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Two people walking down the road

…like a breath blown on the coals of our hope.

I’m of the opinion that every young Catholic should have at least one experience of community living before adult life ineluctably and invariably gets a hold of their time.

For me, that experience was several extended visits to Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario during my early twenties. Several, as it didn’t take long before the place found a more or less permanent grasp on my affections.

When new guests would arrive, I’d often tell them, “There is treasure here for you,” and suggest they keep attentive so as to glean as much as possible from their stay. My goal in this writing is to share with you some of that treasure I’ve unearthed way out there in the backwoods of Canada.


It’s no secret that many of us these days are feeling overwhelmed by the state of the world, something which is leaving people wondering how to even approach life amidst everything happening.

I myself have felt this keenly as a young adult. The world has become a confused and dark place where it is difficult to preserve a certain vision necessary for our lives.

I believe I have found this vision at MH in the form of a desire — a holy desire for a flavor of life that has almost been forgotten by the culture at large.

This flavor has many forms, and I personally believe these forms will be fully realised in the Era of Peace, when creation will be restored and men at last will return to the sweetness of life in the Divine Will.

For now, all we have are premonitions of that era, but they are essential. They are like a breath blown upon the coals of our hope.

I think there are many facets of these modern times that dim this hope in us, maybe even to the point that we forget that hope is a virtue.

This is often frustrating for us Christians. We want to stay connected to the expectancy of our inheritance, but we continually find other things displacing and distracting us from it, things so inextricable from our culture that there seems to be no way to escape or alter them.

That is one reason why I believe our Mother Mary founded that little haven in the woods of Combermere. It is a place removed — but not totally disconnected — from the world, so as to provide a fertile environment where we can discover or re-integrate the most basic truths of our existence.

In an age where these truths are so swiftly being eclipsed, I would say the opportunity to experience what Madonna House has to offer is invaluable.


You stay as a “working guest,” meaning you assume the same life, work, and prayer as the community members.

They handle work schedules. This allows the guests to simply be faithful to whatever the duty of the moment is; no planning or foresight is required.

By this I mean you don’t have to engage your life in the same capacity as you would elsewhere. Your time is not yours to direct.

All your basic needs are provided for. You needn’t worry over what you have to do from one day to the next.

Because of this, there is ample room for a special kind of silence. I call it “silence of the will.” It is like a stasis upon the almost constant demand to make decisions. One need only conform to the pre-set rhythm of the day, and the rest is simple.

This whole aspect of MH is one which allowed me to truly dive headlong into every factor of my being — my personality, my gifts, my own sinfulness, my calling, my relationship with God and the people around me, my place as a creature in the universe — all of it.

What I found at those depths is not relevant here, only that I now recognize how important it is that there exists a place where I could reach them at all.

My many months in Combermere were a time when, day by day, week by week, I could be at rest to a degree nearly impossible elsewhere.

In this rest, I also learned to savour little things. I’d never supposed a slab of cheese on a dry piece of bread could be so enjoyable, but after three straight hours of splitting kindling, it is. Believe me.

Those quiet months provided a fallow space where God could speak to my soul on the level he needed to. I can’t stress enough how precious that opportunity is, or even simply how unique it is.

Where else in the Church today or in the past have so many different kinds of people — including priests — been able to share a common life? Where one can find deep connection to someone a third (or thrice) their age?

So not only does MH establish a very special environment, it also offers a great deal in that environment. Primarily, it is the community life — the camaraderie, the joy, the deep friendships, and yes, even those people you meet who you find utterly abrasive. Really, it is the spirit of the family itself.

It was in this community that I experienced the most genuine sense of belonging and value I’ve ever felt. That isn’t something they contrive, as if they’re seeking to ensure the ease of our stay.

The folks at Madonna House are thoroughly, unapologetically human (which comes as quite a shock to some). We have clashed, argued, and all the rest, but they invested in me — believed in me—nonetheless. There, we were family. Still are.

Second, the actual nature of the work has surprising fruits. There is something so primal, so authentic, so rewarding about manual labour.

Whether I was chopping firewood in the rain, trekking through the bush collecting maple sap, or waking with the dawn to feed farm animals, I was often awe struck by the palpable, unforgettable presence of God in a way which still shakes me to this day.

Last, Madonna House harbors a formidable library and allows adequate time for guests to explore it.

From reading Guidelines to Mystical Prayer* to a 900-page exegesis on the Orthodox teaching about Genesis, never before have I been able to so explore the vast treasury of the faith and develop as a person because of it.

There really is so much more I could say, but I’ll leave it at this: if you are deliberating whether to visit or not, just go.

Let Our Lady smother you in grace. Let the community draw those parts out of yourself which you never even knew were there. Go chop some wood and dig up some potatoes. Go — take your time — discover those wondrous expanses of God living deep inside you.

There is treasure in those woods, in those people … in you. In a word, this treasure is poverty, but do not be frightened off by this.

Personally, it was only through my own habitual acceptance of being taught how to be poor that I discovered the immense riches of this misunderstood term. Really, being “poor” means being free, and it is in this freedom — I promise you — that you’ll never feel more alive.

*Guidelines to Mystical Prayer, by Sr. Ruth Burrows

Gregory was a long-term guest in Combermere.

Restoration May-June 2024