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My Week in Madonna House

by Nanci Jewers

I recently completed a one-week visit to Madonna House. I arrived there having read some of the writings of Catherine and Eddie Doherty, and my heart was open to experience whatever God wanted me to experience there.

On one level, I had an idea what to expect: close living in community with others, simplicity, piety, manual labor and time spent outdoors close to nature. I didn’t expect surprises there.

But on the spiritual level, I didn’t know what was in store. I hoped to receive something good—some healing, some strengthening, some grace. So I plunged in and gave it my all.

The first day I helped put mulch around some apple trees. It was hard work, and I wondered if every day would be so strenuous.

The next day’s work was a little easier: I got to pick raspberries. We were instructed to pick only the ripest berries, which were not too plentiful and were taught how to recognize them. Afterwards, we were shown that there were many less-than-ripe berries in our baskets.

The week continued with lots more outdoor work, kitchen work, and you-name-it, all of which required getting one’s hands dirty.

In just one week, I feel that I got a little taste of authentic religious life, of living in poverty, chastity and obedience. In particular, I felt the rigor and sting of having to bend my will to submit to the duty of the moment, to follow a new rhythm of life, and to let go of my natural habits and inclinations.

It was hard! I was tired; I was uncomfortable. The first few days, I found myself thinking along the lines of “maybe this place isn’t for me,” “I’m not sure I fit in here,” and “it will be good to leave.”

A week is long enough to challenge a person to buckle down and make the most of things, and short enough to offer the hope of getting through it. I pushed my negative reactions aside and tried to embrace the spirit of forgetfulness and emptying of self.

The routine and structure of Madonna House provided a unique opportunity to surrender my will. I never knew what was coming next, and there was no way to prepare except to trust in God and go with the flow.

That’s not easy, especially for someone like me who is normally a planner—organized, responsible, independent—and likes to be in control.

Now, as a newcomer at Madonna House, I had to struggle to keep up, to learn the ropes, to rely on others, and to submit to whatever was asked of me.

Sometimes I felt like a lost sheep. Some days getting out of bed was the hardest part.

On the other hand, the wonderful beauty of morning Lauds (sung prayers), the communal praying of the holy rosary, spiritual reading, holy Mass, and the atmosphere which was so full of faith and inspiration kept me going and lifted me up.

As I continued to experience a new level of challenge, the devotional activities of each day took on deeper significance and power. They were an invitation to rely more on God.

I could see how I can try to implement this in my life at home in Toronto. With all the freedom I have in that life, I often don’t know how to rely on God but rather tend to choose the more comfortable way.

On the morning of my last day at Madonna House, my heart was heavy. I had immersed myself in a routine that kept me “hemmed in,” and I was afraid to have freedom again. I was afraid that the exercise of discipline I was experiencing would be lost.

It was no small consolation that on my last day I got to pick raspberries again, and this time the bushes were teeming with plump ripe berries. My mind didn’t need to process the symbolic meaning. I just felt wonder and gladness well up in my heart.

I felt confidence that even in my tiredness, uncertainty, insecurity and anxiety, my short time at MH had indeed been fruitful. Even if it was not entirely clear to me what was accomplished, I knew God was present and I felt hope in my spirit.

Those who labor for the Lord do not labor in vain (1 Cor 15:58). God really can and does hear our prayers and reward our efforts and fulfill our longings. He is always doing something new and precious to renew us and lift us up. God be praised! Thank you, Madonna House.