general. Other activities may happen at various points.

For example, one of our men organized a number of the guests in presenting a play based on the Tolstoy short story “Where Love Is, God Is”. This may be known to some people under its alternate title “Martin the Cobbler,” in which the titular character is told in a dream that Christ would visit him that day, spends the day watching at his window with vigilance and so ends up serving various people in need, and is sad at the end of the day that Jesus never came, only to find that He had indeed come, in the people who Martin had served. It was staged simply but very creatively, and as always our guests gave their all in acting out the various characters of the story.

The biggest event of this past week, though, was that the priest giving the Wednesday night class was our own diocesan bishop, Michael Mulhall, who we had invited to come and do something for the program on the off chance that he would be available. He was delighted to come and gave a fine talk on intimacy with Christ, overcoming the passions, and the interior journey to God that is the heart of our life. Better yet, he spent 45 minutes fielding questions from the floor, and was masterful at meeting the young people where they were and giving very good answers to them.

Of course this was the second week in a row that Bp. Mulhall came to MH, as last week’s big event was the funeral of Fr. Thomas Rowland. I was away at the Nazareth family camp and so missed it, but it was a large funeral indeed, with 34 concelebrating priests and our large St. Mary’s chapel full to overflowing. Fr. Tom had been quite an apostolic priest in the diocese of Pembroke, always ready to help out anywhere, and his gregarious personality and warmth won him friends everywhere he went. So they came from all directions to bid him farewell.

His funeral supper, fittingly, began with nachos and salsa (he was Texan!) and ended with ice cream (his favourite!). The memory night—an MH tradition where we gather to share stories about the person in a relaxed familial way—was lively, often quite funny, and touching. All in all, we gave him a good send off, it seems.

Beyond that, life here is in high gear. The first cut of hay is in, a bit earlier than normal for these parts, and we had great dry weather for that job. The gardens are in absolute high gear, and many of the above mentioned guests filling our dorms are spending their days weeding and harvesting. At supper one night, a young woman guest exclaimed excitedly at the sight of the snap peas we were eating: “I helped pick those! This is so awesome!”

At the same time, the shops are full of customers, people show up for tours daily, Cana and Nazareth continue to take up the energies of the priests and (in the case of the former) quite a few of the lay people. The addition to the farmhouse is moving right along, with the trusses being raised this past week. And no doubt there is an awful lot more going on that I am personally not aware of—this is a big place and summer is just packed with activity.

Another facet of life right now in the apostolate is one that I cannot go into great detail about. I have a policy on this blog of (generally) not mentioning names of MH people, on the firm basis that just because I’m choosing to engage in this uber-public work of blogging, they are not and so shouldn’t be plastered all over the internet just because I’m doing this thing. 

That being said, a big factor of life in MH right now is that there is a very large number of staff being transferred around right now, including some fairly major changes in houses—new directors being appointed and so forth. I can’t go into the details, but those who receive our paper Restoration can read all about it there. It’s quite a time of transition for many in the apostolate, though. All in the midst of a busy, full, and very lovely summer.

Know that we are praying for all of you through it all, and offering it all up for the world, the Church, and all people.