by Fr. Blair Bernard.
And He said to them, "Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while." (Mk 6:31)
In the mystery that is Madonna House, visitors from all walks of life pass through our blue doors to receive hospitality of the heart and to enter into a place of life-giving graces.
Within this place, there is one building which few are aware of—Vianney House, a house of hospitality specifically for priests. Even within Madonna House, it is a secluded place, for it is two or three miles away from the main part of MH, high on a hill overlooking the rolling hills of the Madawaska Valley.
Here Christ in his visiting priest is made welcome. Whether he comes for a day of prayer, a retreat, or simply a vacation in a rustic, holy setting, it is a place where he can "come and rest a while" with the Lord.
At Vianney House, one has the opportunity both to be alone and with people.
The Gospel tells us that Jesus loved Martha and her sister, Mary, and Lazarus and spent time with them in their home in Bethany. Every priest needs a "Bethany," a place where he can relax and stay with people he loves and who love him.
To stay at Vianney House is also to stay at Madonna House, where Mass and meals are taken at the main compound where there is a whole houseful of Marthas and Marys whom one cannot help but love.
I know and love this place dearly for, from the time I was ordained in 1999 until I joined Madonna House in 2009, I came every year on vacation.
I was first beckoned to Madonna House by its foundress Catherine Doherty whose words captivated me and remained indelibly imprinted on my soul.
I think of her almost every time I enter Vianney House, especially when I do so through the basement, because of a story told about her.
According to Fr. Pelton, who witnessed it, she once in her old age and infirmity crawled down these stairs to address a group of Madonna House associate priests who were gathered in the basement living room waiting for her to speak to them.
It was vintage Catherine Doherty—the grand entrance of a grand dame, part show-woman and part mystic. It was also the prophetic gesture of one who frequently said that she would "crawl on her belly" to a priest to get her sins forgiven no matter how sinful that priest was.
The priests present for such associate meetings were there in large measure because they knew how much Catherine loved them.
She for her part perceived the un-seen presence of Christ in them and proclaimed this to those most adamantly skeptical of this presence: the priests themselves.
Since its opening in 1966, Vianney House has seen more than just Catherine Doherty, in her inimitable style, descend those stairs. Vianney House has welcomed thousands of priests.
They have ranged from the newly ordained flush with the thrill of being able to offer Mass, preach, and absolve, all the way up to old priests, bruised, if not broken, by the hard ground into which they have attempted to plant the seed of the Word.
Though it was originally built as a residence for Madonna House priests, Fr. Callahan, the founder of the priests’ branch of Madonna House, also saw Vianney House as an oasis of faith in the desert of a rapidly secularizing culture, a place where priests could receive hospitality, friendship, and counsel in an era when they were leaving the ministry in droves.
Today, the basement of Vianney House is home to lively socials on Tuesday evenings when visitors and MH priest residents of the house share experiences over light snacks.
Those visiting priests come from everywhere—the United States, Canada, Europe and even Africa. Some are seminary professors, doctoral students; most are parish priests. Occasionally, a bishop stops in for a few days of prayer and quiet.
As I write this article, I sit in a room in Vianney House, at a desk in front of a window overlooking the hills. Approximately twenty yards from my window is a commodious, screened-in gazebo. It reminds me of the many fall evenings I spent within it gazing at a starry sky and listening contentedly to the leaves rustled by the breeze. That gazebo tempts me to drop my pen and go there.
Another feature of Vianney House is a chapel where priests can say Mass and pray.
Plus a small cabin, a poustinia is available. If you think of Vianney House as a "room" of Madonna House, then you can think of the St. Elias Poustinia as a room of Vianney House. At the heart of a visit to Vianney House is a 24-hour poustinia.
Located in the woods about a fifteen-minute walk from Vianney House, it is an island of stillness where often the only sound you hear is that of the wind blowing through the trees.
Containing only a desk, a wood stove, and a bed—and lacking electricity—log cabin poustinias are places of solitude.
Often upon arrival there, I feel that I am in some strange way arriving "home."
A visiting priest cannot fully understand why Vianney House exists without spending at least a day in poustinia for it is a place where heaven and earth meet, where all becomes silent, and where one slips into the silence of God.
Moreover, the path that takes you to the poustinia goes past it, deeper and deeper into the woods and higher and higher up the tallest hill in the nearby area.
After walking less than twenty minutes on this path, which is marked by a set of Stations of the Cross nailed to the trees, you suddenly discover that you have reached the top, a place called Ascension Rock.
There the woods suddenly open up to reveal a stunning, panoramic view of the river valley stretching out as far as eye can see. The sight is breath-taking, especially in autumn.
C.S. Lewis once said that, "Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns but will not have us mistake any of them for home." At times, it has been very hard for me not to mistake this "pleasant inn" and "secluded place" for home.
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