How Tensions Become Blessings – Part 3

by Father David May

This article is the third and concluding one of a series that offered reflections on how the inherent tensions in the Madonna House vocation open to blessings if we persevere in facing and embracing those very tensions. The four blessings reflected upon in the previous article had to do with prayer, work, the community of love, and obedience.


5) We learn to live chastely. Mary and Joseph become wise and merciful guides in this. There is a kind of steady and usually quiet devotion to the Holy Family in Madonna House, a devotion which surfaces from time to time in renewal of consecrations to Our Lady and more recently, to St. Joseph.

I find these, along with the Jesus Prayer and/or the Divine Mercy Chaplet, are great aids in the growth of chastity and purity of heart.

Nearly all of us experience that purity of heart and chastity are only won after a lifetime of hard-fought battles and many setbacks. But the members of the Holy Family, unlike ourselves often, are not put off by our failures, stumblings, and struggles in this area.

Rather, they convey to us in prayer, a warmth of encouragement and mercy and the tenderness of compassionate humanity, all the while not excusing our sins nor ceasing to call us to “come higher, friend” and try again.

Each member of the Holy Family does this in a unique way—Mary as mother, Joseph as spiritual father, Jesus as brother and divine Savior.

From them we learn that true chastity represents not a diminishment but a full flowering of our humanity, transformed by the grace of God. Appreciation of the gift each person truly is can grow and mature in such an atmosphere.

6) Personal poverty becomes a gift, not a curse. One thing we learn for sure if we try to live the Gospel without compromise is that we are poor creatures in desperate need of the grace of God.

The discovery of this can seem scandalous at first, but once the evidence of its truth pours in for a time, it begins to look like the smart thing to do would be to simply accept the facts and get on with a solution.

That solution is to admit one is a sinner in need of grace constantly, to pray and live accordingly, thereby discovering how true the first beatitude really is: Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Funny how long it takes to be convinced, deep down, of this truth. Over and over again we launch out under our own steam. Over and over again we hit the proverbial brick wall. Over and over again we determine we won’t make that mistake again, and then we proceed to do so anyway.

How merciful God is to put up with all this! Finally, we are seared with the truth the Lord taught us in John 15:5: without me you can do nothing.

If we accept this truth, our interior poverty becomes a gateway to continual prayer, and to mercy towards our neighbor, for if God does not condemn me in my poverty, how can I condemn anyone in his or hers?

A door also opens to serving the poor, whoever they may be, not as Lord or Lady Bountiful, but as brother to brother, friend to friend.

7) We discover that the mercy of God is among the greatest of his gifts. As can readily be seen in these reflections, without a merciful Savior, none of these tensions come to anything other than dead ends.

That doesn’t mean that God isn’t demanding and set on making us holy, but it does mean that we learn that every achievement is in some essential way a pure gift of his grace.

This is another way of saying we are set free from our selves to the extent we live as utterly dependent on the Lord. Alleluia! Free at last!

All our merit, which the Lord delights in counting in our favor, is also a gift of this mercy. Even what we call “the anger of God” is but another expression of an infinite mercy using whatever difficult means necessary to save his wayward children.

8) We learn what the exercise of authority is in God’s eyes. In Madonna House, we believe that those who have authority over us really have a measure of the authority of Christ himself.

That includes not only our directors general and our spiritual directors, but also directors of formation, house mothers and house fathers, department heads, and the guest just put in charge of wiping tables in the dining room after lunch.

Is that enough to make you suspicious of how authority is wielded in the community? After all, human nature being what it is … .

Whatever the concerns might be at that level, there is a counteracting force initiated by the Lord at the Last Supper when he washed the feet of his disciples.

This attitude of humility and service of one’s neighbor is essential to the exercise of authority in a Christian community.

I learned something about this before going to seminary, when in the early morning hours of a Holy Saturday, I awoke to a clear word burning in my heart: “The MH priest must occupy the lowest place; he must want nothing for himself, not even the priesthood.”

To this day, that word remains in me, however faithfully or not I’ve lived it out.

“Making it” in the Christian community means learning to love being the servant of all, seeking always the lowest place of service, and at the same time exercising one’s God-given authority with the power one receives from the Holy Spirit.

It is not timid or hesitant, but neither is it part of a personal power trip or a lording it over another. One remembers continually that the greatest authority in the family will rest with the one who is holiest and least among us, probably not noticed much or thought of as “leadership material”! How differently God sees things than we do!

9) We receive a missionary’s heart. Mission proceeds from a heart overflowing with gratitude to God for his gifts and compassion for those who need encouragement in their faith journey, and those who do not know him at all.

The blessings of living the Gospel are not only for our pleasure but for our salvation, and the word we share is also for the salvation of others. If Madonna House were ever to concentrate solely on our life together in community, important as that is, it would be the death of us.

Pope Francis has reminded us continually that mission is at the burning center of Christian existence. Yet our mission consists mainly in following Christ, who already lives, however obscurely at times, in those to whom we are sent. We seek him wherever we go and point him out to those who may not yet have heard his Name.

10) The Cross of Christ is at the heart of everything. There is no living of the Christian life without denying oneself and taking up the cross each day.

We have spoken of tensions in our life. The Cross by its very shape, stretching from heaven to earth vertically, and from horizon to horizon horizontally, embraces every imaginable contradiction and unites all things in the person of Jesus Christ.

He has willingly embraced every situation so that every situation may become reconciled in him: everything in heaven and everything on earth, when he made peace by the blood of the cross (see Colossians 1:20).

He awaits our “yes” to today’s trials so that our union with him becomes ever deeper and more real. When this happens, the ascetical life is hidden beneath the joy of being one with the Bridegroom. The countenance of our daily, ordinary lives is suffused with a glory that only the next life will reveal in full.