This week in Madonna House was mostly characterized by one thing and one thing only, and that was sickness. The flu, which of course has been rampaging around North America, has rampaged around MH with considerable velocity. It is a doozy of a flu this year, and right now in MH everyone except for a few hardy souls is either getting over it, coming down with it, or in bed with it. Such is the nature of our community life, our best efforts at hygiene and sterilization of dishes and such notwithstanding. We live closely together, and an air-borne virus is going to have its way with us, no matter what we do.
What this has meant in terms of our communal life has made for a very quiet week. We have had sleep-ins each morning, basically cancelling morning prayer and beginning our communal day with breakfast. We have had early nights each night, giving those who need it the option to go home after supper dishes and get some extra rest.
We are an exceptionally small community right now, anyhow, with hardly any guests staying with us, so the overall effect right now is a very quiet rhythm of life. Of course, in the midst of all that meals have to be prepared, snow shovelled, laundry done, cows milked, wood chopped, and the like—life goes on, just at this more basic level perhaps, with less extras.
We did somehow in the midst of all this illness scrape together a celebration of the feast of the Epiphany last Sunday. This is a feast redolent with symbolism and rife with customs for us. Because of illness and the funeral of Fr. Duffy which immediately preceded Epiphany, we did simplify our customs, but we managed to pull them off nonetheless.
We have the tradition of the three coins—normally hidden in a lavishly decorated sweet bread, but this year simply hidden under three plates in the dining room—which are then found by three random people in the community. Where this custom exists traditionally, the person finding the coin would be ‘king for a day’. In MH, we know that kingship means service, and so those three people are charged with the service of intercession, and make a holy hour to pray for the community at some point in the day.
We also have the custom of the Epiphany gifts. The three kings brought gifts to the Christ Child; we take this to the next step and understand that He came to bring us gifts, too. So at some point on the feast (this year, at brunch), the three kings (three of our young men) came to distribute the gifts the Child has for each of us this year. This gift is a virtue, a quality, a Gospel word of some sort or other, which we are to take as a gift given, meditate on, and look to practice as the year goes on. I have personally been amazed at how apt these gifts are each year, how they truly are a word from God each year for me and for many. This year for example, I got ‘prudence’, which the good Lord knows is a gift I stand in need of.
Finally, we have the custom in MH of blessing the door lintels on Epiphany with a special blessed chalk. Our lintels, as visitors to MH remark on throughout the year, are marked with the current year, plus the initials C, B, and M. These can stand for the traditional names of the three wise men Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior; they can also stand for the Latin phrase Christus Benedicet Mansiorem – may Christ bless this house.
Our understanding here is that the journey of the magi was a pilgrimage to find Christ. Every time we pass through a door way, even to go from one room to another, we are on a journey of sorts, and our prayer is that all our comings and goings throughout the year become a holy pilgrimage, a constant seeking and finding of Christ in the midst of our lives, in sickness and in health, in ordinary tasks and quiet labor, and in extraordinary circumstances of joy and sorrow as well.
So that has been our week in MH—tomorrow we celebrate it all again in the Byzantine feast of Theophany, but I will tell you about all that next week. Hopefully the flu will have run its course by then, and there will be a little bit more going on here for me to report!
And, of course, in the midst of it all, we in MH are keenly aware of the world and its troubles right now, the violence in France and the terrible problems we all face at this time. Know that we are lifting up the world in prayer through it all, and especially praying for a miracle of peace in our poor troubled times.