by Cynthia Donnelly.
This article was adapted from a talk given in Combermere in May 2013.
The mandate for this house is to pray for the president of the USA and those who work for the government and to respond to the spiritual needs of the people of the area. I want to give you an example of how the Lord in his great providence helps us to do this.
The political situation in Washington is fraught with division, and this lack of unity affects everyone. It is sometimes difficult to know what to do or say to bring peace to those who come to our doors and to assure them that whatever their beliefs and opinions, they are welcome at our table.
I am the director of this house, and last November, in my report to the directors general, I told them about these concerns and asked for their advice.
In answer, Fr. David May, director general of our priests, said that the most important thing we can give people at this time is hope and joy. Then he added, "Don’t be grim."
I thought about that a lot, but I wondered: "How do I do that? How do I communicate hope and joy?" I didn’t know.
Then, in a most unexpected way, God showed me.
It was towards the end of November, and a couple of our friends had invited me to go to a movie and dinner on Saturday night. I love being with these two women. They’re stimulating and enthusiastic, and we always have lots of fun. I was really looking forward to being with them.
Then, suddenly, in the middle of the week, I realized that Saturday was the eve of the first Sunday of Advent.
Oh, no. Advent! That meant entering into a new liturgical season, and, for us at Madonna House, an essential part of that was lighting the Advent wreath, a ceremony done just at the beginning of Advent, after first vespers (evening prayer) on Saturday evening.
I’d rather go to the movie.
For about two or three days, I went back and forth: should I go to the movie or stay home and light the Advent wreath?
I started thinking of alternative times when we could light the Advent wreath. We could do it at three o’clock. That would be all right, wouldn’t it? Or we could do it on Sunday. We could do it any time, really. Maybe we could even do it on Friday.
So there I was, back and forth, back and forth. How could I work it out so that I could do both things?
Finally I said to myself, "What’s more important to you, Cynthia?"
The answer was: the Advent wreath. So, I said to myself, just call your friends and tell them. They’ll go to the movie whether you’re with them or not. It won’t matter.
So I called one of them and said, "I’m really sorry, Susan, but I’m gonna have to back out of the movie, because it’s the first Saturday of Advent, and we have to light the Advent wreath."
She said, "Oh my gosh, Advent! Can we come?"
I said, "Yes, why don’t you come, and I’ll cook supper, and we’ll say vespers and light the Advent wreath and have supper together. OK?"
"Yeah, great, we’ll be there. What time?"
So they came. We had the chapel all set for Advent. We lit the Advent wreath and sang "O Come, O Come Emmanuel."
All of a sudden, I realized that this was what Fr. David was telling me to do. Our Madonna House customs are so little, so simple, but if we really live them with our whole hearts, they bring hope and joy—even as simple a thing as the Advent wreath.
This little incident made me realize the importance of our customs, these little gestures of incorporating our belief into our ordinary everyday life.
After that, I spoke with Diana Breeze, my fellow staff worker at this house and said, "I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but let’s be really committed to doing our customs and inviting our friends to celebrate them with us."
So a few days later, we had a St. Nicholas Day party complete with telling the story of St. Nicholas, gingerbread cookies in the shape of a bishop, and distributing gifts—the gift of the name of a person at the party to pray for for a year, which is how we celebrate this feast at Madonna House.
Throughout the year, we continued to invite our friends to share in our feast day customs. We did it as a way to celebrate our faith together. It’s not that we didn’t do this before, but there was something different this year.
And throughout the year, a number of our friends said such things as, "Thank you so much for doing this." And "I’m so glad I have a place to come where I can share my faith. I’m so glad I have a place where I can celebrate our feasts. Please always do it."
Back in November 1966, our foundress, Catherine Doherty, wrote a letter to the staff and I’d like to share with you an excerpt from it. But before I do, here is a little background about that letter.
Catherine was having a difficult time one night, and she had a "vision," which she later called, "The Vision on the Mountain."
What she saw was that the Church and the world would go through a great travail, when there would be a time of darkness and division.
She saw that the Lord had put Madonna House on a mountain, where we’ll have little houses like poustinias and places for people to study and a place for art, for drama, for carpentry, for plumbing—a place where all things that are human will be done by a community of love.
This is the last part of the letter:
"I saw the whole of those buildings being like a candle, a little candle, shining in the terrible darkness that is becoming darker every day.
"A little candle in the darkness is a great light for those who abide in the darkness…
"And it seemed to me that that’s what God wanted of Madonna House, to be that little candle in that terrible darkness that is already here, that will intensify in the days and years to come.
"It seemed to me that this was God’s answer, his loving answer, to the chaos that man has created within himself, to the hostilities, to the anger, to the unpeace, to the forgetfulness of the essentials of the Gospel, to the terrible cutting up of the Body of Christ, of the People of God, that seems to increase in violence in our days.
"I understood that although this was placed on a mountain top, it was simply so that the little candle could be seen from everywhere in the darkness below, and I realized that all the buildings were very humble and poor, very simple, and that all that dwelled in them had to be very child-like and simple too."
I believe that what we can give the people of Washington right now is this incredible simplicity, this incredible childlike simplicity of believing that God is with us, that we don’t have to be afraid, and that though there’s a lot of seeming turmoil and chaos and division, that in this, God is working. He is creating something new and calling each of us to something new.
And these words are not just from Madonna House. When Pope John Paul II called us to the New Evangelization, he called us, first of all, to prayer, to a conversion of our own hearts, and then to just live our lives.
We should never deny the power of example. If we live the Gospel, our lives shine, and people see that there is another way to live.
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