Madonna House

God Is in the Messiness (Part 1)

by Patricia Lawton

It’s easy to believe that we’re in union with Jesus when we’re at peace—but what if we’re acting out of our wounds, anxiety, anger? What about when we’re exhausted, don’t want to pray, or are wondering how on earth we’re going to face another day? How on earth can Jesus live in that?

Fr. Pat McNulty wrote a book about this—a book that helped me to make a major turning point in my life. But before I tell you about myself, let me tell you a little about that book, I Live Now, Not I.

In this book, Fr. Pat takes us on a journey into our human condition, our wounded humanity.

He explains how our Catholic faith enables us to embrace suffering as a vehicle that opens us to the consoling love of the Father. Through suffering, he tells us, we are brought into a union with Jesus that lets us bring this same love and consolation to others who lack faith.

Whatever we are experiencing, from peace to panic, becomes the mystery of love in Christ.

When I received my call to Madonna House in 1986, it brought enormous grace and the promise of deep healing and transformation.

I decided that if I lived the Gospel perfectly, it would eliminate all my unpleasant and shameful behavior and emotions. I would step lightly through each day, full of peace emanating to all. What a wonderful apostle I would be!

Of course, I quickly found out I couldn’t live the Gospel perfectly. I didn’t like being corrected. I grew tired and impatient living so closely with so many other staff members. Throw in a little fatigue and I became angry and grouchy.

Then I would blast myself with shame because I shouldn’t be angry and grouchy; I should be peaceful and happy and holy like the Little Flower, St. Therese of Lisieux. There’s no way Jesus could dwell in this!

But, Fr. Pat tells us in his book: If we wait for everything to be clear, perfect, right or holy, we will never get the connection between Him and us (p. 45).

In fact, the Lord often permits us to “sit” in our darkness and fully experience the weakness and the shame of it, in order for us to realize that the Lord especially loves us in this pitiful condition. In fact He is there in the shame, in the weakness, in the wounds, in the sin, with us.

This is the reality and the mystery. It may seem like a very lonely place.

In solitude God speaks in different ways to each person … . But what God says is meant to take each one of us into the very heart of our own humanity and thus into the humanity of Christ… . It is the Lord who leads us into the wilderness to speak to our hearts (Hos 2:14). (p.34)

Solitude and silence have been a great part of my journey to find the Lord within.

At first, when I was new to Madonna House, it was so very disconcerting not working with a radio or TV in the background. Even with the noise of conversation or the clatter of dishes, the lack of that background cushion made my unpleasant thoughts, emotions and reactions so loud!

As I began to go to the poustinia, the solitude and silence there also brought me face to face with myself, that imperfect apostle, that sinner.

As my plans for holiness dissolved, I couldn’t figure out what was happening. I often felt full of shame and self-hatred. I couldn’t accept myself as a sinner, wounded, needing God’s mercy and help.

I didn’t even realize what I was doing to myself; deep inside I was constantly miserable and trying to keep it together on the outside.

Most days I would wake up with a feeling of dread about the day ahead. But I would drag myself out of bed and get on with the day. As we say here in Madonna House, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. That safeguarded me from the desire to simply stay in bed and be miserable.

During this time, I served in several field houses. I stuck close to those who had the grace to direct me—my local directors, the director general of women, my spiritual director—only by sheer obedience. I didn’t realize how much I needed their presence and prayers.

I was able to attend Mass daily and make regular confession. I talked to some good therapists.

I also stayed as faithful as I could to the duty of the moment, God’s will for me at any given time. Often it was very simple work—cooking and cleaning, picking up or delivering food, doing laundry or sorting donations.

Now I look back and see how the monotony of those tasks actually rooted me in the heart of Jesus, when I could barely trust that he knew I existed. I couldn’t see him or feel him. Yet he was deep within me, in the shame and confusion of not being perfect. My spiritual director told me so.

The Lord was very, very gently helping me to look at my woundedness, my sinfulness, clearly; to gradually grow more and more aware of how much I needed him. I was on the journey inward.

As time went on, the presence and love of my spiritual family also touched my confused and fearful heart. Inch by inch I was able to see that in spite of my imperfections, I just might be lovable.

And if they love me, maybe God can love me too? A crack of light came into my darkness.

Is it not at the foundation of all our other sins, this lack of trust in God‘s personal presence in our lives now? (p..35)

In February of 2008, Fr. Pat came to give a retreat to the three Madonna Houses in the Eastern U.S. He brought with him his new book on which he was to base our retreat.

I was now ten years in promises, a fledgling local director at the Madonna House in Roanoke, Virginia, and struggling with the meaning of my vocation.

Would this retreat help me?

to be continued