Sunday, August 31, 2014

This Week in Madonna House - August 24-30

“After tomorrow, we’ll have three men in the dorm,” one of our long-term guests observed yesterday. This week in Madonna House has been marked by the definite end of summer, not only in some cooler days and chilly evenings, but as the guests who have shared our life have departed one by one to return to school or jobs. A whole group came through just this past week, come and gone.

Such is life in MH, especially at this time of year. The dorms will fill up again, and if past years are any kind of indication, it will be mostly with long-term guests coming for the fall or winter season. People who come at this point in the year generally are planning to stay for awhile. In the meantime, it’s just us and a sprinkling of guests.

While this is all perfectly normal and sensible, it does put the pressure on, just a bit, as the work load does not correspondingly reduce. The farm is in full harvest mode, with the sweet corn finally coming in; the food processors are processing a large donation of tomatoes; the apples are being harvested, too, which at some point soon will mean apple sauce, apple juice, apple butter—a veritable apple-lachia (an apple-lanche?) of work.

With all that, though, the primary focus in MH this week has not been the farm, but has been the annual Heritage Fest, a two-day event we host every Labor Day weekend. It began yesterday and goes today from 1-4 (if anyone reading this is in the area, come on by!).

What is Heritage Fest? It is an exhibition of traditional crafts and artisan works done by the staff and MH, taking place over at our gift shop and handicraft center across the road from our main house. Yesterday the area was packed with people, including many families and kids.

For the latter, there is face painting and balloon animals. There is a bee keeping display, with samples of honeycomb. Today there will be demonstrations of ice cream making. There is pottery being spun on a wheel and fired in a barrel firing, rope-making, felting, wood carving, spinning, and wool crafts of various kinds. Weaving, card making, embroidery are all on display, all of the above staffed with seasoned crafts people eager to share their skills.

Today there will be live music, even, as a group of MH musicians will perform Celtic airs in the open air. And of course the gift shops and pioneer museum are open for business. It really is a great thing, and people were having a lot of fun yesterday. So again, if you’re around here and looking for a Labor Day excursion, come on out to MH.

Of course, while it is all great fun and that’s reason enough, we do (as always) have a deeper purpose in this. Catherine Doherty taught us, and we know this full well from our own lived experience, that there is a deep restoration of the human person that comes from learning how to make things that are not only functional but beautiful. Craftsmanship is a profound aspect of human dignity and achievement. It also builds community and creates friendships, as artists come together to share skills and learn from one another, often being able to transcend cultural, religious, or social differences to do so.

And it makes us love creation, to engage in the solid and intractable realities of wood, metal, and clay, cloth and paper, paint and dye, to learn to work with these materials and their unchanging properties to make them an expression of human meaning and life. All of this has been learned and passed on in our MH handicraft center, St. Raphael’s, and it is a great joy for us to open it up to the general public once a year to share what we have learned.

So that’s about it for what’s happening in MH this week—as always, there is a whole lot of other stuff going on that I don’t hear about until after the fact, usually! I hope you’re all having a great long weekend. You are in our prayers, always.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Weeding the Garden of the Heart

Let us now consider a more or less randomly chosen episode from the Middle Ages, that serves in many respects to illustrate what we have been saying. It was commonly thought that monasteries were places of flight from the world (contemptus mundi) and of withdrawal from responsibility for the world, in search of private salvation. Bernard of Clairvaux, who inspired a multitude of young people to enter the monasteries of his reformed Order, had quite a different perspective on this.

In his view, monks perform a task for the whole Church and hence also for the world. He uses many images to illustrate the responsibility that monks have towards the entire body of the Church, and indeed towards humanity; he applies to them the words of pseudo-Rufinus: “The human race lives thanks to a few; were it not for them, the world would perish...”

Contemplatives—contemplantes—must become agricultural labourers—laborantes—he says. The nobility of work, which Christianity inherited from Judaism, had already been expressed in the monastic rules of Augustine and Benedict. Bernard takes up this idea again. The young noblemen who flocked to his monasteries had to engage in manual labour.

In fact Bernard explicitly states that not even the monastery can restore Paradise, but he maintains that, as a place of practical and spiritual “tilling the soil”, it must prepare the new Paradise. A wild plot of forest land is rendered fertile—and in the process, the trees of pride are felled, whatever weeds may be growing inside souls are pulled up, and the ground is thereby prepared so that bread for body and soul can flourish. Are we not perhaps seeing once again, in the light of current history, that no positive world order can prosper where souls are overgrown?
Spe Salvi 15

Reflection – This paragraph of the encyclical follows upon the previous, asking whether or not hope of salvation and the care of the soul are essentially selfish and individual concerns, and whether or not Christianity is thus essentially a selfish religion. In this historical example of Bernard of Clairvaux’s vision of monastic life, we see the fullest answer possible to this.

Namely, that without the care of the soul, without a concern for one’s own interior purification, the restoration of Paradise within oneself, no real social good or social justice or social restoration can happen. The whole monastic movement in the West was a sort of 'from the inside out' affair—the monks seeking to belong to God and God alone, to dedicate themselves to prayer and work, a consecrated life of virtue and holiness, and from that going out in missionary or apostolic life.

This was, in fact, the way a certain tarnished and abandoned artifice was fashioned in the first place. I refer, of course, to Western Civilization. It was the monks, first from Benedict and then from Cluny and Citeaux, who cleared the land, planted crops, copied ancient manuscripts (both sacred and secular), established schools, cared for the sick, brought the faith to all corner of the Continent and the British Isles—on and on and on. All flowing from this life of intense spirituality and depth of prayer. 

There is very little about the heritage of Western Europe, of which virtually everyone reading this blog has been touched by if not wholly shaped by, that does not have a monastic foundation to it. So much for the idea of monks living selfish lives contributing nothing to the great society!

These celibate men are, in fact, the progenitors of our whole civilization. And this is the chaste fecundity that can be seen over and over again—a life wholly given over to God and to humanity is a life that bears fruit. In fact, it is the only way a life can really be said to be fruitful, regardless of one’s vocation.

“What you do matters, but not much. What you are matters tremendously.” Catherine Doherty said it as well as anyone ever has. It is the great paradox of our faith and of our humanity that unless we tend that garden within, the innermost chambers of the heart where pride and greed and vanity flourish, or faith, hope, and love take root, we cannot tend the garden without—the greater good of society, the needs and challenges of our times—with any success.

That which seems most selfish, most self-seeking, the pursuit of virtue and the battle against vice, is factually the most selfless thing, the necessary work if we are to do any good for anyone ever. A dirty rag cannot clean; a broken tool cannot build. So many efforts to save the world and build a new world order of peace and justice founder because the people doing them are not tending to the weeds of their own hearts’ gardens.

All of this is so utterly relevant to my own MH vocation and how we understand our life here in this corner of the Lord’s garden that I could go on (and on, and on, and on) about it. But that’s quite enough for one day. Let’s go weed our gardens instead, within and without.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Is Christianity a Selfish Religion?

The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of a “city” (cf. 11:10, 16; 12:22; 13:14) and therefore of communal salvation. Consistently with this view, sin is understood by the Fathers as the destruction of the unity of the human race, as fragmentation and division. Babel, the place where languages were confused, the place of separation, is seen to be an expression of what sin fundamentally is.

Hence “redemption” appears as the reestablishment of unity, in which we come together once more in a union that begins to take shape in the world community of believers. We need not concern ourselves here with all the texts in which the social character of hope appears. Let us concentrate on the Letter to Proba in which Augustine tries to illustrate to some degree this “known unknown” that we seek.

His point of departure is simply the expression “blessed life”. Then he quotes Psalm 144 [143]:15: “Blessed is the people whose God is the Lord.” And he continues: “In order to be numbered among this people and attain to ... everlasting life with God, ‘the end of the commandment is charity that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith' (1 Tim 1:5)”[11].

This real life, towards which we try to reach out again and again, is linked to a lived union with a “people”, and for each individual it can only be attained within this “we”. It presupposes that we escape from the prison of our “I”, because only in the openness of this universal subject does our gaze open out to the source of joy, to love itself—to God.
Spe Salvi 14

Reflection – One of the criticisms of Christianity in recent centuries has been that it is a selfish, individualistic religion. It is the isolated person who is saved and enters into the joy of eternal life—the life of humanity, of the community, of society, of the world is of little to no importance. It is all about the cultivation of one’s own soul like a rare hot-house flower and a disregard for building a world of justice and peace. The world can, in fact, go to hell—such is the understanding of Christianity in this critique.

While some forms of Christian theology may well be guilty at least in part of this individualism, Catholic Christianity properly understood has little of it. We are, of course, saved as individuals because that is what we are—each of us stands before God with our personal freedom to say yes or no, to receive or refuse the gift of grace.

But God saves us, as Pope Benedict so surely shows here, by incorporating us into the life of a body of people, into a community, a society, what humanity is made for in the beginning, what has been shattered by sin and selfishness, what He heals and restores in Jesus Christ.

And this is what we really mean by ‘the Church’. It is not some stale institution, some cold bureaucracy, some artificial solely human accretion onto true Christianity added by Constantine or some other caricatured historical villain. The Church is the formal cause of salvation—that is, Jesus saves us by making us members of the people of God, and He sanctifies us by asking us to love one another as best we can in this body of believers.

And of course this body of believers is, by its very nature as Christ’s Body, not concerned only for its own interior life and health. It is a missionary body, at the service of the world and deeply concerned to extend the saving work of Christ, the work of peace and love and unity and justice and mercy, beyond its own visible borders to all lands, nations, to every individual.

Yes, it is a messy business, this Church business. We are all sinners, from the Pope down to the youngest member, and so we hurt one another and make a proper hash of things much of the time. This is part of the sanctifying reality of God’s saving plan. He draws us together into a Body, into the Church, knowing full well that it will be hard exacting work for us to really love one another and really believe, even, that this is what He had in mind.

There will always be the temptation to withdraw into a individualistic and isolated faith, always the temptation to reject the essentially communal and ecclesial nature of salvation. Injured pride and anger—unforgiveness—will always be a wedge the devil is happy to use to separate us from the Body.

We have to be so clear in our minds—God saves us by making us part of the Church; He sanctifies us by calling us to love and to lay down our lives in, for, and with the community. There is no other way, and we reject this plan of God, and the life of the Church, at great and desperate peril to our own salvation, and at a great loss to the mission of Christ and the Church in the world which needs that mission to flourish so badly.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Life, Death, and Life Again

But then the question arises: do we really want this—to live eternally? Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment.

To continue living for ever —endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable. This is precisely the point made, for example, by Saint Ambrose, one of the Church Fathers, in the funeral discourse for his deceased brother Satyrus:

“Death was not part of nature; it became part of nature. God did not decree death from the beginning; he prescribed it as a remedy. Human life, because of sin ... began to experience the burden of wretchedness in unremitting labour and unbearable sorrow. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing.”
Spe Salvi 10

Reflection – The question Pope Benedict raises here—do we want to live forever?—is one that he goes on the answer in the subsequent paragraphs. I have already blogged about those paragraphs—you can find all my posts on the encyclical here.

I have encountered this attitude of not desiring eternal life—there are people for whom the experience of life is so difficult that the idea of just going on and on without any terminus is not a happy one at all. ‘Monotonous and unbearable’ pretty well sums it up.

The basic answer Pope Benedict gives is that we don’t really know at this point what it means to be ‘alive’ in the full sense of the word. Our experience to this point of ‘life’ is partial and contradictory, marred by sin which is death. ‘Eternal life’ is not just endless duration of this mode of ‘life’.

Rather, it is the total possession of happiness, of beatitude, in a single act of being, an elevation of our being to a participation in the life of God through an outpouring of grace, in technical theological language known as the ‘light of glory’, that we simply have not experienced yet in this short earthly life of ours.

So this is the hope we have. In our popular conception of heaven—I’m thinking of cartoon imagery and the like—we are all sitting around on clouds, more or less the same people we were in this life, with the same limited outlook on things and the same emotional responses. That does seem pretty dreary, and I don’t think plunking on a harp would help pass the time all that much, either. Nor does heaven as some kind of endless party attract me (for example). I’m way too much of an introvert for that to be my idea of a good eternity. Parties are nice, and then they end, and that’s a GOOD thing. And endless bacchanal is more my idea of hell than of heaven.

No, heaven is something much bigger, much deeper, much more real than what the traditional images can really communicate to us these days. We simply do not know what it means to live eternally in God’s presence, and in our days when more and more people have essentially ceased to have spiritual lives in any real sense of prolonged prayer and attentive hearts listening to the Holy Spirit, it is more and more difficult to communicate what it is we are talking about.

But the other point he raises in this paragraph is important, too. Life in this mode, even when it is more good than bad, more joy and delight than sorrow and pain, does wear thin after the first eighty or ninety years or so. Sin and the ravages of sin, the effect of which include the breakdown of matter and spirit, the ultimate collapse of the physical structure, do make the arrival of death in its right time more of a mercy of God than a terrible curse.

We are not euthanasiasts ending life precipitously and in violation of the fifth commandment, eradicating suffering at the price of human dignity and purpose. At the same time we are not vitalists, desperately hanging on to bodily organic life at all costs, intervening medically to prolong life long past the point where there is any hope of recovery or improvement of the patient’s condition.

There is a time to simply allow the person to die, to graciously accede to the process of dying in right order. And the reason we can embrace this inevitability of physical death peacefully is because of our hope of eternal life, that there is something quite different awaiting us, that our lives, in a sense, truly begin when this life ends.

As our society ages these questions of life and death become more and more acute, and it truly will be necessary for those of us who are Catholic to get our minds and hearts clear on these delicate and complex matters. We are never to seek death, never to kill, but we are to receive death as a merciful entrance into Life, a gift ultimately given to us by God, so as to usher us over its threshold into this mysterious thing we call heaven and eternity.

Much more could and needs to be said on this subject (for another day…), but that’s all I have time and space for today.