Posted November 01, 2013 in MH Krasnoyarsk, Russia, and in MH Resteigne, Belgium:
They Took Us Into Their Hearts

by Miriam Stulberg, former staff of MH Magadan.

From the time Madonna House was founded in Russia in 1993, those of us who have served or visited there have endeavoured to express what we receive from the Russians—the quality of love that opens our own hearts, the vulnerability that frees us to reveal our own, and the selfless generosity that both convicts us and challenges us to do likewise.

A recent retreat, "Projet Russe," as it came to be called, was a lived experience of what we always found so difficult to put into words.

The idea originated with Galya Boltyanskaya, a friend from Magadan who has tasted MH life both in Combermere and Edmonton. In the fall of 2012, she told me that she and some of her friends wanted to "learn how to stay with God in the midst of everyday life."

For them all to visit Combermere was impractical on many levels, but what about organizing a retreat in MH Krasnoyarsk?

I didn’t think this would be possible, but wondered about the feasibility of doing so at our house in Belgium. The house could accommodate a group, and there were enough staff to provide an experience of MH life. It would certainly be less expensive than going to Canada and, hopefully, it would be easier to obtain visas.

"Dreams dreamt in God come true," our foundress Catherine Doherty used to say. The project was blessed by our directors general, and permission given for Fr. David Linder (stationed in Combermere) and myself (stationed in Marian Centre Edmonton) to participate. (I was a member of the founding team of MH Magadan in Russia and know Russian.)

Catherine Lesage, current director of MH Krasnoyarsk, Russia, would assemble and lead the group of seven Russians. The Belgian team would do the hosting, organize the work, and take care of the practical details. The retreat was scheduled for June 23-28.

Donations from benefactors in several countries were enough to enable the group to spend a couple days in Brussels beforehand and a few days in Paris afterwards.

Rain was pelting down as we drove to the train station, twenty minutes from Resteigne, Belgium, but the skies cleared just as our friends emerged, excited, into our embraces and piled into the rented van. It was actually happening! The following ten days were filled with tears, laughter, and joy.

The first talk, given by Fr. David on the Father’s love, brought many to tears, including Fr. David himself. Nothing could have opened hearts so quickly.

I gave the subsequent presentations on the Nazareth life of work and little things, loving each other, the poustinia of the heart, and the Little Mandate. After lunch, staff and retreatants shared a bilingual spiritual reading.

Our Russian friends were eager to work! They ironed, peeled vegetables, washed windows, de-stemmed herbs. Despite the daily showers and mostly overcast skies, they picked strawberries and scrubbed mold from the statue of the Sacred Heart at the back of the garden.

Andrei, who came with his wife, Polina and was the only man on the retreat, learned how to use the lawnmower. You see, grass doesn’t get cut in Russia!

Unity quickly became one of the underlying themes. Unity between East and West, between the staff, who came from Canada, the US, France, Belgium, Brazil, and Korea, and our Russian guests. Unity between the Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestant retreatants. Unity which transcended the language barrier.

Our meals were long and lively, and we tried to seat the four translators—two of the retreatants, Catherine and myself—in such a way as to best facilitate communication. It worked out well, except for the occasions when a blank look on the face of a listener tipped us off that we were using the wrong tongue!

Liturgies, after the first day or two, fell into place. Fr. David celebrated and preached in English, adding a few sentences in beautifully pronounced Russian. Polina, a professional translator, and Lina translated the homilies. The readings were proclaimed in Russian or English.

The Belgian team was used to singing in French, and it was so beautiful that even without understanding the words, the retreatants experienced it as yet another form of prayer. At lauds and adoration, we used Taizé refrains we all knew.

Catholics in Russia are a minority. In a country imbued with centuries of Orthodox tradition, they have very little sense of the history and rich culture of the Roman Catholic Church that we in the West take for granted.

This trip was an opportunity to acquaint them with communities, churches and shrines in the area, as well as in Brussels, Bruges, and Paris.

A full day of the retreat was spent visiting the bi-ritual monastery of Chevetogne, where the liturgy is celebrated in both the Roman and Eastern rites; the young monastic community of Tibériade; and the shrine at Beauraing, where Our Lady had appeared to five children in 1933.

Two days later, the last surviving witness of these apparitions, Gilberte Degeimbre, came to visit and personally recount the experience.

The last day before the group departed for Paris was a Sunday. After Mass at the Trappist Abbey in nearby Rochefort, and frites at a small local restaurant, the retreatants spent the afternoon preparing a Russian meal for us.

It was a work of love, from the candle-lit table, replete with flowers and bottles of wine, to the traditional dishes of borsch, chicken, salad, and blini.

As we finished dessert, each person was invited to reflect on what he or she had experienced during the week.

Some of the Russians commented: "I experienced the fullness of Madonna House in a way that isn’t possible with only two or three staff workers." "The moment I walked in, I felt love coming at me, and acceptance, and a unity between East and West."

"For the first time, I saw a priest serving the lay people." "I have never been outside of Russia, and it was an act of faith for me to make this trip. One of the things I experienced was forgiveness."

"I felt the freedom of being a child again."

"They have brought us so much joy!" exclaimed one of the staff. Another remarked that the openness and tears of our Russian friends had shown her that she too could let herself be vulnerable.

Joanne Dionne summed it up: "We were prepared to open our hearts to them, but instead, they took us into their hearts."

For many of the staff, this week was the realization of a vision and a dream.

Catherine Doherty had always loved Belgium, which had offered refuge to her mother and brothers, and her photograph had watched over us throughout the retreat.

God had called Catherine to preserve the seeds of holy Russia in the New World, and their fruit was the Madonna House way of life. Now the circle was being closed and the gift passed back to this little group of Catherine’s countrymen: the love and joy and healing of the Resurrected Lord.


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