Thursday, February 26, 2015

Madonna House Movie VII: Restoring the Earth

Thursday again, and so time for another thrilling installment in the franchise of MH short films. I'm posting a bit later in the day than usual, as I had some (routine) blood work at the hospital this morning. I have found that, while I can blog when half-asleep, I cannot blog half asleep without coffee. So here we are - enjoy the show:



This is just about my favourite of all twelve of the films. For one thing, it is beautiful - tons of beauty shots of our MH farm, which is an utterly gorgeous place. Lots of shots of cows and horses, sheep and chickens, and green gardens, pastures, hills. All just lovely - we are so very blessed to be living in such a place of God's created order and grace.

But I think the film does a very good job of giving at least a sense of our whole MH approach to the question of the earth and our care for it. We were environmentalists here long before it was a fashionable stance, long before anyone had any concern about global warming or whatever they're calling it these days.

And our approach to these matters are completely unconnected, then, to the fierce debates and raging conflicts around AGW, etc. If tomorrow there is conclusive proof that the AGW is false; or if tomorrow there is conclusive proof that it is true, it will not affect in any regard how we live our life in MH.

Because here, we have always cared for the earth. Here, we have always tried to use as little as we can, and to farm in a sustainable way, to compost and recycle, reuse and make do. We live on donations--every article of clothing I am currently wearing is second-hand! We do not use herbicides, pesticides, hormones. We do use chemical fertilizer, but even the most strong advocates of organic farming have conceded to us that we need to do that to get crops off the poor marginal soil of these parts.

But beyond the specifics, the MH approach to farming and the earth is one of knowing ourselves to be in relationship with creation, to dig our hands into the soil, to pull weeds and plant vegetables. To move through the year of plowing and tilling, planting and watering, weeding and thinning, reaping and storing, and to do it all again the next year, and the one after that, and then again...

There is something that happens to you when you live close to the earth, some way of being tuned in to God and his plan for creation in the natural order that blends easily with his plans in the supernatural order. So many things fall into place, and so much of our fractured, failing humanity falls into place as well.

Well, that is enough for now - watch the video, and enjoy it. We believe in MH that we have a key here, in the way we farm and the way we live, that addresses much of the anguished questions and turmoil of our times, and is a great healing for humanity and for our poor beleaguered planet.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Perils of Living a Double Life

It is Wednesday, and time then for our weekly journey through the ‘papal examen’, the Pope’s Christmas talk to the Roman Curia that is such a good examination of conscience for all of us. We are now at disease number eight of fifteen, which is:

The disease of existential schizophrenia. This is the disease of those who live a double life, the fruit of that hypocrisy typical of the mediocre and of a progressive spiritual emptiness which no doctorates or academic titles can fill.

It is a disease which often strikes those who abandon pastoral service and restrict themselves to bureaucratic matters, thus losing contact with reality, with concrete people. In this way they create their own parallel world, where they set aside all that they teach with severity to others and begin to live a hidden and often dissolute life. For this most serious disease conversion is most urgent and indeed indispensable (cf. Lk 15:11-32).

Clearly we are in serious territory here. Hypocrisy is the great charge levelled by those who are not religious against religious people. It is perhaps a bit over-done sometimes; after all, hardly anyone completely lives up to the tenets and high moral standards of what they believe, and it is not ‘hypocrisy’ to simply be a struggling sinner. Hypocrisy enters in when one puts on an outward show of virtue or claims holiness for oneself while living something very different. Nevertheless, it is an accusation not without some truth.

We have to be vigilant. I say I believe ‘x’. Why am I doing ‘y’, which is inconsistent with that? The Pope is referring to, I gather, very real corruption and dissolute lifestyles that can and possibly do exist in high places in the Church; I will not comment on that, neither knowing about it nor considering that this is any of my or your business.

But on a lower level, this is a problem which can and at least incipiently does afflict all of us. Toleration of habitual sin in ourselves, for example, is the beginnings of this existential schizophrenia. A ‘double life’ for me may not mean that I’m secretly keeping a wife and three children in a suburb of Toronto (I’m not), but it may mean that there are small corners of my life that I have simply reserved as the personal property of Fr. Denis Lemieux, and in which poverty, chastity, and obedience are not welcome. It can be small things, insidious things, perhaps not even things that rise to the level of sin per se, but nonetheless have that quality of doubleness, of duplicity.

We say we believe in Jesus Christ. This statement of faith calls us to a radical belonging to Christ, a radical submission to His Word. To say I believe in Christ but then turn and say ‘But I won’t forgive the person who hurt me!’ or ‘But I won’t take the lowest place’ or ‘But I won’t acknowledge Him before men’ (or any other direct flouting of the precepts of the Gospel) is to live in a perilous state of  “mediocre and progressive spiritual emptiness,” as the Holy Father so pithily puts it.

Well, it’s Lent, isn’t it? Good time to review all these matters and make some changes. I think there are few of us who could say with a straight face that we always and everywhere live out our faith by doing exactly what the Lord Jesus commands us in His Gospel. And those who do—well, you are the saints of God, so please pray for us struggling sinners, eh?

And really, let’s pray for one another in this. There is a terrible hampering of the Church’s evangelical work in this. People, when they look at how Catholics live, cannot tell that there’s any great difference between them and anyone else. This must not be. The Gospel is so radical that, if we say we believe it and are even trying to live it, our lives should look different, don’t you think? We should at least be puzzling to people, don’t you think?


Let us pray for one another, and above all let us ask the Lord to make us more faithful to Him and live with a deeper integrity, a deeper purity of heart, seeking to please God and not ourselves or others in all things.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Personal Touch

Arise — go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me, going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.
Little — be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.
Preach the Gospel with your life — without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.
Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.
Love... love... love, never counting the cost.
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.
Pray always. I will be your rest.
The Little Mandate of Madonna House

Give it directly, personally to the poor. – Tuesdays we are going through these words that we here believe God gave to our foundress Catherine Doherty to be the guiding and essential spirit of our apostolate.

This phrase, which I touched on last week, bears further reflection. In particular, the word ‘personal’ defines so much of the MH approach to apostolic work. While we are not opposed to programs and projects, in our hearts we know that these are of little use if they are not imbued with the personal touch—warmth, friendship, hospitality of home and heart.

When Catherine began in Harlem, New York, the pastor asked her what her program was. She replied, quite honestly, the she didn’t have one. She would just go and meet the African-American people of Harlem one at a time, and go from there.

Another story she loved to tell was of the wealthy woman who was a benefactor of the apostolate. One time a poor family needed help at Christmas-time, and this woman took it on, sending them a lavish Christmas—food, presents, tree, decorations, everything. And it was all profoundly appreciated by the family. But… she sent it with her chauffeur. The woman herself never met the family, and they had no chance to thank her, she no chance to learn who they were and what they might have to offer her in return.

Catherine always stressed the love, charity, had to be given personally. And this conditions our whole MH approach to apostolic life. We run soup kitchens in Edmonton and Regina, and we live in the same building, right there in the same neighbourhood as the men and women we serve. And so it goes through all the houses of our apostolate.

But as always this is more than a physical arrangement or a specific technique. And it is never just about the obvious material poor, as much as they are always central in our concern. But there is a whole way of life implied in the lines ‘sell all you possess, give it personally to the poor.’

At every moment there is a person before me, who has at least some poverty somewhere in their person—we are all poor, in some way. At every moment, I ‘possess’ something, anyhow. A certain amount of energy, a certain amount of this or that thing, talent, time. And this first line of the Mandate bids me to take whatever I have and do whatever I need to do with it (symbolically, ‘sell it’), so as to give it directly to this person who is before me now. In concrete terms, it means doing a lot of listening to people, lots of careful attention to find out what the need may be. 

It may, often, simply be the need to be listened too—loneliness is one of the greatest poverties of our time. It may be something else—time spent, knowledge shared, food given. Some days we may have a whole three-course banquet to give people—‘Christmas with all the trimmings’—other days we may seem to only have a few crusts of bread. Regardless, we are to give it all.


It’s a whole way of life, not just something to practice for a little while. And a most challenging way of life, not one I would make any claims to doing especially well. But this is certainly what we want to do, try to do at MH – receive each person as a person, personally, and share with them whatever we have at any given time. Our experience has been that the fruits of this way of loving and serving go far beyond anything else we could do. Our firm belief is that this personal love and friendship is the only real way to communicate the Gospel in the world today.

Monday, February 23, 2015

What Are You Hungry For?

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
 When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes, it is they who stumble and fall.

 Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear;
though war arise against me, yet I will be confident.
 One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.

 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock.
 And now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy;
 I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

 Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud; be gracious to me and answer me!
 You have said, “Seek my face.”
My heart says to you, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.”
 Hide not your face from me.
Turn not your servant away in anger, O you who have been my help.
Cast me not off; forsake me not, O God of my salvation!

 For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in.
 Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path
because of my enemies.
 Give me not up to the will of my adversaries; for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they breathe out violence.

 I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!
 Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord.
Psalm 27

Reflection – The Monday Psalter delivers up to us today one of the most lyrically beautiful psalms in the entire canon. Psalm 27, that wonderful meditation on the beauty of God, His beautiful Face, and the longing of the human heart to behold that face, to gaze upon that beauty, to live in the house of the Lord.

I believe that one of the great tragedies of humanity in general, but even more acutely of humanity in our times, is that the previous sentence would be a meaningless jumble of words, or a banal pious waffle, to a large percentage of people. We do, indeed, desire to gaze upon the beauty of God… but we don’t know that’s what we desire. What are we hungry for when we don’t know what we’re hungry for? God, that’s what. Or, rather, who.

And so we plunge into creatures, looking for that which awaits us in God. We thrash around with sex and money and possessions, thrills and distractions and diversions, never quite finding what we want, because what we want is none of these things exactly, but is only to be found in the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

All of these phrases meant one thing to the psalmist when he wrote them—God would preserve his life, and he would be able to go to Jerusalem and the temple there. Gazing upon God meant gazing upon the sanctuary of the temple.

But of course he was writing under the Spirit’s inspiration, and so the words have a life in them which has grown, like yeast in bread, to expand to utterly new meanings. The land of the living is indeed heaven; God has a human face, now, the beholding of which should be the consuming passion of our lives, the longing that keeps us pointed God-ward and heaven-ward, that enables us to radically choose to forego any created good for its sake.


This is a good Lenten psalm, really. Lent is not just a heavy time to berate ourselves for our sins and failures. In fact, that’s not really the point of it at all. It is a time to stir up in ourselves a desire for the All-Desirable One, a longing for the All-Beautiful One. And this psalm, itself so beautifully written, so evocative of that desire for God, is a good prayer for us as we embark on these early days of the Lenten journey. So let’s pray it in that spirit.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

You Know, It Turns Out That We're NOT Supposed to Judge, After All!

O Lord, Master of my life, grant that I may not be infected with the spirit of slothfulness and faint-heartedness, of ambition and vain talking.

Grant instead to me your servant the spirit of purity and humility, of patience and love.

O Lord and King, bestow upon me the grace of being aware of my sins, and of not judging my brother. For you are blessed forever and ever. Amen.

O God be merciful to me a sinner, and purify me. (3 times)

Yes O Lord and King. bestow...

Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian

I made reference to this prayer on the blog yesterday. It is an integral part of our MH Lenten observance, incorporated into our daily morning prayer. We prostrate ourselves after each petition of the prayer, standing to make a metany during the three 'O God...' petitions.

There is much that can be said about this prayer (in fact, I did a whole series on it a couple years ago - if you're interested, you can search for 'Ephrem' in the little search box at the top bar and see what I said about the whole prayer. But today, in light of the new blog format and the 'Sunday Catechesis' slot I'm trying to fill, I want to talk about the last petition of the prayer and what the Church actually teaches about judgment and sin, moral truth and our relationship to it in regards to ourselves and others.

So often, of course, the Gospel passage in question (Matt 7: 1-2) is badly misinterpreted. It does not mean that we cannot say that a specific type of human action is morally wrong. It does not mean that we cannot know the truth about the moral law--both what we can reason our way towards and what God has revealed to us about these matters. If it meant that, then this one verse of the Sermon of the Mount would, among other things, contradict the rest of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells us all sorts of things that we should or should not do. It would also contradict the whole of Scripture which in its entirety reveals to us a God who is very concerned to tell us what sort of things we should or should not do, which is precisely what is meant by the phrase 'moral good or evil'.

So if Matthew 7 is not a prescription for moral agnosticism or relativism, then what does it mean? Well, it means quite a lot, actually. The Church has always maintained a strict distinction between the objective wrong of an action and the subjective guilt of the performer of that action. The former simply is what it is--certain things are wrong to do, and cannot become right to do through various circumstances: they are intrinsically evil deeds. And they are wrong because they damage us in some way, even if the damage is not immediately apparent, or is far outweighed in our minds by the immediate benefits or pleasures attached to the act.

The subjective guilt of the actor is determined by his or her knowledge of what the action is, that it is wrong, and his or her freedom in consenting to that action. And those things we can barely even know about ourselves, don't you think? How on earth can we know them about another person, even if we think we know the person very well?

So no, we cannot judge. Jesus--the same Jesus who condemned adultery (Matt 5:32, 19:9) and upheld the commandments of God (Matt 19:18)--has also commanded us not to judge one another. We can, and indeed must at the peril of our souls, teach what the moral law is, in general and in specifics. We can, then, by strict logical necessity say of this or that person doing such and such an action, 'They are doing something wrong, and this is truly a terrible state of affairs.'

But we cannot say, of another human being, 'this person has committed a sin'. Sin pertains to the subjective guilt of the person, and there is no way we can determine that, nor is it any concern of ours to do so. Absolutely not, and by doing so we become just as much law breakers as they are.

Not to mention that even if we see someone doing something terribly wrong, we must remember that's all we are seeing: we did not see, say, the terrible struggle with temptation beforehand, the deep darkness of mind and heart during, the grief and compunction afterwards. Of all of that, we know nothing. No, we are not to judge. Leave it to God. 

And for our own part, if we do indeed for various reasons have to take some interest or involve ourselves in the affairs and problems of other people, our clear call as Christians is to err profoundly and radically on the side of mercy, charity, assuming the best, always allowing for every possible extenuating and mitigating factor, quick to excuse, slow to criticize, never to condemn.

"O Lord and King, bestow upon me the grace of being aware of my sins, and of not judging my brother."

This Week in Madonna House - February 14-20

This week in Madonna House was anything but uneventful—indeed, it will be a challenge for me to remember everything about it. For the first thing, I have been mentioning regularly in this column that we have had a dearth of guests with us since after Christmas. Well, forget about that—the dorms are filling up with a mix of short and long term guests. I’m not sure if people consciously think ‘What will I do for Lent? Oh, I know – I’ll go to MH!’ But that is in fact the normal pattern each year… and it is indeed a pretty good place to spend part if not all of Lent.

Last weekend was our MH version of Mardi Gras, which happened to coincide with the celebration of Harlem Foundation Day—the second phase of our apostolate when Catherine pioneered in the civil rights movement in the States. So we had lovely displays of all that, and a simple presentation of her work in that field.

That very day, though, we went in the pre-Lenten festivity mode. A home-made pizza supper brought delight to our palates, and then a home-made variety hour, with a strong element of comedy, brought delight to the rest of us. This is our annual ‘Pre-Lent Event’, which inevitably and invariably gets referred to colloquially if somewhat irreverently as the ‘Ash Bash’.

I missed it this year, being away at that vocation fair I mentioned last week, but people appreciated in particularly a certain priest of ours of Irish extraction, advanced in years but young in spirit, who lip-synched with high drama and panache to the three tenors recording of the Irish folk ballad Purple Heather (that’s the one with the ‘will ye go, lassy go?’ bit). This is always a great evening of fun and family, homemade entertainment for a community known for making everything by hand, anyway.

The traditional pancake supper on Tuesday ended our pre-Lenten blowout, and so we all gathered bright and early on Ash Wednesday for Mass and ashes. We don’t exactly do much communally in Lent that is different from the rest of the year—there is far too much variance in age, health, physical activity, spiritual maturity to have a communal program of fasting or penance.

We do have as our Lauds hymn each morning the great Byzantine hymn Open to Me the Doors of Repentance, which lays out in graphic strong language our profound sense of sin, and more profound sense of God’s mercy. And Lauds each morning ends with the Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian, about which I may blog this Lent at some point. Particularly salient in that prayer is the call to ‘be aware of my sins and not judge my brother.’

For spiritual reading we are doing one of our standbys – Great Lent by Alexander Schmemann, which has some of the best teachings on the fundamental Lenten attitudes and practices that I have ever encountered. His chapter on fasting is alone worth the price of the book.

Meanwhile, while Lent feels like an interminable season of 40 weeks, not days, it is in fact short enough, and so the Easter preparations have already begun. The Easter sweet bread koolitch, and the special Easter confection paska, both given to us by our Russian foundress, are being made, pysanky is being done in every corner of the house (that’s the elaborately dyed Ukrainian Easter eggs), the paschal candle is being carved and painted (yes, we make our own here).

All of which is happening as winter continues to bite deep. We haven’t had the huge snowfalls that Eastern Canada and the US have had, but we sure have had the severe cold. One of our favourite hymns here is ‘The Lenten Spring has come’ – it’s been hard not to sing it a bit ironically so far, as the wind howls and the mercury plunges low each night.

And of course all this is happening while cold winds and stormy weather beset our world in other ways too—we are conscious in this Lenten season of the great battle of good and evil, dark and light that marks our times. We believe our little lives here—pizza and frolic, repentance and prayer, ora et labora, are the best response we can make to hatred and violence, and we unite with all of you in praying for the world and offering our lives for the healing of the nations, in and with Jesus Christ who made that offering for all of us.


And that’s what happened in MH this week.