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Last month I wrote about certain tensions that are part and parcel of the Madonna House way of life. In this article and the following one, I will reflect on the blessings that come if we persevere in facing rather than avoiding or suppressing those tensions.


It isn’t hard to think of the tensions in our Madonna House life. We experience them all the time.

Work versus prayer, seeking unity between East and West disliking one or the other, community of love versus our preferring anything other than love, journey inward versus missionary outreach, call to go to the poor versus call to deal with interior aspects of one’s own poverty, and so forth.

Yet out of all this, if we persevere in the struggle, great blessings, “blessings a hundredfold” and more emerge.

1.) We learn to pray in a new way. For many of us, prayer was at first mainly something we were called to do—say certain prayers, put in so much time each day and such. While these remain a necessary foundation in prayer for us all, we begin to perceive over time that prayer is primarily something God does in us, and our place is to be attentive to these movements of the Spirit.

The need is for greater inner silence, a worshipping spirit, humility, and a piercing sorrow for one’s many sins. In this stillness we learn over and over the tremendous tenderness and mercy of our Savior, as well as our utter need for his grace if we are to accomplish anything for him.

Slowly, imperceptibly, over many years you learn that the call is to “be a prayer,” as Catherine used to put it, a strange-sounding phrase at first. But it refers to learning to surrender in every moment to the gift of the Holy Spirit, and then acting accordingly.

At the same time, being a prayer has a kind of shape: it is that of Christ in the liturgy: “My body for you, my blood for you.” As ever, the liturgy remains the source and center of our spiritual life and its purifying fire. Whether of Eastern or Western provenance, all approved liturgical traditions have at their heart this fire and this shape, bringing it out in a manner appropriate to each one.

2.) Through hard work, we learn many things about ourselves and about God’s creation. The work versus prayer tension resolves itself in being more given to both, but in such a way that the relationship to God retains primacy.

As we become more skilled in whatever labor of love we are assigned, work becomes a means of creativity, of learning one’s capacities, of giving oneself to and for the family.

There are endless challenges to be overcome, endless opportunities to test oneself and to prove oneself. People grow in self-confidence and find joy in creating and in serving, and in giving oneself away in doing so.

But work is also a mirror reflecting back to oneself one’s weaknesses: lack of attention and distractedness, anger and irritability, carelessness and lack of skill, failures and temptations to give up.

The work of our hands (and minds) is a kind of mirror of the state of our souls and reveals both achievements and need for repentance and greater care.

When the cheesemaker has an out-of-sorts day in the cheese house (I was MH cheesemaker for a few years), everyone involved with the yogurt made that day can taste the difference.

We also learn that all created things have a nature, and our responsibility is to work with and not against nature if we are to fulfill our role as true stewards of creation.

Sometimes work entails a lot of suffering, sweat, tears, and can leave one exhausted and depleted. This, too, is part of the gift of work, as we are conformed more and more to the image of Christ, crucified and risen, and we learn that exhaustion and fatigue are not the end of the world, even my little world.

3.) We inch towards becoming a community of love. In a time when so many people are isolated or at odds with one another, a community of gospel love is a real find. Probably our greatest challenge in Madonna House and the greatest gift we offer is to make loving one another our most important goal.

As Catherine emphasized over and over, quoting the first letter of St. John, where love is, God is (cf 1 John 4:16).

The presence of the Blessed Trinity is indeed tangible where sacrificial love is practiced among a group of Christians. Nothing could be more rewarding than living this way, and often enough, nothing seems more futile than to try and do so.

Arguments, misunderstandings, competition, envy, anger, desire for vengeance, fear of one another, intolerance even of oneself, childhood-based spiritual and psychological wounds all get in there and have to be faced and overcome.

Finally, you begin to see that our only hope is for God to give us a new heart and a new spirit.

In her later years, Catherine often spoke of a wounded heart. She was not referring to the wounds of childhood but of a heart broken open, pierced by God’s compassion for each human being, beginning with oneself.

This is the truly new beginning we need every day if we are to love one another. If we surrender to all this, then we become fools for Christ, as it were, pouring out time, effort, blood and tears so that a brother or sister may know the love of Christ surpassing all knowledge. Nothing bears so clear a witness to the Blessed Trinity as this.

4.) We learn to live obedience in the manner of Christ himself. We still hold on here to that old-fashioned idea of obedience in consecrated life: you go where you’re sent to do what you’re told.

Mind you, there is room for dialogue in such decisions, but basically obediences are given here and we still do them, in imitation of Christ being obedient to his Father in all things.

Yet obedience is a broader concept even than that: all of life, no matter who we are or what we do, is meant to be an obedience to God, something we call here “the duty of the moment.”

That “duty” is not simply about the work of the day but about every minute of that day belonging to God. Sound oppressive?

Is there never time off from being in accord with the Lord? Nope! Of course, the Lord may will for us time for creative activity, time for recreation, sleep, study. The challenge is to listen to the Spirit moment by moment.

Yet this is not something rigid or fear-filled or legalistic or robotic. Maybe a phrase that describes this would be “relaxed attention.” Or how about “resting on the Father’s heart”?

For it is through obedience that we come to know the Father as Jesus his Son knew him on earth: a great intimacy with Abba penetrates every moment with a loving surrender and a childlike trust.

Paradoxically, any attainment of sobornost (unity of mind and heart) must be grounded in the daily nitty-gritty obediences to God. All that goes into that “yes” to the Father’s will is foundational for the testimony to sobornost.

to be concluded