Saturday, October 3, 2015

This Week In Madonna House - September 27-October 3

This week in Madonna House there is no question what the main event was. We had our annual retreat with our associate clergy this week, and it was the major focus of life here, certainly for the priests’ branch of MH, but for everyone else, too.

The associates are ordained bishops, priests, and deacons who feel a spiritual kinship with MH and its way of life but who are not called to join us as full-time members. They make the same promises we do and are given the MH pax-caritas cross. Currently we have about 150 associates all over the world, some of whom we see frequently, some of whom we never see, but all of whom are genuinely part of the MH community.

The yearly retreat draws a small percentage of that total. This year we had  one bishop, 17 priests, five deacons and four of their wives. The theme was Contemplating the Face of Mercy: An Extraordinary Jubilee. Fr. David May gave a conference on Pope Francis’ vision of this year of mercy, I gave a conference on mercy in the writings of Catherine Doherty. Fr. Brian Christie gave a conference on this theme in the writings of one our priests, Fr. Patrick McNulty.

As an aside, those of you who know MH may have heard that Fr. Pat has been quite sick, and in fact close to death. He was indeed very close to death, and amusingly when we were planning the meetings this year it seemed a certainty that he would not be still among us for them, and hence the conference based on his writings.

Well, you can’t keep a good man down, I guess, as Fr. Pat has bounced back to an almost miraculous degree, and is still very much alive and with us. He is still quite ill, and in a wheelchair, and is suffering from various diseases that are terminal, but for the meantime he is otherwise his usual self, full of jokes and spirit. He tactfully and modestly decided to skip the conference that would be about him, though.

Anyhow, back to the associates! Besides conferences, there was a holy hour, and lots of time for them to simply be present and visit with each other and the community, a meeting with our directors general, and of course festive Masses each day. For us in MH, the annual associates’ meetings is a good reminder of just how broad and far the spirit of MH has extended, and just how fruitful it has proven to be in the life of the Church.

Beyond that principal event, it was harvest time as usual on the farm. The rutabagas were brought in, a smaller harvest than usual, but not terribly so. Apple juicing was the main order of the week for the food processors. This is quite an operation—a wood chipper is used to pulverize the apples, which are then put into a press to have the juice extracted. 

There is quite a science to that, as the whole idea is to maximize the surface area to volume ratio. Layers of sacking are used to achieve this, and the result is that every drop of juice is removed from the pulp, which itself is used for animal feed. Nothing goes to waste in MH! The juice is then pasteurized and sealed in jars for long-term storage. We also had one day where our neighbors could come to press their own apples, a long-time tradition in the valley.

The other big event of the week was the mailing of our semi-annual begging letter, which occurred yesterday evening. MH is a community of beggars--that is, we have no means of sustenance except the charity of our benefactors, which has sustained us for over sixty years now. The bulk of this charity comes in response to these letters, 12000 of them, sent in the fall and in the spring. MH does not have corporate sponsors and we certainly don't accept government funding--it is very much a grass-roots funded operation, and it is an ongoing miracle of charity that we are here and doing all we do. Thank you very much, everyone who supports us financially.

Other than that, we are in a good solid bit of ordinary time here. The weather has been decidedly autumnal, and in the priest house where I live we finally broke down and lit the wood stove yesterday. Our guest numbers, which have been small, were boosted yesterday by the arrival of four Korean seminarians here for a two-month immersion in apostolic community life, part of their priestly formation. And there is a small but steady trickle of guests arriving for long-term stays, a normal feature of this time of year. Unlike the summer, when young people come through for a week or two as part of their summer vacations, the ones who come at this time of year are generally coming for a longer experience of our life. It is good to have them with us.

As I write this, the entire world outside my window has just exploded with light, the most beautiful sunrise flooding the landscape, and our back yard is filled with deer grazing. From which I conclude (illogically!) that it’s going to be a good day. And I wish you all a good day, and assure you of our prayers for all of you and the whole world.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Great Victory Cry

Thursdays I am writing posts commenting on the Mass, with a particular emphasis on how the liturgy informs how we are to live our lives – the Mass as a template of Christian discipleship. Two weeks ago we had reached the proclamation of the Gospel, but there is more to say about this peak moment of the liturgy that I couldn’t get to in one post.

Today I want to write about the various symbolisms around the rite of the Gospel in the Mass. These are all deeply meaningful and inform the whole Christian attitude towards the words and deeds of Christ found in our four-fold canon.

First, in a properly executed Sunday liturgy, the Gospel book is solemnly processed in, by the deacon if possible; by the priest if not. Or it may well be on the altar at the beginning of the Mass. Either way, the Gospel book (not the lectionary) is enthroned on the altar which is the very throne of God in the liturgy. In this, we see that the Gospels are a true ‘presence’ of Christ—not in the way the Eucharist is, but nonetheless a real one.

At the time of the Gospel, there may well and rightly be a procession of the book from the altar to the ambo, with candles and (on solemn occasions) incense. The Gospel is the light of the world. The Gospel is a holy thing—we only incense that which is holy, which is significant when we realize that we are all incensed at a later point in the Mass.

The deacon proclaiming the Gospel is blessed by the priest, or if it is the priest proclaiming it prays the same prayer for his own sake, asking to be purified in mind and heart so as to proclaim the Word. The Gospel is an awesome thing, not to be lightly taken up and read. We need to be purified before we can even fittingly read it.

And of course the assembly is singing a joyous alleluia as all this is going on. We are about to hear the actual words, hear of the actual deeds of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour. This is joy for us, or should be. We stand at this point, symbol of both respect and a posture of triumph, victory. The Gospel and what is recounted therein is the great victory cry of God in the world over sin, death, and the devil. And our ritual responses to the proclamation – ‘Glory to you, O Lord… Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ’ – are the right and proper response, always and everywhere, to the Gospel whenever and however we encounter it.

So all of this—so familiar to us who are practicing Catholics—gives us a fairly complete catechesis on how we are to receive and respond to the Gospel in our daily lives. I said last time that the Gospel simply is our guide to daily life, that we live our lives under its authority and as disciples of Jesus Christ, freely choosing to live as Christians in the world, we are to be very literal-minded and (frankly) slavishly obedient to what we read therein. If we don’t want to be Christians, nobody is stopping us from leaving, but as long as we stay in the community of faith, this is the way of life we have chosen to follow.

What all the solemn rituals of the liturgy show us is that the Gospel way of life is joy, is light, is something awesome, something precious, something that really delivers us over to a genuine encounter with the living Christ. When we see how the Church surrounds the liturgical proclamation of the Gospel with all these symbolic gestures, elements, words, it should safeguard us against being flippant, or grudging, or rationalizing, or sad in our relationship to the Word of God.

We should enthrone it, not only on the altar, but in our hearts. We should recognize the light of truth in its words. We should incense it, not with clouds of smoke, but with prayers of adoration and supplication, read it on our knees. We should know that it is joy and victory, that even the hardest passages and the most challenging texts are fundamentally a call to share in Christ’s victory by sharing his passion and merciful love.

And above all, the liturgy teaches us to have a deep reverence for the Gospels, to never speak of them lightly or rudely, to be so aware that this is God speaking to us that we never could, never would be arrogant or dismissive of the least precept of the Gospel, never presume that it is a merely human text that we can analyze and reject (Jesus Seminar, take note).

No, it is God’s words to us, delivered by the Word of God who is with the Father before all the ages in the beginning, made flesh in Jesus Christ, now speaking to us through his Church to which he has entrusted his Gospel to be preached to the ends of the earth. Alleluia, alleluia, glory to you, O Lord.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Getting Even

I have been dedicating Wednesdays on the blog to going through the chapters of my new book Idol Thoughts, my presentation of the ancient doctrine of the 'eight thoughts', in later tradition become the seven capital sins, and how to overcome them with the help of lectio divina, the prayerful disciplined reading of Sacred Scripture.

It is not my intention in these blog posts to give the whole content of the chapter--that would be, well, unproductive in terms of getting people to buy the book. Rather, I'm just giving an overview and perhaps a thought or two that didn't make it into the book itself. 

We are now on thought number four. The first three thoughts were all matters of simple desire, gone awry in our fallen natures. Gluttony for food, lust for sex, avarice for security through wealth--all of these are matters of wanting what we want, and the sad fact that we don't always want exactly what is good for us or what will truly make us happy.

The next three thoughts are all concerned with what happens to us when we don't get what we want. Where do our thoughts go, when the original simple thoughts of desire and possession are thwarted? The first place our thoughts go in these moments is towards the thought of anger. 

This is not the raw emotion of anger. Emotions come and go in us and in themselves have little moral significance. But the thought of anger is the thought, confronted with something that is wrong in our lives or in the world, that happiness lies in getting even. Revenge, payback, doing unto others what the others just done did to you, and then some--this is the project of the angry mind. The absolute conviction of the one who has bought into that thought is that 'I cannot be happy, cannot find peace, until I have paid back mine enemies with a mighty smiting.'

This thought does not always come with temptations to physical violence attached to it. There are all sorts of ways we seek payback. There is the whole dreary project of score keeping, the careful tallying up of exactly what everyone is or is not doing, so as to make sure that perfect justice is always being observed in all fields of life.

There is the passive aggressive project - moods, silent treatments, making darn sure the person knows you are displeased with them, not that you intend to tell them why or what they should do about it. They should know! There is verbal abuse, nagging, pick-pick-picking at people until in desperation they just give in and do whatever it is you want. And just plain coldness, withdrawal, the deliberate intention to hurt someone who hurt us, even if it is just by the frigid refusal of any basic warmth or humanity. And oh... a whole host of other angry, vengeful ways--we're not, most of us, the Count of Monte Cristo hatching elaborate schemes to ruin the lives of our enemies, in other words.

Anger is a deep thing in the world today. Be it the truly monstrous evil being done by actors like ISIS and Boko Haram, or the increasingly vicious political climate in our own countries, there is a spirit of anger in the world and every one of us has to address it, first in our own hearts, lest we succumb to its allure. And it does have an allure. Anger comes from something in us that is so deep and true that it has great power in us.

Namely, anger comes from our innate sense of justice, which in turn comes from our being made in the image of God the All Just One. It is indeed a matter of 'getting even', of restoring balance and order to an off-kilter, unjust world. The lie of anger, however, is that we attain justice through violence, through exerting our will on others to deal out reward and punishment as we see fit.

It doesn't work. Never has, never will, not on the personal level nor on the societal or international level, either. The revenge motive, coming so deeply out of this sense of justice in us, has done nothing in human history but beget more evil, more unbalance, more violence, more wrongs that in turn need to be avenged in an endless cycle that leads to mass graves and killing fields.

It is a hard lesson that may take many years for us to learn, but the only way our lives can be a force of healing, restoration, and justice in the world is the path of suffering love, of sacrificial generosity, of forgiveness and mercy. In particular, to be vigilant in our mercy and love for our 'enemies', whoever they may be, and for our neighbour--that is, the small group of human beings who are in our immediate proximity.

It is this and this alone that brings order into the world, this and this alone that 'evens up' an uneven world. And it starts at the level of the individual, of you and me and the choices we are going to make today, in the face of whatever injustice or frustrations we encounter today. Vengeance or love -- what will it be?

And you can read the rest of my thoughts, and the path of the Gospel laid out for us in these matters, in my book, if you would like to buy it! Have a great day, and remember - don't get mad, get even!

Monday, September 28, 2015

God Doesn't Want Our Bull

The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to its setting.
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth…

He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
“Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”
The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge.

“Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, I will testify against you.
I am God, your God. Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;

your burnt offerings are continually before me.
I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats from your folds.
For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.

I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine.
“If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?..

But to the wicked God says: “What right have you to recite my statutes,
or take my covenant on your lips?
For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you.

You make friends with a thief when you see one, and you keep company with adulterers.
“You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit.
You sit and speak against your kin; you slander your own mother’s child…

“Mark this, then, you who forget God,
or I will tear you apart, and there will be no one to deliver.
Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me;
to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God.
Psalm 50

Reflection – I now resume regular blogging, after a bit of a hectic week last week that made it impossible. Psalm 50 is a fine polemic against ‘lip service’, against a religion of external acts of piety unaccompanied by real devotion and sincere faith.

This is one of the great themes that develops in Judaism throughout the Old Testament, and in particular in the prophetic era. The sight of people dutifully bringing their sacrifices to the temple and saying all their prayers just right, but then proceeding upon leaving the temple to oppress their poor neighbor and engage in a host of sexual, financial, and malicious sins stirred up the prophetic spirit of God to some of the most fiery denunciations of hypocrisy we have, Psalm 50 ranking right up there with the best of them.

We have to be very careful in our reading and praying of this psalm. There are two ways to pray this psalm that are less than useless and positively harmful. First, we must not pray this psalm against ‘those people’. You know, the ones over there… those people who are not me! They’re the ones who are lousy hypocrites, right? Why, look at how they voted in the last election! Call themselves Christians, do they? Huh.

Yeah, that’s no good. We have no idea what is stirring in the hearts and minds of any other human being, so let’s not pretend we do and start handing out report cards for the faith life of our neighbors, OK?

The other harmful thing is to pray it against ourselves, in a certain sense. To say, “Oh yes. I am indeed a worthless piece of ****. No real faith here! Boo hoo. Well, may as well give up… (the last is often just under the surface of our consciousness).”

This is not helpful. So what is the place of this psalm and the many other related texts in a healthy spiritual life? Neither judgment and sneering condemnation of neighbor or of self, so what is it?
Psalm 50 and its ilk are texts above all against complacency. Against any kind of easy assumption that we’re all right with God – hey, didn’t I just go to confession and then receive the Eucharist? Vital and beautiful and tremendous as that is… it’s not enough. It must be lived, and this psalm is a clarion call to live the mystery we celebrate.

And to be, not down on ourselves over our failures to do so, but continually calling on the Lord for his mercy and grace. To be very aware that any one of us falls short of the total devotion, total consecration, total gift of self to God expressed in total love of neighbor. But in that awareness, not to become embittered or hopeless, but rather to turn again to God, always from a place of humility, always from a place of confidence in his love.

It’s pretty simple, really. We need to live lives fully aware that ‘without [Christ] we can do nothing’ (John 15:5). And that the external duties of piety and religious practice, essential as they are, must bear fruit in lives of virtue and justice, or they really are for naught. And that all of us together live in a state of profound need for God’s grace, so all of us together are simply one human family bound together both in our poverty and weakness, but also in the love of God. And it is this love of God which is the path of salvation He promises to show us, so long as we humble ourselves and call upon His name, plead His mercy, and daily try to do what is good and true in our lives.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

This Week in Madonna House - Sep 19-25

I apologize to my regular readers for being so sparse on the blogging this past week or two. It has been a busy time in my life, and there have been days where I have been away from the Internet altogether. Hopefully I will be back to something resembling a regular blogging rhythm soon.

Madonna House is in an 'ordinary time', I would say. On the work front the big project remains the harvest, with potatoes being the major crop brought in this week. Three afternoons everyone who could went to the farm to dig potatoes. While I haven't heard any figures, it seems to have been a good harvest.

Beyond that, our ordinary life continues apace. The addition to the farm house (added living space for our somewhat over-crowded farmers) now has siding and is starting to look positively finished... on the outside at least. Still lots of interior work to do, not the least of which is connecting the new addition to the old farmhouse with a door!

Outside of the work scene, probably our biggest concerns in MH have been events outside of MH this week. Locally, there was a terrible tragedy which sent shockwaves through the whole Valley - a triple homicide in and around nearby Wilno. In a small community like this, everyone either knew one or all of the victims, or knows someone who knew them, not to mention the man who committed the crime, so the emotional weight of it has been very heavy for our neighbours and friends. It has been a great call for prayer for us here in MH.

Of course like everyone else the other focus of our attention has been Pope Francis' trip to the United States and the World Meeting of Families. Four of our members are in attendance at the latter with a book table, while many of us watched the former as we could, or read the transcript of his address to congress. We are all united in prayer with you for many graces and conversions of heart to flow from this historic event.

Beyond that, life in MH is as normal and quiet as can be right now. The weather has turned sharply cool, and we are appreciating the fall colours as a result. As I mentioned in previous blog posts, it is a season of transitions in MH, with quite a number of our members being moved from one house to another, some houses changing directors, and so forth, all of which creates a certain energy in the house - new faces in the dining room, leave takings of others, and the like. Our new applicants are settling into their rhythm of classes, work, and life, about which I may say more later.

So... what to say? Life is good, life is full, life is quiet, life is busy... life is life here, and we unite our lives in prayer with your lives, hoping that all of us together may continue to build the kingdom of God together in our various ways.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

On Wednesdays I am going through the chapters of my new book Idol Thoughts, to discuss some of the basic ideas therein, hopefully in service of persuading a few of youse guys to part with a few pennies to buy a copy.

We are on chapter six now, which explores the thought of avarice. We have talked about gluttony and lust already; now with avarice something new is introduced into our minds. Gluttony and lust are both disordered expressions of immediate physical urges. They are matters of the body, primarily, and only secondarily are ‘thoughts’ about reality, as we make the fatal move of thinking that our true and vital happiness lies in the immediate satisfaction of physical cravings.

Avarice begins the great journey inward to more strictly intellectual projects, while still having an immediate physical expression. Where gluttony and lust, being of the body, are both matters of the immediate moment, of the urgent ‘now’, avarice asks the fatal question: but what about… tomorrow? Will I have what I need for my life… tomorrow?

Happiness as material security—this is the fatal mistake of avarice. It is not a matter of never making plans for the future, or not being responsible and prudent in one’s financial affairs. Dickens’ Mr. Micawber who lurches with his family from one financial crisis to another is not a picture of Christian virtue.

Where avarice goes wrong is that it locates our security for the future in our material wealth, and that it identifies happiness with that material security. The miser clutching his treasure to himself, the greedy tycoon never satisfied with his wealth but always grabbing for more, Smaug the Dragon on his bed of gold coins—these are the common pictures of avarice.

But we have to be careful not to leave it there, in its grossest and most obvious manifestations. Most of us do not sleep on a bed of gold coins (nor would we find it particularly comfortable, not being dragons). We are not thereby assured of freedom from greed.

It really boils down to a question of security. Where do we place our security? In things, and making sure we have enough things to last us? That seems… unwise somehow. Things are flammable, you know. Or is our security elsewhere? Say, in the heart of God?

It’s all about the future, and as Christians we have to take the long view about that particular subject. Our future as we understand it is going to be considerably more than the eighty or ninety years we may hope for, and if our one wealth is what we own… well, I don’t think They receive that currency There.

Money and goods are important in securing our future, though—the Gospels are clear on that point. But the security lies not in hoarding but in sharing, not in piling up but in clearing out, not in taking but in giving. It is impossible to read the Gospels thoroughly and not get it that almsgiving, sharing our treasure with the poor, is of the essence in deciding our eternal fate. I could quote a half dozen passages to you on precisely that point, but really if you don’t already know that to be so, you need to crack open your bible and get reading, because it’s all over the place, directly in the words and preaching of Jesus Christ.

And this is the real damage done by avarice—it chokes off our generosity to the poor. And by doing so, by making it very hard for us to give alms, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, it actually makes our future profoundly insecure, imperils our real future happiness. We are meant to be people oriented towards the future, but that concern for tomorrow rightly understood makes us intensely involved with alleviating the misery of today, serving the needs of our brothers and sisters today.
In the book, I give a whole series of Gospel passages to meditate on to counter the lie of avarice—it is a core theme in the Scriptures. 

And avarice is a core sin in humanity, one that causes so much misery in this world, so much needless suffering of the poor and the abandoned. If every believing Christian took to heart what Our Lord says about these matters and gave what they could, shared what they had, so many tragic and harsh situations would simply not be so, so many evils would be averted.

But to do that we need to believe that Our Father in heaven loves us and is caring for us and that our whole life is nothing else but to live in His presence and share in His love, and that is where prayer and meditation on the Word of God comes in.

I have quite a bit more to say on the subject in the book, but will leave it to you to discover it there.