Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Prayer of Jesus

Well, I can’t write my usual Sunday wrap-up of ‘This Week in Madonna House’, for the simple reason that I was not around MH this week much at all. Canon law prescribes that Catholic priests make a five-day retreat once a year, so this week was my chance to do that—I stayed on MH property, in one of the small houses we have set aside for such purposes, and pretty much strove for a week of silence and prayer.

In lieu of being able to tell you all the exciting things that went on in MH (of which I am wholly ignorant), I thought I would share from one of the books I brought with me, this fine study of the Jesus Prayer (the repetitive rhythmic praying of the name of Jesus, usually in the form of ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’). It certainly spoke to me very deeply of what I at least am trying to do in my own prayer life, poor as my execution may be on any given day. So here is a little meditation on the power of the name of Jesus, for your Lenten edification:

There are many levels to the ‘prayer of Jesus’. It grows deeper and expands as we discover in the name each new level. It must begin as adoration and a sense of presence.

Then this presence is tested as that of a Savior (for such is the meaning of the name ‘Jesus’). The invocation of the name is a mystery of salvation insofar as it brings with it a deliverance. In uttering the name, we already receive what we need. We receive it henceforth in Jesus who is not only the giver but the gift; not only the purifier, but all purity; not only does he feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, but he himself is food and drink.

He is the substance of all good things (if we do not use this term in a strictly metaphysical sense). His name gives peace to those who are tempted: instead of arguing about temptation, instead of considering the raging storm (that was Peter’s mistake on the lake after his good beginning), why not look at Jesus alone and go to him walking on the waves, taking refuge in his name?

Let the tempted man meditate quietly and pronounce the name without anxiety or feverishness, and may his heart be filled up by this name and serve as a barrier against strong winds. If a sin has been committed, let the name serve as a means towards immediate reconciliation. Without hesitation or delay, let is be pronounced with repentance and perfect charity and it will become at once a sign of pardon.

Jesus will take his place again in the life of the sinner, just as, after his Resurrection, he came back to take his place so simply at the table where the disciples who had deserted him offered him fish and honey.

It is obviously not a question of rejecting or of underestimating the objective means of penance and absolution which the Church offers to the sinner; we are speaking here only of what takes place in the secret reaches of the soul.
The Prayer of Jesus, by a monk of the Eastern Church, pp. 102-103

At any rate, this is a truly great book, and there is lots more where that came from. And know that I was praying for all of you this week, and continue to do so in this season of mercy and penitence.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

This Week in Madonna House - February 14-20

Well, this won't be much of a blog post, I'm afraid. We are in just about one of the quietest periods of the year right now. Oh, there's lots going on (when is there not?), but in terms of special note-worthy events or much at all beyond the daily routines of the departments of MH... no, not too much at all happening.

The weather has been the big driver of work for the men in particular. A big snow storm, followed by extreme cold, followed by a sudden thaw, followed by more extreme cold, and then another thaw... well, you get the drift (pun intended). Lots of snow to move, and then slush to manage so it doesn't flood our basements, and then ice to sand. Rinse and repeat, as this crazy winter keeps see sawing back and forth up and down the thermometer.

The women began the first preparations for Easter with the making of the paska. This is a sweet confection made of cottage cheese, butter, eggs, raisins, and sweetener. All pressed in a mold to make it a rich and frankly delicious part of the Easter feast. It is part of our Russian heritage from Catherine.

We had a little upsurge in the guest population, as universities were all on their 'reading week', and a few students came to spend that time here. This included some grown children of local families who we have watched grow up. Nothing quite like having a young woman be a guest at MH who you clearly remember as a cute little baby to make you conscious of the passage of time.

The guests continue to have their catechism class on Wednesday mornings, while the staff do their study groups on Friday afternoon. We had Foundation Day of Friendship House Harlem--an important historical remembrance for MH, as it was the second stage of the apostolate's founding. Our commemoration of it included a very fine display of a scale model replica of the FH storefront, with historical materials inside it, and a presentation at supper of Catherine telling stories about her time in Harlem working for inter-racial justice and harmony.

Well, that's about it. Like I say, everyone is doing lots of stuff all the time here - don't get the impression that we're sitting around. But it is more or less the usual stuff we're always doing--making a house of love and hospitality so the world can march through our home and (please God) our hearts each day.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

This Week in Madonna House - February 7-13

While I'm suspending the blog during the week for Lent, in a spirit of increased silence and prayer, I will be blogging on Sundays, when our Lenten observances are mitigated. I know that the consistently most popular feature on this blog has been the 'This Week in MH' column, and so I am happy to oblige.

Mind you, I have been away from MH so very much in recent weeks that I am hard pressed to tell you exactly what is going on here. My trip to Regina was immediately succeeded by a weekend retreat for women in Ottawa. Upon getting back to Combermere I have been confronted by such a backlog of appointments and other work that I have barely noticed what anyone else is doing, to be frank! I been a busy busy little boy, in short.

That being said, our week in MH started with pizza, pancakes, football and yuks and ended with ashes and fasting. Yes, it was the great shift into Lent. We have our own little MH version of Mardi Gras, which happened to coincide with Super Bowl Sunday. So we had the annual Pre-Lent Event--a night for everyone to show off their comedy chops with skits, songs, and assorted silliness. I wasn't here for it this year (see above, retreat), but from all accounts it was quite droll.

One of the highlights was a skit involving the three magi trying to get across the Canada-US border and running into all sorts of bureaucratic snags (do you have the right form to bring precious metals into the country? Plant matter?), until their guardian angel appeared and miraculously stamped their passports. This was all deeply amusing to us, as we have had... well, quite a year of difficulties around immigration and border crossings.

The next day was Super Bowl Sunday, and we do have a good number of avid fans in the community. Since it was also the Sunday before Lent, the kitchen went all out and made a delicious pizza supper with home made soda pop, all of which lent itself to a buffet style service, so those who wanted to could watch the game, those who couldn't care less about it could just enjoy the good food. And... yay, Broncos!

Shrove Tuesday was just around the corner, so of course our little Mardi Gras was not quite over, as we enjoyed (and I do mean enjoyed!) the traditional pancake supper for that day.

All of the above shifted tone and content dramatically the next day when we began Lent with an early morning Mass and the distibution of ashes on the forehead. 'The Lenten Spring has come, the time of repentance. O brothers, let us cleanse ourselves from all evil, crying out to the Giver of Life, 'Glory to Thee, O Lover of Man!' This hymn rang out as we began the Church's annual season of repentance and mercy, fasting and prayer and journeying towards the beauty of Easter.

We have no special communal fasting during Lent itself--it is left to the individual and what he or she can do. After all, we have young men doing heavy manual labor in the bush, along with not-so-young members doing much less physically arduous work. We keep serving the same type and amount of food, in other words, and people can figure out themselves what they need to do.

A key Lenten element here is the hymn we sing at Lauds every morning--'Open to Me the Doors of Repentance', which lays out the simple, sad reality of our sinfulness in no uncertain terms ("When I think of the many evil things I have done, wretch that I am, I tremble at the fearful day of judgment"), but always with an immediate turn to the mercy of God ("Like David, I cry to thee, have mercy on me O God, according to your great mercy!").

At the end of Lauds we pray the great Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian. I wrote a whole commentary about it two years ago. It is a great invitation to ongoing humility, reflection, and especially non-judgmental love of one another.

So that is the liturgical scene. In our work life, this week was the annual floor oiling in the dining room. This is the proper care and feeding of the hardwood floor in our main house dining room. It needs a coat of oil each year to protect it from the wear and tear of many, many feet. The carpenters do it in stages so that we can continue to use the dining room during the process, which takes about four days all together, blocking off one half of the room and having us eat in the other half, and then the reverse. It is all a little cramped and cozy--a good chance for us to practice mutual consideration and kindness as we all squeeze in a bit close.

The other major work reality is that, like most of Eastern North America, we are in the grip of severe cold right now. It was - 40 C this morning , according to the thermometer, and that is not counting the wind chill. This kind of weather up in this wilderness requires attentiveness and care about wood fires and the like, and serious care about even going outside for any length of time. This level of coldness can lead to frostbite very quickly indeed.

What else? The men are working (severe cold notwithstanding) in the bush, cutting down trees for fire wood. The MH staff are having their Friday afternoon study groups. This is something we do at this time of year when, at least for most of the community, it is a somewhat quieter season -- take some time during the week to study something or other for personal enrichment. People are doing a wide variety of things this year--everything from folk dancing to knitting to the intersection of science and theology to Pope Francis' writings on mercy to a Catholic understanding of gender issues. We are a really diverse community, and the interests are always quite varied.

As I always say at about this point in this column, I know there's a whole lot more going on, but that's all I can think of. Being away as I have been and taken up with catching up as I have been (unlike most of the community, this is NOT my quieter time of year), this is even more so than usual. Be assured that in the midst of all of it we are praying for all of you and for the world, and striving to offer our lives in service and prayer for and through it all.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Shrove Tuesday

So, what are you giving up for Lent? It starts tomorrow, eh? It is the season for making room, either in your tummy so that God can fill you with Himself without all the richness of the earth filling it, or in your mind by clearing it away of distractions and clutter--so much of that in all of our lives, right?

I am giving up... well, this blog. Just for Lent, as far as I know! It's not that blogging is some terrible thing in my life or is causing me great problems spiritually. I enjoy the blog and have settled into a fairly manageable rhythm with it.

It is just that my real Lenten need this year is a simple one: I need more silence in my life. I know that people have an sort of funny picture of MH that it is a kind of lay monastery where all we do is pray in grand silence all day. It is not... quite like that, really.

My life is a busy one, full of people and obligations each day. I wouldn't have it any other way, and am quite content and peaceful in my vocation. But... I have been feeling the need for more silence, quite acutely, lately. And the simple truth is, the only place in my life I can put more silence in is the place currently taken up with blogging.

I will still blog on Sunday with the weekly round-up of life in MH. Sunday is not 'Lent' in the penitential sense of the word. And I will indeed (as far as I know...) be back at Easter time, continuing with all the series that I am (I admit) kind of abandoning in mid-stream right now.

Be assured of my prayers for you all (my blog and book readers are on my prayer list), and know especially that I pray you all have a Lent that is truly spiritually renewing and enriching. God bless you, and talk to you in April!

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Bigger Part of Reality

Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion;
and to you shall vows be performed, O you who answer prayer!
To you all flesh shall come.

When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions.
Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts.
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, your holy temple.

By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.
By your strength you established the mountains; you are girded with might.
You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples.

Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.

You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges,
softening it with showers, and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness.

The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.
Psalm 65

Reflection – Well, after many, many weeks of a certain kind of psalm—the ‘our enemies are pursuing us to destroy us – help!’ genre, we now have something completely different. Psalm 65 is a psalm of unadulterated praise and thanksgiving, one of the truly great ones on that theme.

It is of course a harvest psalm – the pastures are overflowing and the meadows are clothed with flocks, the valleys with grain. God’s absolute mastery over nature (establishing the mountains, silencing the seas) means that when nature is doing what nature does—multiplying with fecundity so that there is abundant food to be had—it is to God that we render our thanks.

In Madonna House, especially in Combermere here, we are an agricultural people, and so it is easy for us to make this psalm our own. We know very well, as any farmers do, that all the hard work and wise husbandry of soil and seed, flock and herd, can all go for naught if killing frost or withering drought come at the wrong time. So we know that ‘if the Lord does not build the house’ (the field, the barn, the apiary, the bush lot), then ‘in vain do the builders labor’.

In our rural and agricultural context, giving thanks to God is natural, spontaneous, the obvious thing to do. But what about all you city dwellers? Leaving aside the fact that most of you probably ate food today, and that food was probably not grown in a laboratory on the international space station, so somewhere in there a farmer was involved.

But it is true that once you are, like most people in North America, two or three or ten steps removed from the earth (which I personally believe to be one of the root mistakes we have made in our modern society), then the natural awareness that all life is from God and nurtured by God becomes a bit… tenuous, shall we say?

Well, thanksgiving may not flow as obviously or spontaneously, but it should still flow. Look around you, wherever you are now. There is a sky above you, a sun and clouds, moon and stars. There is ground beneath you, even if it covered with asphalt and pavement. There are trees and birds and animals, plants and flowers. And there are people—millions upon millions of them. Each made by God, each a unique reflection of divine life and love. Even the ones who may be distressing you or may be living disastrously bad lives—even them.

All is from God, all comes from His hands and is desired and meant by Him to be used (in the case of things) for the service of love or to be receivers and givers (in the case of persons) of love. The divine bounty flows and flows and overflows, yes, even in the heart of the urban landscape, there are meadows brimming with flowers, pastures decked with flocks, granaries filled with wheat. If we have eyes to see them.

Thanksgiving situates us in the heart of reality, in the largest part of ‘what is’, rather than the narrow confines of ‘what is not’. There is an entire cosmos that simply is—only a small portion of that cosmos that tragically is not. When we burst out in grateful praise and prayer, we are choosing to live in reality, the biggest part of reality, rather than continually placing ourselves in the wound, in the unreality of creation’s incompleteness and brokenness.

Psalm 65 is a grand psalm, then, for all of us, farmers or not, to dwell in the courts of God, His holy temple, which ultimately is the entire heavens and the earth and all that fills them, filled by our Father in heaven out of His love for us and all creation.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Necessary Price Of Freedom

Our Thursday trip through the Mass has brought us now to this part of the Eucharistic Prayer:

Therefore, Lord, we pray: graciously accept this oblation of our service, that of your whole family; order our days in your peace, and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation and counted among the flock of those you have chosen.

I will pass over the part of the prayer asking that our oblation be accepted—this theme has come up repeatedly in the Mass and I have covered it more than once already in this commentary.

This prayer brings in a dimension of our faith that I don’t think I have written about much at all, but which perhaps I should, at least from time to time. It is not the central focus of our faith, but it is part of our spiritual and moral landscape, and we are foolish to ignore it.

That is the whole matter of ‘eternal damnation’. Hell, to be blunt. That there is such a thing, that we can go there, and that in fact we need God’s mercy and grace if we do not wish to go there for all eternity—this is our Catholic faith, the faith of the Bible, the faith of all the fathers and doctors and saints of the Church.

Hell is not, and cannot be, a comfortable subject to think about. I don’t really think it is meant to be. Uncomfortable to think about, and less comfortable by far to end up there, no? But we have to think about it some time.

It is true that in an earlier era there was far too much preaching about Hell, to the point that it really does look like fear mongering. As one of our wise (and funny) MH elders says of his childhood, “It wasn’t so much a matter of going to heaven, as of backing away from Hell, and at some point the pearly gates would slam shut with us on the right side of them.”

Well, that’s not right. Our eyes, our minds, our hearts are to be fixed on the Lord Jesus and His tender, merciful love. The whole attention of our faith is to be on the Gospel, the Good News of salvation, and the path of life and goodness it opens for us. The positive aspect of our religion—healing, forgiveness, salvation, hope—is far bigger and far more central than the negative—sin, brokenness, damnation.

But… these are real things. And we cannot (and if we understand them rightly, should not) wish them away. The reality of Hell is a necessary corollary to the reality of human freedom. God made us to be free. God made us to be creatures capable of knowing and loving Him, and entering into an eternal communion with Him. But knowledge and love cannot, by their very nature, be forced. Love that is forced is not love at all; it is rape.

But if love and knowledge must be freely given and received by us human beings, this means we can, indeed, refuse them. And this is the sum total of what Hell is, what eternal damnation is—we can refuse the gift of God, refuse to enter the eternal communion of love that is the whole substance of our created being, that for which we are made. Hell is a place of eternal frustration, eternal thwarting of the divine purpose in making us.

Now, where we do have to ponder deeply and think of things that make us rather uncomfortable is that our Catholic understanding is that we can say ‘no’ to God under our own freedom and power, but we cannot say ‘yes’ to Him without His grace to assist us. In other words, we can fall (like any dull heavy body) by the power of gravity and our own innate leadenness, but we cannot fly unless our Father in heaven picks us up and tosses us up, up, and away into the celestial heights.

So we not only need to know that there is indeed a Hell and that we can, indeed, go there if such is our choice in life,[1] but that in fact we need to humbly beseech the grace of God, as we do in this prayer, to be spared such a disastrous consummation of our earthly affairs. The good news of course is that Our Father in Heaven loves us very much, wants with His whole divine wanting to deliver us from this sad fate, and in fact sent His Son to die for us so as to make this grace available to all mortal flesh.

So that’s what I have to say on what I admit is a topic I have neglected and probably won’t frequently return to on this blog. I have now, officially, given you all Hell; let us turn our eyes and minds and hearts to heaven and to the mercy and love that streams forth continually from that happy place.

[1] Now, this is a mere single blog post, so I am not going into all the reality of what that choice is, and exactly how to get to Hell and how to avoid it. I recommend reading The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, if you want a clear and concise elaboration, highly readable and (best yet!) brief, on that point.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Works of Mercy: Bearing Wrongs Patiently

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve blogged. My trip out west to give a retreat to some of our MH people in Regina went well, but as always, it’s good to be home.

Our Wednesday trip through the works of mercy has taken us to an interesting one of the spiritual works, namely, to bear wrongs patiently. What’s that about? What does that have to do with mercy? And is that really a good thing? Why should we put up with other people’s failings and bad behavior anyhow? Isn’t that just being a doormat, a patsy, a victim?

It is worth noting, first, that the next work of mercy will be ‘to forgive offenses willingly’. The Church is making a distinction here between things actually done to us as deliberate wrongs (offenses) and simply things that are out of order, not what they should be (wrongs).

This is a distinction that we don’t always quite succeed in making—that between things that simply annoy us, irk us, bug us, and then those things that actually are injuries done to us on purpose. And we can work up quite a little martyr complex for ourselves, based on the fact that people just are not conforming to our (perfectly reasonable, OF COURSE) expectations and standards.

Well, phooey. Of course people don’t live up to your expectations and standards. That’s because they don’t have to. That’s because you’re not God. Take a pill. Settle down. Unclench. This business of bearing wrongs patiently is a fundamental matter of human maturity and a necessary part of living a peaceful life in this world with your fellow man.

People are… well, what they are. Some people talk too much. Others are untidy. Some people have less than ideal hygiene. Others are moody and withdrawn. Some people are indecisive and anxious. Others take charge of every situation, whether that is exactly called for or not. Some people are immature and emotionally volatile; others are grumpy and dour (especially first thing in the morning – yikes!). And… some people are hyper-critical and take careful notice of exactly what everyone else is doing wrong, eh?

In other words, when you’re trying (or not) to bear other people’s wrongs patiently, be aware that they are also having to bear your wrongs patiently, too. A little perspective and perhaps even a sense of humor goes a long way here. We all get on each other’s nerves—this is one of the things you find out, living in religious community as I do. Everyone gets on everyone’s nerves… at least sometimes. ‘There are no compatible people,’ one of our wise elders once said.

The thing with bearing wrongs patiently is that it saves us a lot of time and energy, that we can then devote to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, instructing the ignorant, comforting the afflicted, and so forth. In other words, in itself it is a work of mercy, but it is a work of mercy that chiefly is a matter of not doing something, namely trying to fix everyone and especially to make him stop doing that thing that is SO ANNOYING!!! And in that refraining from action, we free up our cluttered calendar so we can actually do things that do some good in this world.

Now, I’m writing lightly about this matter, because as I say, a little bit of good humor really does go a long way in terms of how to actually be patient with the foibles and shortcomings of those we live. I do know that sometimes the wrongs can be quite difficult to bear and that it can be actually heroic in some cases to live in certain situations. Making light of it is often a good strategy, but of course sometimes we have to go a bit deeper than that.

On the other hand, there can be a tendency to make mountains out of molehills here, to just harp about every little thing that is wrong. And the thing of it is, when we fall into that, then the legitimate works of instructing the ignorant and admonishing the sinner are spoiled—the signal-to-noise ratio gets out of whack. Someone who is constantly complaining and never satisfied with anyone’s efforts is not going to have much luck addressing things that are actual problems that do need addressing. Choose your battles, in other words.

On a deeper level, we have to realize that it is the actual people God has put us with, and specifically those aspects of these people that we might find hard to bear, that are the purifying and sanctifying agents in all of our lives. ‘We are the hairshirts of God for one another’, Catherine Doherty famously observed. The question, she went on to say, is ‘do you love your hairshirt?’

It does help the more we can realize that all the ‘wrongs’ we poor martyred people have to put up with (snort) are in fact there to help us become the saints of God we are meant to be. So we can stop complaining a bit about them, simply accept that we are, in fact, not God, and that other people are not put on this earth to be pleasing to us. And… get on with the real work of the day, which is to love and serve, serve and love, and attend to what God is asking of you and of me, not of them. So, let’s try to do that, today.