Wednesday, October 22, 2014

How To Convert Sinners

I’m a bit under the weather today—nothing serious, just a bad cold—but it has pretty well scuppered my writing ability. I’ve thought of doing a series on the works of mercy, since this is a hot topic in the Church these days, and remembered that Catherine Doherty did a whole series of talks on them years ago.

So, since I don’t seem to have any words for the moment, here is the lady herself, giving her perspective on how to do the spiritual works of mercy that so often go forgotten these days in all the verbiage about the subject It’s a bit lengthy (but quite delightful), so it’s ‘beneath the fold’, so to speak:

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Place of Silence, and the Tragedy of Its Loss

In the modern world language is far from the world of silence. It springs from noise and vanishes in noise. Silence is today no longer an autonomous world of its own; it is simply the place into which noise has not yet penetrated. It is a mere interruption of the continuity of noise, like a technical hitch in the noise-machine—that is what silence is today: the momentary breakdown of noise. 

We no longer have definite silence and definite language, but simply words that are being spoken and words that have not yet been spoken—but these are present, too, standing around like tools that are not being used; they stand waiting there menacingly or boringly.

Max Picard, The World of Silence

Reflection – I’ve been periodically including bits and pieces of this luminous book on the blog lately. There is something deeply apt about reflecting on the need for silence and the poverty of language that does not come from silence, while writing on the noisy, clamorous, and garrulous world of social media.

More and more in my own life, I see what a prophetic woman Catherine Doherty was when she opened the first poustinia at Madonna House. Poustinia, for those unfamiliar with our MH ways, is a Russian word meaning ‘desert’, but which in the Russian spiritual tradition is a place—a room or a small cabin—where someone goes to be silent, to pray, to read the Scriptures and nothing else, to fast. In the life of the MH community, many of us go to poustinia one day a week, or every other week, or less frequently. A few of our members live in poustinia several days each week--a contemplative presence in the midst of this very active community.

In the 1960s, when the Second Vatican Council was opening, Catherine sensed that the greatest need for the Church and the world in years ahead would be silent, listening hearts, that in these years of revolutionary change in society and in the Church we would need to go into deep silence and allow God to shape our words and our hearts there.

Poustinia is precisely this place where silence becomes not a mere break in noise, not a mere pause for breath between our words, but a Place unto itself, a reality in itself filled with meaning and import.

I believe firmly that there is a greater need for poustinia in the world in 2014 than there ever has been. The technological revolution has created a world that is literally filled with noise, with words. Children today can grow up, if there parents choose to allow them, without virtually no silence, no empty space in their lives, as the constant hum and beep and swirl of electronic devices fills up every solitary second of our time.

The loss in this is calamitious. Interiority, depth of reflection, capacity to know and hear God, ability to create a unique word of one’s own—all washed away in the constant stream of information and entertainment coming to us through incessant social media and games.

Essentially what is lost is our humanity and its deepest expressions. We are reduced to the level of the animal, constantly responding to stimuli, driven by raw desires and instinct. Worse yet is our reduction to consumers, where everything and everyone is made into an object for our use, stripped of any transcendent personal value in the process. This is worse than animalistic; it is in truth demonic.


Meanwhile, silence beckons us. Poustinia, however we may find our way of expressing that, beckons us. A place, a way of being, that is so utterly simple: simply me, simply God, simply nothing else. And yet in that simplicity a whole world is restored to us—the world of real values and real personal engagement. The world where, in the words of W.H Auden, “Everything is a Thou and nothing is an It.” 

Technology tends to invert that so that everyone is an ‘it’ and never a ‘thou.’ The conversion to silence is one that I believe we all need to make, and the need for it may only grow more and more urgent in the years to come. May we all find our way to the world of silence and let it teach us what it has to teach.

Monday, October 20, 2014

An End To 'Us' And 'Them'

Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is no one who does good.

The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.

They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.

Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon the Lord?

There they shall be in great terror,
for God is with the company of the righteous.
You would confound the plans of the poor,
but the Lord is their refuge.

O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.
Psalm 14

Reflection – This psalm often comes up in discussions of why one should not randomly quote isolated bible verses to prove a point. After all, the Bible itself says ‘There is no God’!

Leaving aside that rather cute way of demonstrating the folly of proof-texting, this is one of the grimmest of the psalms, one we may genuinely have a hard time praying. Personally, I know several people who ‘do good’, at least once in a while. In fact, I am blessed as a priest and a member of Madonna House to be in constant contact with many, many people who pour out their lives and energies in works of mercy continually.

So how do I pray this psalm? This is a good example of how, in our prayer, we are not to only be praying as individuals about our own subjective experience. In prayer, we are to be in solidarity with all humanity, in all of its situations.

And this psalm certainly does closely correspond to the situation of many people. We can think of people victimized by historical atrocities like the Holocaust or the killing fields of Cambodia. We can think of people living in situations of terrible abuse and violence, extremities of poverty and injustice, desperation in its many forms.

And of course we can certainly think of people suffering right now under the violence and fanaticism of ISIS, for example. It could well be that this psalm would fit almost perfectly for such people, being eaten up as bread by evildoers. And we can pray this psalm with and for them, a cry for deliverance, entreaty to the Lord to save them.

The other way to pray this psalm is as a check against our own too ready complacency. I am pondering this much these days—one lesson I have personally derived from the tensions around the Synod on the family is that I cannot—we cannot—declare ourselves to be ‘the good people’, while those other people who have made morally wrong choices are ‘the bad people’.

No. We’re all just people, and are any of us truly wise, truly seeking God, truly not astray in any big or small way? We all need deliverance. We all need a savior. Whether our lives are hellish nightmares of violence and terror or essentially comfortable, whether we are living with a certain measure of moral order and sanity or in grave disorder and sin, no matter what—there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, no ‘good guys and bad guys’, none of that nonsense.


Just a bunch of human beings who God loves, who need His mercy, and who are offered His mercy over and over again. And this psalm brings us there, in its rather blanket dismissal of humanity as being of no great account. It is the Lord and his saving work that makes us glad and rejoice, not our own rather fragile virtue. And the Lord’s saving work is anything but fragile, but is strong and abiding and inexhaustible, offered for all people, everywhere, no matter what.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

What Does Mercy Mean, Anyway?

‘Mercy’ has been the word of the day in many corners of the Church. What does it mean to be merciful, anyway? Does it mean that we stop teaching doctrines that have been intrinsic parts of the Catholic faith for 2000 years? Does it mean we never say anything to hurt anyone’s feelings? Does it mean we reverse 2000 years, again, of consistent practice and invite everyone unconditionally to the reception of the Eucharist?

Or does it means we essentially stay the course on these matters (which is my own firm belief), that we are to teach boldly and fearlessly the truth of God about sex, marriage, and family life, and continue to patiently explain why there is a connection between reception of the Eucharist and freedom from mortal sin?

But if that is the case, what does mercy mean, exactly, in that context? This is where I think we have to take very seriously that our Holy Father is calling the Church to examine the question of mercy, the call to mercy more deeply. My own firm belief is that the conversation has been utterly sidetracked by the question around communion and the related issues around annulments. It is not principally a juridical question, a matter of rules to be changed and ‘policies’ to be re-evaluated.

Mercy is not a policy. Mercy is not a program. Mercy is not something that a bunch of old guys in Rome (with all respect to them) are going to discuss, process, chop up, and then issue as a position paper or even as an apostolic exhortation, and then we will have dealt with the mercy question in the Church.

Mercy, and the call to be merciful, is something much deeper, much more personal, much more intimate. It is a call from the Lord Jesus to each one of us, a call that invites us into a Christian maturity, a level of commitment and engagement in the mission of the Church that is far beyond what many of us feel comfortable with or equipped for.

We want to just be told the rules, and then we have the rules, and then we keep the rules, and tell everyone else the rules, and if other people break the rules we can judge them, and it’s all nice and clear and simple. And spiritually infantile. Mercy calls us to become adult men and women driven by a deep concern for the salvation of souls and so engaged at every level of our being—our minds, our hearts, our bodies, our worldly goods—in what is factually good for the one in front of us, what this person needs right now from me.

I wrote a whole book on this subject, which some people at least have found helpful. Towards the end I pose the question ‘what does it mean to be merciful, anyway?’ This is what I wrote:

The life of mercy: our home away from home, the way home itself, and the constant choice that brings us there. The awesome inestimable reality of God’s mercy, the truth of His tender love and compassion, given to us so we can give it to others. And yet, as I have often said throughout this book, how hard it is for us to believe in this, to really accept it, to absorb it into our very being.

“The problem is that we cannot absorb this. This is how it seems to me. And the only way we can try to absorb it is to act like He does.”  Oh, so that’s the key! We can only absorb this deep truth of mercy by practicing it ourselves. To be merciful, as the Lord reveals to us, is blessedness itself, since it is by being merciful that we absorb the awesome joyous truth of God’s mercy to us, and are opened to receive this mercy into the depths of our being.

To be merciful – what is it? What does it mean to be merciful? Well, I don’t think it’s complicated. It is to be as generous as we can with whatever share of life’s goods we possess; it is to honestly try to refrain from judgments, harshness, accusation of our neighbors; it is to forgive our enemies from our hearts; it is to strive to become free of all anger, hatred, jealousy, bitterness, violence. To be merciful: it is the life of joy and freedom and beauty, even now, even while we still wait outside that final Door.
Going Home, 126-7

The sharing of our goods certainly includes the bold proclamation of the Gospel—our faith is the greatest good you or I have been given, right? It also includes being very generous indeed with our possessions. What are we doing to help people in difficult situations—unwed mothers, and the like? Anything? Teach, yes, but don’t be in the position of the lawyers who ‘put heavy burdens on men’s back and lift not a finger to help them.’

But in all that teaching, to truly, honestly, and deeply not judge people. Yes, there is truth, good, evil, and these are objective realities. But people are confused today, and the moral law is anything but clear to many millions of people. So don’t judge anyone’s conscience—period. Cut it out, right now! Neither you nor I nor the Pope nor anyone besides God Himself knows what is happening in the depths of anyone’s heart and mind, even if we do know that their choices are wrong and harmful.

And to live free of anger, hatred, bitterness—that is so crucial. We have to guard our hearts constantly against this. A person who presents Gospel teaching and the moral good with anger and contempt and scorn is… well, not very effective. And, honestly, not doing such a crack job in living out what they are teaching, either.


Mercy—it’s the word of the day, and it’s a serious word, a vital word, a word that pushes and pulls us into a depth of following of Christ, a depth of Christian maturity and evangelical generosity. Let us strive for it, not be distracted by misuses of the word, but reclaim it as the heart of the Gospel (which it is) and live it out today, as best we can.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

This Week in Madonna House - Oct 12-18

This week in Madonna House was a quiet one, as these things go. The weather, while unseasonably warm earlier in the week, was for the most part deeply overcast. As I write this it is raining and windy, and the remaining autumn leaves are flying fast off the trees. The warmth has fled, and all over MH wood stoves are being lit more and more, the curl of smoke arising from houses and cabins in all directions.

The farm is heading into the final tasks of the growing season--with the butchering all done last week, this week was meat-cutting, fat-rendering, bones cooked down to soup stock. The last of the root crops are coming in, and there is a general sense on the farm of the page being turned, another chapter ended, and the next chapter--a wintry one--yet to be opened.

At the main house we mostly spent the week waiting around. Our main septic field needs to be overhauled--tank and lines replaced--and this will shut down the house, and particularly the kitchen, for the day. The plan (and I devoutly hope to be able to tell you how it worked next week) is that we will all have lunch, Mass, and supper together at St. Mary's on the day it happens. While this is quite manageable, really (it's just a matter of 40-70 people being fed in a different location), the difficulty has been (home owners will know what I'm talking about) that the contractors have been unable to tell us exactly what day they are coming.

So it was supposed to be Tuesday... and then it was Thursday... or maybe Friday... and now it is Monday. Of course this has meant the kitchen has had to plan its menus and its work under rather difficult circumstances! A case of literally not knowing where our next meal is coming from. So it's been 'one of those weeks' - lots of Plans A, B, and C, and associated schedules and duty rosters to juggle in consequence.

However, the real important events in MH this week were two in number. First, we had Canadian Thanksgiving on Monday. While we don't do the full turkey dinner with all the trimmings, we had a lovely meal, and everyone had gathered to make apple pies beforehand. One of the women had cut out 'leaves' from coloured paper, and we were invited to write down something we were thankful for and pin it onto a large display board. Alongside what one might expect to see--'God', 'my faith', 'the Eucharist'--there were some quirky ones: 'the bats in the Craigmont caves, which means we have a healthy eco-system,' for example.

Personally, I had a hard time narrowing it down. As I explained in the homily that evening, it's not that I'm not grateful for anything, but that it's genuinely hard for me to think of anything I'm not grateful for. I finally settled on the Scriptural formula: 'the heavens, the earth, the seas and what fills them.' Otherwise, we had some lovely readings at Lauds, at our post-lunch spiritual reading, and at supper where one of the guests dressed up as Eddie Doherty, Catherine's husband, and read in a passably good imitation of him from one of his books about the beauty of creation and his joy in it.

The other event was on Wednesday, October 15. This is the Foundation Day of our apostolate, commemorating Catherine's first going into the slums of Toronto to live with the poor and serve them. This was the rock-bottom beginnings of our apostolate, before there was even a community joining her, and long before there were promises or structures or anything of the kind. Just a woman in her late 30s giving everything she owned away to the poor and moving into a ratty little room in a Toronto slum street. She didn't know what she was doing; she had the words God had given her that we now call the Little Mandate, and not much else.

So we heard about this throughout the day. One of our applicants put together a presentation of some of her recollections and stories from those early days. The library put up a display which included a diorama someone made of that little room she started in with its bare brown walls and a few nails for her clothes to hang on. Another version of Thanksgiving for us, following on the first.

So that's about it for us this week. Our numbers of guests remains small, which makes it both a quieter time on one level, and a busier time on another (fewer hands to do the work). But in all of it, please know that we pray for you, for the world, for the Church, and for all God's children to be united in praise, thanksgiving, and faithfulness in his service.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Not Wicked, Just Wrong

Well, this will be my last blog post on the interim report of the Synod. The Synod itself is moving on past that phase, and the Internet with its usual goldfish-like attention span has gone in a few days from ‘It’s the end of the Church as we know it! The mark of the Beast is nigh!’ to ‘Report? Was there some report? Oh yeah…’ It is perhaps salutary for us to remark on that not infrequent dynamic in modern life whereby yesterday’s apocalypse becomes today’s footnote. Surely when the actual apocalypse comes we will be able to focus our minds on it for more than 72 hours, don’t you think?

I have concluded in all this kerfuffle that I must have some kind of anti-alarmist prejudice. I have indeed read various things written about just how terrible the report is. I… just am not seeing it, folks. I can’t join the panic party – I just… can’t. Partly, I know that I am not reading a Church document with any binding authority. So I can just read it. I don’t have to obey one word in this document (nice!).

It is not a perfect document. It is awfully poorly written, for one thing, which as a professional writer offends me more than perhaps it would someone else. Language should not just communicate truth, but also beauty, and this report is written by someone who has a tin ear for language, for sure.

There is an emphasis on the positive that may strike some as polyannaish, if not worse. More could have been said on the harm done by the morally wrong choices people make in their intimate relationships, especially when those immoral choices become constituent parts of those relationships (i.e. ‘living in sin’).

But the document is not—repeat, not—ignoring Catholic doctrine in favor of accommodation and relativism. Here is the paragraph which I believe is the guiding principle the report is proposing:

In this context the Church is aware of the need to offer a meaningful word of hope. It is necessary to set out from the conviction that man comes from God and that, therefore, a reflection able to reframe the great questions on the meaning of human existence, may find fertile ground in humanity’s most profound expectations. The great values of marriage and the Christian family correspond to the search that distinguishes human existence even in a time marked by individualism and hedonism. It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations. This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy.

OK, not well written. But the point is clear: people have within them a desire for goodness, for love, for meaning. Yes, they make terribly wrong choices based on the fact that our desires have gone badly awry (the document is weak on that point, I will grant).

But our pastoral outreach to people must be based on the fact that everyone is searching for something good, something true, something real. I have always firmly believed, my life experience and priestly ministry have confirmed, and I will go to my grave insisting, that there is very little actual wickedness in this world.

The people who deliver themselves over to monstrous evil do disproportionate damage and tend to generate a lot of headlines. The vast majority of people are not wicked; they (we) are blind. Not wicked, but weak. Not wicked, but terribly wounded. Not wicked, just wrong. And it’s all of us together—there are no ‘good people over here’ and ‘bad people over there’ – or if there is, it is strictly and exclusively the business of God to sort that out (cf. Matthew 25).

And so this paragraph, and the report that follows upon it, counsels that we both teach the doctrine of the Church regarding sex, marriage, and the family, and be merciful in so doing. It is not either-or; as always in things Catholic, it is both-and. That is how I read the report, and that is how I intend to carry on in my own priestly ministry and meager attempts to follow Christ.

Regarding the word ‘gradualism’, about which I may write more if I can find the time, space, and sanity to do so (my life is a wee bit hectic of late), I recommend this woman’s story as an example of gradualism working as it should. It is, by definition, a messy business—conversion, that is. Moral progress, that is. Hard to make sweeping generalized statements about; best left to the individual work of pastors and penitents and all us sorry sinners together.

In conclusion to this subject, let us be mindful above all of the call to pray for one another, of the commandment to be charitable to one another (when Christ said ‘Love one another as I have loved you’, I don’t think he added ‘But not if the ‘other’ is a bishop or cardinal – then you can be as mean and nasty as you please’), and to above all have a concern in deep humility for our own following of Christ, our own fragility and proneness to fall into sins of all kinds—pride, anger, judgment, vainglory, as well as the sins of the flesh—and to keep our eyes, minds, and hearts fixed on the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ, from which flows an infinite and endless stream of mercy, blood red and water pure, which is the healing and salvation of all humanity. Amen.