Posted April 08, 2012 in Word Made Flesh:
A Fool for Christ, A Heart that Watcheth

by Fr. Pat McNulty.

Some of the people who have come to a Madonna House funeral have observed that we seem to have a special grace for dealing with the death, wake, and burial of a brother or sister. And part of that is that when someone dies, it is not unusual for us to think in terms of a "word" that says it all.

So, when I was asked to lead Paul Holland’s wake service, which would include a homily, I asked a number of people if they had a word about Paul. I wasn’t surprised at their choice, for it was mine as well. The word we all picked for Paul was one of our favorite Russian words, "urodivoi"—fools for Christ.

That word does not only apply to Paul. What we have become aware of over the many years we have been dealing with death and burial here in Combermere (we have buried almost 45 of our brothers and sisters so far) is that our wounds and our difficulties between one another are softened by death.

Suddenly, soon after they die, everybody’s life history looks like that of a blessed urodivoi, a fool for Christ.

For we are seeing ever more clearly that our Madonna House lives don’t make much sense in terms of the world nor do we have any measure of achievement by those standards either.

And in the end, the rationale we have for our rather mundane life is simply the desire to walk on earth the way Christ walked it, as a fool in almost everyone’s eyes—until the Resurrection.

If our hearts are open to that, then a wake is truly miraculous, because then, through the gift of the Spirit, the foolishness of the deceased becomes Resurrection right before our eyes.

That resurrection was happening throughout their whole "foolish" lives, but usually we didn’t see it until they died. And so it will be for all of us in Madonna House.

Yet it would truly be sad if we only saw this great miracle of grace, how our "foolishness" in Christ was a gradual resurrection in our everyday life as well, if we only saw it after we died.

Our Lady of Combermere has been teaching us something very holy about our life through the many deaths, burials, and wakes of our brothers and sisters over the years.

I think what it is, to use one of Catherine Doherty’s favorite scripture passages from The Song of Songs, is that, while we seek our Beloved through our everyday mundane life, "the heart watcheth."

And a heart that "watcheth" soon discovers something about being wounded and broken, something that it no longer needs to hide until death.

A "heart that watcheth" realizes ever more clearly that we are all urodivoi; we are all "fools for Christ." Because no matter how wounded or sinful we are, we watch from the heart for Christ to unfold Himself in our very human condition.

And when the heart "watcheth," you begin to realize that we are all "wounded fools," people who simply live by Faith. And then all the wounds and sins no longer seem to matter that much. It’s amazing.

Our foundress, Catherine Doherty, saw that in the "wounded" Paul way back in 1970, and wrote it in her Christmas gift-poem, where she said to him, "Peace-filled man, give peace to all those who ask it from you."

He probably didn’t hear a word she said back then, but Catherine, whose "heart watcheth," knew that Paul was a fool for Christ because she was a profound "fool" herself.

So when I looked at Paul’s life in preparation for my homily, I found myself looking at this "heart watcheth" mode in him.

And when I went to the archives and read through as much of his correspondence as I could on such short notice, I was amazed to read about Paul’s sense of himself.

He had an incredible difficulty with his own personality, and yet his words tell you that his "heart watcheth" like a simple fool for Christ.

For example, one day when he was in our house in the Yukon, a young boy was helping him sort apples. The lad was sticking apples in his pocket, and Paul kept saying, "No, you can’t have them." "Why not?" the boy asked. "Because you don’t have permission."

"Would you give one to Jesus if he asked?"

Paul said, "Yes, if Mamie gave permission." (Mamie was the director of the house.)

Some would say that that’s a bit over the top when it comes to authority, but not for Paul. He would have asked permission to eat one apple himself. And he lived there; it was his house.

That’s what we mean by "fool for Christ"—Christ who asked Joseph’s permission to go work in the carpentry shop even though He had created the trees Joseph worked with!

Paul came to Madonna House the same way all the pioneers came, and most of us have come since then: some quirk, some "quack," some silly thing got us here "by accident." Oh, really?

"Yeah, I was on my way to a ski party at the North Pole, and the bus broke down in Combermere, Ontario." Oh really?

"Yeah, I was on my way to Florida for the winter, and we stopped at a gift shop in Combermere, Ontario, and…" Whichever way you go, if Our Lady wants you here, she’ll get you here.

Paul’s journey was true to Madonna House form: He went on a retreat only to discover it was the wrong one. But while he was there, he met a man who invited him to a Thursday evening meeting at the cathedral in Toronto where he lived.

One Thursday he "just happened" to be walking past the cathedral at meeting-time and, deciding to check it out, went inside.

He himself writes: "This was the first time I began to understand that I was no longer in control of my life, but I was being led by the hand, like a child that is led by his mother. The sensation was overwhelming."

Then good old Paul, like the rest of us, didn’t stop there. He went on more retreats until some nameless priest told him about a "crazy place" in Combermere, Ontario. Ho. Ho. Ho.

In 1959, he made his commitment to Madonna House.

His life here was very much the same as it is for most of the rest of us. Long after he joined, he wrote to Fr. Cal, his spiritual director, and said, "Things are going on normally; that is, every day I fail miserably. I lose my peace. I fall flat on my face. But by the grace of God I get up and start all over again.

"I’m the man who looks in the mirror (this is from the Letter of St. James) and then goes away and forgets what he saw. But God reminds me by letting me fall flat on my face. Thanks be to God."

The examples are endless. It’s really something when we can look back and recognize God’s mercy in not letting us see any more than we should, though sometimes it’s a mystery why he doesn’t allow us to see more.

Why, for example, didn’t God let Paul see in himself what Kathy Rodman, a staff worker serving with him, wrote about him in Edmonton when Paul was serving the Brother Christophers there. In a newsletter from 1991, Kathy wrote:

"I ask myself: how many times has Paul answered the doorbell, how many sandwiches has he given out in his years of service here? By a quick calculation, I think it’s roughly about half a billion.

"I’m sure the Lord will recognize Paul when he rings the bell at the gates of heaven and say to him, ‘Welcome. I think we’ve met before. I often came to your place on 98th Street.’"

In one of his early letters to Fr. Cal, Paul wrote: "The fog has not fully lifted yet. But one day I’m sure it will."

And it did, on January 12, 2012, around noon, in Combermere, Ontario.

The last word is from an unpublished letter from Catherine Doherty to the staff of Madonna House, S.L. #140, Sept. 19, 1963.

"You shall go through life, a sort of freak. But there will be a day when men will know you for what you are.

"And because you laid down your life in this ‘death,’ day by day, minute by minute, second by second, your will united to the will of God in laying down your life for your fellowman, hiddenly, without any trumpets, without any acclaim, you shall see, as the years go by, the face of your Beloved.

"Slowly the thousand faces that told you their story, that asked you for help, will take the shape of one Face. And then, so slowly, you will touch your Beloved before you die. This is the reward of your vocation."

Excerpted and adapted from the homily at Paul Holland’s wake service



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