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Last month in Restoration we shared with you our joy and gratitude to God for the gift of 75 years of apostolic life here in Madonna House. As 2022 goes on, this landmark jubilee of our little family and the thankfulness we have for it, continue to be the lens through which we reflect on life and faith in the pages of this newspaper.
At the same time, my column focuses on the Sunday Gospels and their meaning in all our lives. As it happens, this time around there was an obvious choice that draws together these two themes—how much we have to give thanks for in Madonna House and the Word of God given us by the Church in the months of July and August.
Take care to guard against greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions (Luke 12:15). So goes the Gospel for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 31st this year.
Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the rich man who built bigger barns to store his abundant harvest, so he could eat, drink, and be merry (v. 19) for years to come, only to have his life abruptly end that very night (v. 20).
The Gospel ends with an admonishment towards those who enrich themselves while not being rich in what matters to God (v. 21). This may seem obscure, but in scriptural terms it is anything but that. It is a clear call to give alms and care for the poor, to use whatever “wealth” we have in whatever form to love and serve our neighbor, and thus store up treasure in heaven (cf. Matt 6).
So that’s all clear enough, right? Not easy, perhaps, but we can’t really say it’s terribly vague or murky.
The point of anything we have, be it money, time, health, strength, so on and so forth, is that it be used at the service of love, not at the service of self-aggrandizement. Everything we have is for God and neighbor first. Simple? Yes. Easy? Well, no, of course not. Christianity is not an easy religion.
In meditating on this Gospel, and in light of the 75th anniversary of Madonna House and our profound gratitude to God for fashioning this community, of course I reflect on the simple fact that the very foundation of Madonna House, the very historical root out of which our whole apostolate grows, is in fact the working out of this basic Christian precept in the life of our foundress Catherine Doherty.
Because of course her apostolic life began when the words of Christ to the rich young man—if you want to be perfect, sell all you possess and come follow me (cf. Matt 19, Mark 10, Luke 18)—pursued her over a period of some months in the early 1930s.
Having come through war, revolution, refugee life, and horrific poverty in the New World, she had at last attained a level of comfort and some financial security—a modest but cozy house in Toronto and a good job.
Her choice, after a long period of anguished discernment and prayer, to indeed tear down her not so bigger barn, so to speak, and distribute the small fortune she had accumulated to the poor and move to the slums of Toronto to embrace a life of service and prayer, is the foundational moment of our apostolate, even though it would take some years to come to its current form as Madonna House.
Years later, she would love to quote the Russian writer Paul Evdokimov’s description of holy poverty as “when the absence of the need to have becomes the burning desire not to have.”
It is common for people to struggle with the need to have. The basic deadly sin of avarice is a common wound in our humanity, rooted in deep fears of a dangerous world and a deeper forgetfulness of God’s goodness and providential love.
It is less common, but not terribly rare, for someone to attain a genuine detachment from created goods, to acquire the absence of the need to have.
This is a virtue for sure. But the “burning desire not to have”—this is rare indeed. This is the stuff saints are made from. And it is the animating spirit God inspired in Catherine, the spirit from which the beautiful life of the Madonna House Apostolate has sprung and continues to bear fruit throughout the world. Thanks, God!
Well, what about you and me, little people that we are, living in our respective vocations? The gospel call is for us as well, as overwhelming and at times frightening as it may seem.
The key thing here is that the rich man in the parable, hoarding all his goods to himself, ends up with nothing at all. He dies and all he had passes to others. The only way he could remain a rich man, the only way his life could be secured in truth, was to embrace the path of generous gift and free dispossession.
And this is the way open for all of us. God is probably not asking you to give everything you have away and go live in a slum to serve the poor. He might be, but you’d better discern that very carefully indeed. But God is absolutely asking you to give, and give, and give generously, whatever you have in whatever way you can to whoever needs it.
And he bids us even to see the goods we retain for our own possession as entrusted to us only so that we may use them in the service of love. There is nothing else whatsoever we are to do with the things of this earth but use them for love alone.
This is the only way to have a life that is truly secure, truly “rich” in the riches that are indestructible, riches that even survive death and endure to eternity.
This is the only way to have a life that is bigger than our own selves, that expands beyond us, bears fruit, and is a blessing for the world. We see this so clearly in the lives not only of great servants of God like Catherine Doherty but also in that of any ordinary good generous soul we have known in our lives.
There is much indeed to be grateful for, not the least of which is that God has laid out for us a difficult, yes, but ultimately simple path of life that leads to happiness and peace. Let’s help one another walk that path day by day.