Sunday, June 28, 2015

Playtime is Over

As I mentioned yesterday, I am heading out to Cana Colony later today for a week of ministry to families. So I won’t be blogging this week. I did want to post this, though.

I am thinking particularly of my many American readers who of course have had to face the Supreme Court decision legalizing same sex marriage earlier this week. My own thoughts on this issue I have expressed extensively on this blog, and have no need or desire to go into all over again.

Rather, I want to share this article from 1966 by Catherine Doherty, which I think takes the whole question to a much deeper level, a much more vital and essential point than this or that social issue or moral crisis. So I leave this with you as I leave to go and serve the families at Cana, asking for your prayers for them and for all families trying to live the Gospel in these difficult days:

Saturday, June 27, 2015

This Week in Madonna House - June 20-26

This week in Madonna House was family week, with the central event being our annual Cana cleaning bee, which involved almost everyone in some capacity. What is the Cana cleaning bee, you may ask?

Well, MH runs a camp for families. I’ve probably mentioned it before, but for those who don’t remember, it is the one apostolate we do that is the direct result of a papal mandate. Without going into the whole story, Catherine Doherty in 1951 had a private audience with Pope Pius XII. Among other things, he asked her to always remember the family in her apostolate, since the fate of the family, the fate of society, and that of the Church are all interwoven in an unbreakable bond.

Coming back to Canada, she initially simply added a ‘Family Week’ to the already existing MH summer school, but within a few years and under the guidance of Fr. John Callahan (MH’s first priest and Catherine’s spiritual director) who had some prior experience in family ministry, the present Cana Colony was built. It now runs for six weeks each summer, has room for up to nine families each week, and has been a source of grace and beauty for hundreds of families over the decades.

Cana is a rustic family experience. If you think of it as staying in a hotel, you will be sorely disappointed, but if you think of it as camping it is actually very plush. There are eight one-room cabins and a tent site in a rough circle around a large field. A chapel is at one end of the circle, two cook-shacks at the other. It is only these latter that have electricity and running water, the families sharing stove, counter, and sink space to prepare meals, etc., while each has its own shelf, fridge, and table.

A beautiful lake is just off this main compound. It has a shallow, gently sloping bottom, perfect for little ones to splash around safely. There is a giant sand pit where toddlers have been known to play for hours on end, a volleyball court and a soccer pitch.

So much for the physical layout. We have found that the whole thing together works really well both for bringing the family together (nothing like sharing a one-room cabin for a week for that!) and bringing the families together into a community (the facility is smallish, and people really do get to know each other over seven days).

The schedule is simple—Mass in the morning, a conference for parents in the afternoon, an optional rosary in the evening. And… that’s it, basically. Cana is a place of peace and great beauty, unstructured family time, and a real chance to simply let the world go (no electronic devices allowed!) and be together with God in God’s creation.

Well, all of the above needs to be cleaned, organized, and set up. The woman who is responsible for Cana has been working away at all that for some weeks, but virtually the whole community went out to give her a hand, to scrub and scour, polish and pain, fix and trim and mow every corner of the place. It is a wonderful day each year, when MH comes together as a family to work for families in this very focused way.

Cana itself will start on Sunday. Incidentally, I will be the priest there for that first week, so will not be blogging.

Other than that, it’s been a pretty ordinary week. The farmers are farming—the hay is being brought in as I write—and the gardeners are gardening. An invasive species of bug called a ‘rose chafer’ has attacked our apples trees the last few years, and since we will not use pesticide sprays we have to remove them one by one, by hand. So this has been a job for many hands.

It is a bit of a sad job this year, since a hard frost in May wiped out our apples this year, so the trees are barren. Apples are the one fruit that does grow in this area, so this is a most unfortunate happening.

Otherwise our lives continue on with much labora and hopefully adequate ora to make it all fruitful. Be assured of our prayers for you all as you go about whatever your summer holds.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

I Am

My brothers and sisters, let us acknowledge our sins… I am writing a weekly commentary on the Mass and how it pertains to, shapes, our everyday life. So we have now gotten to the penitential rite. 
Last week I talked about how in the ritual greeting we express our desire that the whole body of believers be gathered into a place of grace, love, and communion, and by extension the whole human race as well.

Now we acknowledge frankly and freely that we have failed to live this out very well since the last time we came to Mass. I confess… that I have greatly sinned… in my thought, words, what I have done, failed to do… through my fault… my very great fault… pray for me… Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.

We all know the drill. Right at the outset of the sacred mysteries of the liturgy, we are asked by the Church to be humble and simple and admit that we’re not such hot stuff, not doing such a great job of it. This humility is then the right space to occupy so as to let God do what He is going to do in the action of the Mass.

It is worth noting that all of us do this together—the priest is praying the exact same prayers here as the laity. Sometimes people who don’t like the Church accuse us of using guilt and shame as tools of control, keeping people down by telling them what horrible sinners they are. This is pretty far removed from actual contemporary Catholic culture, although I suppose there may have been some of that in an earlier era, at least in some places.

But this ritual expression of sin and our need for mercy is not that, but is a simple reflection of reality. We are all capable of thinking and saying and doing what is wrong and not doing what is right, and not just capable of it but guilty of it to some degree. So why try to hide it?

Living out the penitential rite in our daily lives would transform the world. I am always reminded of GK Chesterton’s contribution to an essay contest one of the London newspapers was having entitled “What’s Wrong With the World?” People could submit whatever they liked on that topic. GKC’s contribution read as follows: “Dear Editors: In response to your question ‘What’s Wrong With the World’, I am. Sincerely…”

Well, that’s it. I am. We live in a world where finger pointing, shaming, the judgment and outrage machine is running 24/7. It’s the Republicans’ fault. It’s the Democrats’ fault. It’s the feminists’ fault. It’s the white man’s fault. On and on and on it goes. What’s wrong with the world? You! And you, and you, and you… and I’m just getting started here.

What’s wrong with the world? I am. I do not love as I should. I do not give as I should. I am not as wise and prudent, self-controlled and compassionate, just and brave as I should be. It’s my fault, folks! Lay the blame at the feet of Fr. Denis Lemieux – I am the problem.

This is actually a path to great freedom and joy and simplicity of heart. When I no longer feel the need to defend my every decision as being unimpeachable, when I no longer need to deflect the blame for the world’s sorry state onto someone else—anyone else!—when I no longer spend all my energy looking for big enough stones to throw at whoever the latest poor schmuck is who has been ‘caught in the act’ of whatever (cf. John 8), but instead just say, “You know, I’m not perfect, I’ve kind of messed up a lot, and I want to try to do better,” it is amazing how much more peaceful that is.

This is really where the Internet in particular fuels truly toxic spiritual attitudes. There is always someone, somewhere who has just been ‘caught in the act’ of doing or saying something wrong.  Whether it’s some doofus scientist making a tasteless joke about women in the lab or some TV reporter being snooty to the person who towed her car or whatever the ‘outrage of the week’ is, there’s always someone. And once we’ve decided to forego our own personal penitential rite, we can spend all day and all night chasing after the latest victim, the scapegoat of the day, pelting them not with stones but with tweets and getting them fired or whatever.

There is no end to it. Or rather, the only end to it is to say that I am not perfect, and to live that out by not being so horribly judgmental and accusatory towards everyone else. That is what the Church is getting at by starting each Mass with the penitential rite—let’s all just get down on the same level, which happens to be reality, that we are all struggling sinners who do not get it right.

And from that we can rise with Jesus to the action of grace, the action of God pulling us up from our sins and helping us to live in such a way that we don’t sin any more. Live in the Spirit, live in His Heart, and so love with His Heart. But that won’t and cannot happen so long as we are denying our sins and furiously blaming everyone else for everything else.

What’s wrong with the world? I am. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

How To Make a Real Splash

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.
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

Be hidden. With this line of the Mandate, we come to an aspect of MH spirituality and life that sometimes annoys our friends and supporters, and even ourselves on a bad day. This call to live a hidden life is so utterly counter-cultural in the North American scene.

In North America, bigger means better, and if you want to have an effect on things, you have to make a splash. You have to market, advertise, have publicity, generate buzz. This is not new in our culture, but the Internet and social media have made democratized and universalized the phenomenon and its attendant ethos.

It’s all about going viral now. And the people who ‘count’, the ones who make a difference, are the ones who capture the spotlight and command the big speaker’s fee, the celebrities, the big names.

To all of this, MH says, basically, ‘No thanks!’ Partly it is because we just don’t believe that that’s how it works. After all, in the words of Paul Simon “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts,” and yet somehow the world doesn’t really change all that much from generation to generation. Making a big splash generates lots of noise and ripples, but does it really effect a sea change?

Meanwhile, I cannot tell you how often we get letters in MH from people basically saying the same thing: “I spent a week in your community in 1975. It has shaped my whole life, and I think about my time there and your way of life constantly.” Our life is so ordinary—in an hour’s time I will be kneeling on the floor of the chapel, waiting for Morning Prayer to start; then we have breakfast (oatmeal and yogurt… again!).

Then we go to work—today pretty much the whole community is working out at Cana Colony to get it ready for the families coming there. Lunch happens, and then Mass and supper and then various evening chores… and repeat tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day…

An ordinary, simple life revolving around love of God (prayer, worship) and love of neighbor (humble service, hospitality and friendship). And it’s not all that different in our eighteen mission houses.

It is our firm but simple belief that it is that, and not generating buzz, that changes hearts, and that it is changing hearts that changes the world. We’re not opposed, exactly, to publicity—after all, I am writing this blog, we do publish books, and just made a series of videos about our MH life. It’s just that we know that the real action of our life is not there, but in the direct and basic choices we make (or alas, don’t make) to love and serve in the duty of the moment.

Mind you, our choice to ‘be hidden’ is not exactly based on everything that I just wrote. Fundamentally, it is a matter of obedience to God. He is the one who has ‘hidden’ MH—first by planting us in the Upper Ottawa Valley which is hard to get to (harder all the time as they keep cutting down bus service to rural areas in Canada), and second by keeping us a small and humble community. We are getting vocations, thanks be to God, but it seems that our incoming vocations, balanced with the deaths of our older members and the inevitable departures from the community, are just enough to keep us at a stasis of about 200 members.

Which is enough for us to live our MH life in all its glorious hidden ordinariness, which seems then to be exactly what God wants for us. We have also all had the experience here that, even when we do get a moment in the spotlight, when there is some brief moment of ‘publicity’ that comes our way, it a) doesn’t last; and b) doesn’t really matter. God has made it clear to us that MH’s real work and real effectiveness happens when nobody is looking at us and we ourselves don’t even know what’s going on. We’re as much hidden from ourselves as from anyone else.

Oh, it’s all so gloriously counter-cultural, such a wonderful contrast to the desperate quest for fame and fortune that dominates our world today. And it is the very pattern of Christianity, of course. Bethlehem, Nazareth, Golgotha, the empty tomb—who knew about these things? The world was saved, and the world continues to be transformed, not by power but by love, and love is an affair hidden deep in the soul of the human person.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Enemies At The Sickbed

 Blessed is the one who considers the poor!
 In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him;
 the Lord protects him and keeps him alive;
he is called blessed in the land;
you do not give him up to the will of his enemies.

 The Lord sustains him on his sickbed;
in his illness you restore him to full health.
 As for me, I said, “O Lord, be gracious to me;
 heal me, for I have sinned against you!”

 My enemies say of me in malice,
“When will he die, and his name perish?”
 And when one comes to see me, he utters empty words,
while his heart gathers iniquity;
when he goes out, he tells it abroad.

 All who hate me whisper together about me;
they imagine the worst for me.
 They say, “A deadly thing is poured out on him;
he will not rise again from where he lies.”
 Even my close friend in whom I trusted,
who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.

 But you, O Lord, be gracious to me,
and raise me up, that I may repay them!
 By this I know that you delight in me:
my enemy will not shout in triumph over me.

 But you have upheld me because of my integrity,
and set me in your presence forever.
 Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting!
Amen and Amen
Psalm 41

Reflection – This psalm is entitled, often, in psalters and breviaries ‘a psalm in time of sickness.’ That may well be; as usual, there is more going on here than just someone with a tummy ache or a bad back. Most of us do not, at least in any visible way, have our ‘enemies’ gather around our sickbed to taunt us and lift their heels against us.

With all respect, I do sometimes wonder at the world the psalmists lived in – they certainly seem to be surrounded by a whole lot of not nice people. On the relatively rare occasions when I am sick, I get surrounded not by people shouting in triumph over me, but by people bringing me chicken soup and the like.

That being said… on the other hand this is exactly what happens to us when we are weak and vulnerable, failing and frail in life. It Is maybe not human enemies who surround us with taunts and gibes, but serious illness is a time of spiritual peril and temptation. Chronic pain and long protracted weakness leave a person prey to all sorts of vicious spiritual attacks: “Just give up… what good is your life… you are accursed… lie down and die…” And so on and so forth. At times it may be our own diseased thought processes; at times it may genuinely be attacks from the one true Enemy of humanity.

One of the great effects of the Sacrament of the Sick is that it unites the suffering one to Christ in his or her illness, and so does exactly what this psalm says, pours out the graciousness of God to the person so that this Enemy may not shout in triumph over them.

At the same time, this psalm speaks to just how evil the whole euthanasia movement is. Call it assisted suicide or whatever—it is euthanasia. Sickness is a time of temptation and spiritual struggle. 
The dying process is fraught with terrible battles against despair, against all sorts of tragic lamentations and desperate combat against not just physical death but the deeper spiritual death—the death of faith, the death of hope, the death of love.

To have the doctor who is supposed to be caring for you standing over you with a needle saying constantly in the midst of these battles “We can end this all now, you know!” is pure evil, even if the intentions are in fact kindly. To have the government—which let us not forget means you and I—standing at the bedside of the person saying “Hey, why don’t you just kill yourself?” is simply wicked.

So perhaps this psalm is not so remote and odd after all. We are surrounded by spiritual enemies in our sicknesses, and now more and more are surrounded by human enemies in (alas!) the members of the very profession who are supposed to be helping us and the society who is supposed to cherish us support us.

So in the light of that, let us pray for all the sick and turn to God in our own ailments, that he deliver us all from evil and raise us up in the sight of our foes. Amen.