Sunday, April 19, 2015

Little Way on the Prairies

So, I left off on the blogging for a few days – my week at the St. Therese Institute in Bruno SK was very blessed and wonderful, but also very full indeed, and by the latter days of the week, my energy was pretty much taken up by the life and work there.

I normally do a ‘this week in Madonna House’ wrap-up around the weekend, but since I wasn’t at MH at all, I would rather talk about STI and what I experienced there. I don’t usually highlight places I go and things I do on this blog, but I would like to share a bit about this remarkable place.

The St. Therese Institute for Faith and Mission has been operating since 2007, in a former Ursuline convent in Bruno SK, about one hour west of Saskatoon. It has two aspects, the School of Faith and Mission, and the Healing and Growth Center. I was involved with the first, and so will only mention the second. The Center runs healing retreats and prayer ministry throughout the year, and I have heard nothing but good about it.

I was involved with the school of faith and mission, and was wildly impressed with it. This is a nine month program for young adults of intensive faith formation. As of a year ago, it is a two-year program, although the majority of the students only do the first year, and it is complete unto itself.

The young people live in community. They have a series of courses throughout the year on Catholic doctrine, Scripture, apologetics, spirituality. They have a vibrant life of prayer—morning prayer and Mass, adoration and rosary, praise and worship every day. They have personal individual spiritual and pastoral guidance and accompaniment.

The spirituality is very much the Little Way of St. Therese, with a healthy dose of MH spirituality (Poustinia and People of the Towel and Water are part of the core curriculum). Jim Anderson, the director of the school and a long-time friend of MH, explains that St. Therese teaches us what to live; Catherine Doherty explains how to live it. There is also a strong Ignatian component to the formation, with significant formation on the principles of discernment.

This was my second year out there, offering a week-long class to the second year students on the theology of liturgy and worship. The first six months of the program they have longer ‘semester’ style courses; the last three months they have intensive week-long ones. The first years, for example, had a seminar on ecumenical dialogue and apologetics. This coming week, the first years will have the first of two weeks on Ignatian discernment; the second years will have adult catechetics.

It is a wonderful place! The spirit is lively, joyful, free and fun. The students are a very impressive group—the second years who I was with were engaged, serious, thoughtful, and very sharp.


There are many great things happening in the Canadian Catholic scene right now – CCO, NET ministries, the Companions of the Cross, the Franciscans of Halifax, just to name a few (and, ahem, Madonna House plugging away with our Nazareth life in the midst of them all). But add to the mix St. Therese Institute—a prime example of the New Evangelization, and a serious formator of young Catholics seeking to be part of the New Evangelization. It can easily grow and accommodate many more students than they currently have (about 35 this year between the two years), and I just wanted to share with my blog readers this fine formation program for young Catholic adults on the Canadian prairies.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Putting An End to Nonsense.

After taking a break from it last week for Easter, I do want to get back to the Pope’s examination of conscience for the Roman Curia, even though it is starting to feel like a long time ago (years and years ago, in internet time). I am a stubborn contrarian, though, and have the weird idea that things don’t cease to be relevant because they were spoken or written sometime before last week. The speech continues to be a good examen for all of us for our lives.

We are up to disease number twelve out of fifteen. This is the “disease of a lugubrious face. Those glum and dour persons who think that to be serious we have to put on a face of melancholy and severity, and treat others – especially those we consider our inferiors – with rigour, brusqueness and arrogance.

“In fact, a show of severity and sterile pessimism are frequently symptoms of fear and insecurity. An apostle must make an effort to be courteous, serene, enthusiastic and joyful, a person who transmits joy everywhere he goes. A heart filled with God is a happy heart which radiates an infectious joy: it is immediately evident! So let us not lose that joyful, humorous and even self-deprecating spirit which makes people amiable even in difficult situations. How beneficial is a good dose of humour!”

Now, let’s be clear here. The Pope is not talking to people who are undergoing real trials and sorrows and grief, callously enjoining them to ‘cheer up’. He certainly is not referring to people suffering from clinical depression. Nor is he thinking of people who simply have somewhat grave personalities, who tend to be more often serious than not.

Pope Francis is not an idiot—obviously he knows that there is real suffering and affliction in the world that can weigh a person down severely. He also knows that it takes all kinds to make a world, and that those of a more melancholic temperament in fact make a great contribution to the human experience.

That being said, I think we all have experienced what he is really talking about here, which is less to do with real sufferings or inborn temperament and more to do with a choice to assume a grim and pessimistic attitude towards life, a glum and dampening attitude adopted out of some ridiculous idea that ‘this is what serious people are like.’

It is the element of artifice, of show, the kill joy spirit, the person who walks into a room where people are laughing and having a good time together and sees it as their principal job to put an end to that nonsense—this is what Pope Francis is talking about, I think. And the good Lord knows this can certainly be present in church circles, though not only there for sure.

But even for those who do have naturally melancholic temperaments, there is a need to choose joy—real joy is not after all a matter of personality and emotional bubbliness, but a matter of faith and hope. Is Christ risen from the dead? Are we redeemed by His love poured out as blood? Is the victory won? Is anything we say we believe actually, you know, true? Then perhaps we could crack a smile once in a while, eh?

It is a bit difficult for me to write about this, since I don’t actually suffer much from melancholy and I certainly have never experienced depression first hand. I do tend to have a natural ebullience of spirit, and (as those who live with me suffer from as much as enjoy) a lively sense of humour. It is difficult to write about struggles one does not personally have. Pope Francis himself, in an earlier period in his life, seems to have had this struggle himself, and had a reputation for being a dour, severe cleric (this is hard to believe given his present demeanour and mien, but I have heard this from multiple sources).

But whether this is something you or I have to grapple with or not, the bottom line is that truly Christ is risen, that the victory against sin and death and evil has been won (appearances to the contrary, I will acknowledge), and that those of us who count ourselves as Christians have a duty to reflect the joyful truth we believe in our words, our behaviour, our countenances. Not as a fake thing we have to pretend (Put on a happy face! Smile, though your heart is breaking!), but please God as something that comes out of our real conviction about the true nature of reality.


Such is the duty of a Christian who wants to preach the Gospel with his or her life, and so we have to be vigilant about this disease of glum severity and ‘sterile pessimism’. Let's put an end to that nonsense, and take on the serious business of joyful Christian witness in the world.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Not A Question of Clowns

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.
Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.
Love... love... love, never counting the cost.
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 poor, childlike – It is time to resume the Tuesday stroll through the Little Mandate, the words given to Catherine Doherty as the essential spirit of Madonna House. Today we come to the last two words of the second paragraph, ‘be poor, childlike.

Personally, I have always struggled a bit with the spirituality of childlikeness. Being the youngest child of a large family, I grew up chasing after my older siblings, and definitely internalized the belief that ‘bigger is better’, that being a grown-up is simply the way to be. Don’t they get to have all the fun?

At the same time, I don’t have a lot of natural ‘playfulness’ or whimsy—the approach to childlikeness one sometimes encounters that involves acting like a child (clown noses and frolicking and all that) does not get very far with me. Teasing and repartee aside, I am basically a serious person. I admit that those who know me personally may be snorting in derision right about now – ‘Teasing and repartee aside? What else is there, ever, with Fr. Denis?’ Hey, I’ve got layers, folks. Lots and lots of layers.

So I have always had to approach this childlike business from a serious standpoint. What does it mean to be ‘childlike’ in the spiritual sense, in the sense that naturally pairs it here with being ‘poor’? Catherine’s favourite prayer, which we print up on cards, was “Give me the heart of a child, and the awesome courage to live it out as an adult.”


Why awesome courage? What is it about being a child that requires awesome courage in an adult? That prayer is the key to this business, I would suggest. And what that key delivers up to us is the word ‘trust’.

It is the essence of spiritual ‘adulthood’ (not maturity) to seek to live life by one’s own terms, one’s own ideas, one’s own power. Children, by definition and irrespective of their virtues or lack thereof (they ain’t all angels, as any parent will assure us), cannot do that. A child is dependent; a child lives under the authority of and in a sense at the mercy of his mother and father or other guardian. A child is weak, poor, and must trust, for there is no other option.

It is one thing for a child, particularly a small child, to live that way. Natural, even, and it is a terrible sadness to see a child who has lost his trust of the adult world too early, due to some great calamity or abuse. But the Little Mandate is addressed to adults—adults who know what the world is like, know how perilous an affair life can be, know just how difficult it all is to make it in this world.

And… choose to live in that same place of trust, of dependence, of abandonment to the ideas, terms, dispositions, power of… Another. This is all one with the littleness and simplicity that immediately precedes it in the Mandate. To make room for God and to approach the demands of the Gospel directly, squarely and without compromise requires us to have this childlike spirit. And being adults with this spirit, it does require awesome courage from us, because we know just how much it will hurt us to open ourselves to that level of divine life and charity and Gospel values.

It is not a question of ‘send in the clowns’, this childlike affair. It is a question of ‘send in the Spirit’, Lord, and don’t hold anything back. Letting God have his way with us. Choosing to care for little else—nothing else, really—than that. That’s where it’s at, and that’s a pretty serious business, after all.


But joyful, too, and ultimately it is light and fun and a bit silly—finding out that we really are those children of God who can rest in His heart and not take ourselves too too seriously. And that’s the story of the Mandate, so far.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Idol Thoughts

Hey, I've got a new book out! Idol Thoughts: The Captivity of the Mind and Its Liberation in Christ presents an ancient teaching of the monastic fathers on the eight thoughts that take us away from God, providing a contemporary take on what they are and how to combat them.



This bit of fourth-century spiritual wisdom is the historical origin of the seven capital sins, but organized and discussed a bit differently. I go into each of the thoughts, explain how they work and why they are so attractive to us, and then suggest a path of liberation from their captivating power in our lives.

Specifically, I present the practice of lectio divina-prayer with Scripture-as a powerful remedy for these illusory and enslaving thought patterns, giving specific Gospel texts to use against each of the thoughts.

I intend the book to be a practical, easy to read, and even funny (well, I think it's funny, anyhow) approach to the spiritual life and wisdom of the desert fathers. I hope you will buy it, read it, and enjoy it. Here is an excerpt from the first chapter, introducing the subject:

Our Plan, and God's Plan

Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous! Praise befits the upright.
 Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre; make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
 Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

 For the word of the Lord is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness.
 He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.
 By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
 He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap; he puts the deeps in storehouses.

 Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!
 For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.
 The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;
he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
 The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.

 Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,
the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!
 The Lord looks down from heaven; he sees all the children of man;
 from where he sits enthroned he looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth,
 he who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds.

 The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
 The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue.
 Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,
 on those who hope in his steadfast love,
 that he may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine.

 Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and our shield.
 For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name.
 Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you.
Psalm 33

Reflection – Our Monday Psalter has brought us to a happy place where the psalm we have reached is most suitable to the liturgical season we are in. I would have hated to have to write about a psalm of lamentation or great distress when the Church’s liturgy is calling us to rejoice in the Lord’s victory.

Well, here we are, and here is God’s victory. I haven’t written about Easter yet, except for the news roundup of how we did it in MH this year. It is good to reflect on it from this angle of Psalm 33. I especially like the part ‘he frustrates the plans of the people. The counsel of the Lord stands forever.’ 

The human plan for God was to kill Him and be done with Him forever—to be able to write our own story, make our own way, be saved in the way we chose to be saved, decide for ourselves what is what and what will be.

This is the human plan, although we usually dress it up under a hundred fair-looking costumes. Our plan is ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ God’s plan is a simple one: ‘Christ is risen from the dead, trampling on death by death, and on those in the tombs lavishing life.’

And this is the victory of God over the world and over you and me—not a victory that destroys us, but certainly a victory that destroys our rebellion against Him, our self-willed autonomy and self-determination.

We are not self-determined, which really means self-limited, self-defining, self-enclosed. God bursts forth from the tomb, and God bursts forth from the tomb of our human smallness, the ‘place of the skull’ which we all carry around just above our silly necks. God was put to death in that place, but He rises and in rising shatters the limitations of human ideas and plans and purposes.


And the rapturous praise, the delight, the joy, the singing with ten-stringed harp—all of that good stuff is the only thing we can do, the only fit response we can have to this victory of God in the world. So—and I do realize this is a very simple and obvious word for the Easter season—let us remember to praise God this day, this week, these next weeks of the year until Pentecost wraps up the Paschal time, and beyond that to eternity. Alleluia.