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.