Posted July 01, 2015:
God in the Nitty-Gritty

by Theresa Davis.

When I went to Madonna House, I knew the Gospel but I didn’t really know how to apply it in my daily life. The first time I heard Catherine Doherty speak was an electric moment. It was at spiritual reading, and she said:

"God loves you passionately. There is no amount of evil you can do to make him stop loving you. If a man says he loves you, and that his life will not be complete without you, how would you respond to that kind of love? You certainly would not spit in his face.

"We know that God loves us even more than the greatest human love, so our response can only be to love him back.

How does one love God back? How can one be sure that it is love?

"It is not sufficient to say, ‘God, I love you.’ In the Gospel, when a father asked one of his sons to go into the field, the son said yes, but then didn’t go. The other son, when asked, said no but then went. The proof of our love is not in words but in deeds.

"The Gospel is not abstract. Spirituality must be incarnated. If it is not, it is not true spirituality. Of course, loving God with our whole heart, our whole mind, our whole souls, is primary, but this does not mean that we spend our whole day in formal prayer. It means that we go about our Father’s business.

"And what is our Father’s business? To live the Gospel without compromise. To do the duty of the moment. To do little things well out of love.

"Love is the motivation behind everything. Love raises everything from the natural order to the divine order."


In Madonna House, learning to do little things well out of love is the most crucial part of our training. And throughout our lives here, it is the warp and woof of our living the Gospel without compromise.

To understand this, we need to acquire a clear spiritual vision of the value of ordinary work.

In Madonna House, our work is divided into what Catherine called "departments." Some examples are the kitchen, laundry, and office for women, and maintenance, carpentry, and farming for men.

She wrote a Gospel outline, a spiritual meditation, for each of the departments, and it is used in the formation of our members.

Catherine gave her own unique etymology to the word "department." "Depart" to her meant to depart from everything that does not concern the task which God has placed before you.

Depart from listening to your own thoughts. Enter into your heart so that in doing this particular task, you will be truly immersed in the heart of the Lord.

We are to approach every task prayerfully and to be totally concentrated on it and anchored in God.

Every task also has a social dimension. For example, the constant sewing and mending in the sewing department and the endless washing of clothes in the laundry are clothing the naked. The kitchen, with its relentless schedule of meal times, is feeding the hungry.

Catherine firmly believed that doing little things well for the love of God is the foundation for everything else.

In the pre-revolutionary Russian culture in which Catherine grew up, people saw and experienced the beauty, the joy, the fruitfulness, the creativity of manual labor. Our culture is losing this, and along with it, its unique power to heal, restore, and make whole again.

Manual work is a path to wholeness, and the desire of Catherine’s heart was to restore people to wholeness. She wanted to do for us what her parents had done for her in educating her in doing all the manual tasks and crafts needed for a large household.

These days, manual labor, or what the world calls menial labor, is looked down upon by those who do not know Jesus the carpenter and Mary the housewife, laundress, and dishwasher. (It was Joseph who taught Jesus the skills of working with wood. )

Nor do people know the saints, both male and female, who delighted in manual work.

Manual labor is holy. The psalmist sings: Prosper the work of our hands; prosper the work of our hands (Psalm 90:17).

All work, manual and otherwise, is a school of love. Catherine says that at our work, we should be concerned but not worried.

Martha was not reproached for attending to her duties. Jesus would not reproach anyone for this, for he too worked. He reproached her for her anxiety and worry, for he wanted her peaceful enough to listen to what he had to say.

Concern expresses love for neighbor, but worry is self-centered.

Ever since God took a human body, matter is shot through with divine radiance. And because Christ worked with his hands, all manual work is now holy. In our time of computers and a growing white collar labor force, we are called to be witnesses to this.

Moreover, each of our actions has infinite value in restoring the kingdom, for each of our actions is joined to those of Christ. Thus, by doing little things well out of love, we can restore many souls to Christ.

Finally, all the tools of labor are creatures of God, gifts to be used by us, but never taken for granted. As St. Benedict says in his rule: "The tools of the monastery are to be treated like the vessels of the altar."

And they are to be put back again in their proper place. Order is also from God. Where there is outer disorder, there is usually inner disorder. So Catherine used to say, "if you want to regain your peace, start by tidying up around you."

I remember when one of the new young girls was training me in our office routine. She had been there a few months longer than me.

She said to me: "Theresa, I know this may be boring you, but I want to tell you about these 3 x 5 cards that have the names of our benefactors on them. The name of the person has to be typed on the right-hand side, and the address right underneath it." Etc.

Catherine was working in another part of the room and overheard these instructions. "No," she said, "this is not a boring job. Can Jesus Christ be boring! You are touching Jesus Christ. Each card is a person, and each person is Christ. Each card is holy!"

Yes, when we were being trained for Madonna House, we were sent to each work department and given the spirit—the theology, as it were—of how every little thing that we did was connected to living the Gospel.

Our lives, like the lives of everyone, are made up of many little things, and, we were told, everything was holy. We needed to understand that.

For example, Catherine wrote about washing dishes: "If I have the attitude that this is a beautiful little thing that I can give to God, then washing a cup becomes an adventure."

"Love is a fire," she would say, "that has to spend itself in service. So how do we love? By doing little things well for the love of God."

Most of the time, we do not see the spiritual fruits of our doing little things well for the love of God, but every once in a while God gives us a glimpse. Here’s one story that happened during my time in Madonna House Israel, a house where we worked among the Palestinians in Haifa.

The Israeli government would not allow young Palestinian men to congregate. Our house was one of the places where they could come, since we were under the umbrella of the archbishop.

We used to serve the young men and women coffee; they taught us how to make good Arabic coffee. We would empty their ash trays and serve them royally. They hung around our house a lot, and we developed a great love for these young people. We watched them change before our eyes.

After four years in the Holy Land we had to close our house for political reasons.

Later on, when we were back in Combermere, one of those young Palestinian men came as a working guest to Madonna House. One day at our after-dinner spiritual reading, he shared the following story:

"There was a group of young men who worked in the armoury as painters. The government needed to employ Palestinians because the Jewish men were in the army. These young men, led by me, were going to steal seven machine guns and station ourselves at the busiest intersection in Haifa.

"When the traffic lights turned green and all traffic converged, the plan was to kill as many Israelis as possible.

"However as the time neared for us to carry out our plan, each one of us realized that we could not go through with it because our hearts were changing. The staff at Madonna House were having a softening effect on our hearts.

"We talked about how we were served and waited on by the women, and how they tried to learn our language. Up to now, most of the missionaries who ran schools made us learn their language, which indicated to us that our language was second class compared to their ‘first class’ one.

"We had hated the Church: it was foreign to us. Up to now, we had not seen a group of missionaries whose sole intention was to come and identify with us, live like us, live where we lived, serve us, and consider us first-class citizens."


After this story Catherine turned to me and said: "Do you see the power of doing little things with love?"

Adapted from Living Fully in Our Times, Pauline Publications, (2000), pp. 90-96)


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