one of the men staff mechanics working underneath a truck

Make Yourself at Home—Gulp

by Fr. David May

Gospel poverty and gospel love go hand in hand. At least that’s how Catherine Doherty understood it.

If gospel love in its purest form is a total gift of self for the life of the other, then such generous self-expenditure will lead us to a simplicity that bears witness to Christ’s simplicity.

For the spiritual children of Catherine Doherty, there are a number of paths that flow together in this direction. The most common for us in Madonna House is that of doing little things exceedingly well out of love for Christ in our neighbor.

What motivates this commitment is a faith experience of something truly big, namely, Christ’s offering on the cross for our salvation. As Catherine put it in a letter to the community:

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“For there before my eyes is a crucifix—to me living, breathing, full of wounds, and saying to me, ‘I love you, I love you.’ When I compare my life with that crucifix, then my whole life is nothing …

“I consider that the gift of my whole life from the day that he called me to the day that I am speaking to you is a tiny little thing in proportion to what he gave me.”

(Dearly Beloved, Vol. One, MH Publications, 1989, p.256)

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Of course, if one succeeds in looking at all of life as a “little thing” to offer to God, then my life is replete with opportunities to give of myself from morning’s first breath to the first moment of welcome sleep at night.

Yes, this will include my work of the day, be it housework or construction, celebrating a liturgy or writing a letter, getting the kids ready for school or putting them to bed at night after reading them their favorite story for the 355th time.

Duty of the moment includes labor and prayer, playing cards and working hard, carrying palms on Passion Sunday and resting in the palm of God’s hand on Holy Saturday, awaiting the Resurrection with Christ in the tomb.

All of this, whether giving or receiving, is part of embracing the tapestry of day after day and night after night that is the warp and woof of daily living. Give, give, give, as the Spirit leads. And most of where he leads us is in the direction of small things that add up to comprise a lifetime of following Christ and practicing Christian charity.

Catherine urged us to think of all of this as the “glory of the Cross.” What is the “glory” of the Cross but Christ himself pouring out his life in joyous offering for us all, a joy purified seven times over in the crucible of suffering and dying for us. And now we, in union with him, day by day till the end of our days.

Have you discovered this glory yet in the daily regimen of your own life? It is a grace well worth praying for!

In Catherine’s teachings, there is another emphasis that emerges from everyday life, an emphasis of great enough importance as to be classified separately from “little things” even if it’s part of the same picture. And that is compassion for one’s brothers and sisters.

Towards the end of her life, Catherine tried to articulate once again the essence and the importance of this reality of the compassion of Christ lived out in us, his members. The term she used to describe it is the “wounded heart”:

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“We are talking of a wounded heart, a heart that has been wounded by the love of God … That is a wounded heart. A wounded heart is an open heart, completely open. It has only one gesture, arms wide open … it has no doors.

“You begin to understand what a wounded heart is when you hear the word of God which I repeat so often: A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34).

“He is not asking us to just love one another. He puts it straight: as I have loved you. (Unpublished manuscript)

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As with the teaching on “little things,” this one on the wounded heart also begins not with human effort but with being touched by the grace of God, his love for us breaking open our hearts so that our compassion for others is a reflection and an overflowing of his for us.

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“You can say that a wounded heart is a contrite heart. It is a heart that knows that it is sinful. It is a heart that has been broken open, wide open. By whom? By God.

“Because when we realize that we can do nothing [of ourselves alone] … and we have discovered our sinfulness and have been forgiven, that is a wounded heart. Then you can receive anybody, any time, and everybody will be at home in your heart, including God himself.”

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Of course, God’s compassion has no limits, and once the heart is pierced with this understanding, our lives can begin to take on a new aspect.

Within the limitations of time, other duties, need for sleep, and necessity of prayer to be renewed, the doors of the heart become wide open to all sorts of characters, including those first of all in our own families and communities.

We give ourselves away as never before, moved by the grace of God. It can all be a bit bewildering at times!

By “bewildering” I mean that the divine compassion keeps pushing us to be willing to go a long, long way with those in need, especially by means of a listening ear and an understanding heart.

Of course, this willingness in no way precludes speaking difficult (to hear) words of truth. But it does lead us to be ready to start over again and again, to the point of appearing foolish, naïve, taken advantage of, exhausted, taken for granted.

Why? Because sometimes that’s what it takes to reveal Christ’s love, and something inside is renewed to go further, take another step, having experienced once again Christ “going further” with me.

Of course, there are those who will argue, quite rationally and with good intentions, that if we “give it all away” for this one or that one, what use of that is it for all the rest?

This is where having someone wise and experienced to consult is invaluable, as there can be all kinds of reasons why we let ourselves be taken advantage of, none of them of the Gospel (anything from having a savior complex to the worst kinds of codependency).

But there also exists a delicate listening to the Holy Spirit, who whispers a word of encouragement and endows us with love beyond the usual measures.

God thereby makes the impossible possible, as, poor in spirit, we receive and pass on the graces of the Kingdom of God.

Why? Because purified in heart by the forgiveness of Christ, we have “seen God” in a brother or sister, wounded, perhaps buried in the tomb, but the “sight” of Him renews one’s desire to try yet again, one more time, to love as we have been loved by Him.

No, there’s nothing that quite compares with being moved by compassion to strip one’s soul down to the very core. Yet even with that, Catherine was not satisfied that we had gone far enough in imitation of the poverty (generosity) of Our Lord.

There was more yet to speak of and reflect upon. I hope to write about this next month in the third and final part of this reflection on gospel poverty and the cross as taught us by Catherine Doherty.

to be continued