by Cuckoo Susan James.
Does consecrated life mean sad faces behind locked doors? It seemed inconceivable to me that a life given to God could be such a colorless existence, so I decided to go and see for myself.
Five years ago, I had become vaguely familiar with Catherine Doherty and Madonna House at a booth in the vocations pavilion at World Youth Day Toronto. So I asked and received permission to spend one and a half months of my summer holidays as a working guest at Madonna House Belgium.
When I landed at the little village of Marches-les-Dames with my huge luggage, my first impression did not discourage me. I was welcomed by Joanne Dionne, one of the directors of the house, to the magnificently beautiful Abbaye Notre Dame du Vivier.
The life of faith at the abbey was a pleasant surprise. As a journalism student, I live in a milieu that embraces left-liberal values. There Catholic means anti-progress, of course, and religion is dismissed as the right-wing propaganda apparatus.
Moreover, I belong to a mixed-denominational Christian family that reminds me constantly how unbiblical and dictatorial the Catholic Church is. It has been a strain to be constantly faced with my lack of knowledge about the faith I supposedly believe in and the public scandals in the Church.
Madonna House was at the opposite pole of all of this. I wanted to pinch myself to see if it was a dream. Here were people who actually lived the Catholic faith and had given up so much to do so.
And nobody in MH seemed to live in either extreme because of this: there was neither too much sorrow nor too much happiness. It seemed to me that they had created a normal family with chores to do, prayers to pray, things to share, and yeah, even fights to fight. Tongue in cheek, I add that this last one was the most fun!
Unplanned things often happened. Friends popped in; strangers knocked at the door. We went on pilgrimages and explored nearby churches and farmhouses. The unplanned part was more fun that the planned part.
Madonna House was never a bland experience. Within weeks, the prejudices I had and the horror stories I had heard about consecrated life flew out the window.
And the best part was, they welcomed a guest like me with my faith as it was and my faults.
As an Indian who has lived all her life in India, I knew very little French. I guess it was not easy to translate every conversation from French to English for me. Besides, "my family" dutifully ate the spicy food I cooked, to what gastronomical effect I don’t know! It didn’t take long for me to feel at home.
But there was one thing about Madonna House that bothered me, that nagged me day and night—something that challenged my perceptions about life.
I had known, fortunately, that my experience at the abbey would include work, but my idea of work was going out and telling everyone about Christ and the faith.
Of course, there was a lot of work. We did laundry or cleaning morning and afternoon, day after day, week after week. I felt this was a waste of time. Couldn’t we just finish it up quickly and devote our time to something more useful?
It was a challenge to understand where the command to go out and preach the Gospel fit into Madonna House life.
The Church needs workers. How can anyone, especially one of the most intelligent and creative groups of people I had ever met on planet earth, devote so much of their day to doing laundry!
I was consumed with curiosity and decided to do some probing of the spiritual sort. After all, you are supposed to know why you do or do not do something. So one day, after dinner, as we were all gathered at a table doing a jigsaw puzzle, I popped the question to the staff.
Joanne pointed to Christina, "Why don’t you ask her?" Hoping I was not bugging everyone by challenging their vocation, I turned to Christina.
Christina Coutinho interrupted her futile attempts at the puzzle to make her point. "Well, aren’t we all doing little things? Even the President of the United States is doing a little thing when he signs a paper."
I swallowed. Well, this is new and original thinking. I had expected the pat answer, "There is tremendous value in little things if we see them through the eyes of faith."
All things are little? Where was the logic in that?
Michael Weitl, the youngest in the group, responded, "Why should I consider something a waste of time when Jesus could spend nine-tenths of his life doing it?"
Christina agreed. "The greatest thing Jesus did was to die," she said, summing up her theology on the subject.
Christina and Michael had made their point. It was left to me to reach my own conclusions.
I belong, willingly or unwillingly, to the browsing generation, a generation that has huge expectations. Madonna House was challenging that. It was a very uncomfortable experience.
I felt like a trapped bird flapping against the window, seeing the promise of freedom but unable to break through to the open sky. "The seeds of foolishness," staff worker Noella de Laforcade called it. She said they are sown in anyone who comes to Madonna House.
Maybe it is true, but as a follower of St. Thomas the Apostle, who converted my ancestors two thousand years ago, I let my doubts demand proof from the Lord.
He gave it. As days went by and I absorbed the atmosphere of prayer and ordinary work, I felt the Lord joining the debate.
He gave me evidence by healing me mentally, spiritually, and emotionally as the strain of doing manual work and the realization that God really suffices replaced my mental and even spiritual tensions. The physical extended into the spiritual, theory extended into practice, internal conversion preceded evangelization.
The focus on the Little Mandate created a safe space for a trapped cuckoo like me to take her first flying lessons. "What they are doing for you, they are doing for others," I felt the Lord whisper. The most ordinary person could feel at home within this family.
I feel the Little Mandate is truly revolutionary. Of course, I still don’t have all the answers to my question. But I guess this is how faith works.
Our small minds cannot grasp it, but if we make our hearts big, we can welcome it.
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