A Place Where I Could Be Myself 

by Solomon Ip – Spiritual Formation Program 2020-2021

When I came to Madonna House for the spiritual formation program, I was driven by a friend whose GPS took us on every back road from Ottawa. The sun was setting as we left Renfrew (about halfway there) and by the time we arrived at Madonna House we were driving through the forest in complete darkness.

We were met at the main house by one of the staff, and I was transferred to another vehicle and whisked away up a hill and brought to a cabin called a “poustinia” to quarantine due to COVID.

I sat up until 2 a.m. reading multiple short biographies of Catherine Doherty, the foundress of Madonna House, went to bed, and when I woke up the next morning, my anxieties were staring me straight in the face. Apparently, even if you have unwittingly entered the “desert,” you have still entered it.

These turned out to be productive days of journaling, walking, and laying the groundwork for the rest of my visit to Madonna House.

By day ten, I was getting squirrelly, and the Madonna House nurse, Diana Breeze mercifully gave the word that I was ready to go on to the next stage of my adventure.

Someone drove me down the hill to the main house for lunch. Then it was on to the farm, where I moved more apples than I have ever seen in my life. The whole experience, especially the quarantine, was a rather surreal beginning to my time as a working guest.

Now that the spiritual formation program has drawn to its close, I can’t quite put words on how exactly I’ve grown, but I know I have.

Physically everything about this life is almost the same as when I arrived, down to the fuzzy mold on the rutabagas in the root cellar, and yet I know that there has been a profound change within me.

One of the first lessons I learned here was that I needed to be myself. After my conversion from Anglicanism as a teenager, my early experience of the Catholic Church was of people with very strong opinions about where politics, sociology and Church ought to intersect, and whose expression of these opinions was unsettling to me.

I knew that my non-partisan politics wouldn’t make anyone happy, and my cultural inheritance as a Chinese-Canadian would make me stand out in the Church, but I tried my darnedest to make everyone like me by hiding these things.

But as with all lies, it had to fall apart spectacularly when I had to face the fact that God gave me my family history and background for a reason, and that it profited me nothing to disguise my politics.

Similarly, I had to address the lie that I wasn’t “manly” enough to do the work that I was assigned here. The breakthrough happened one afternoon at the wood pile, after an exhilarating moment when I chopped one large piece of log into three in as many strokes.

I was rather pleased with how I had finally succeeded in a “manly” task. Yet, my satisfaction still felt empty. I had done it, yet nothing about me was more (or less) masculine because of it. A subdued awe came over me as I realized that nothing of what I do determines my masculinity, that it lies in who I am.

As Catherine Doherty taught: “What you do matters very little. Who you are matters tremendously.”

I have had to accept so many aspects of myself at Madonna House—my family history, my personal history, my Anglo-Catholic spirituality. So much of my time at Madonna House was spent lancing wounds and receiving healing.

One of the great words I received is actually an echo of what my mother said to me years ago, which I only understood now: “Solomon, it doesn’t have to be so hard.”

I learned that following Christ isn’t about the rules, the regulations, gripping tightly to make sure I’m following good theological and spiritual precepts.

It’s about falling deeper and deeper in love with God, trusting him, listening to him as he reveals his will to me, and letting go.

I can clamp down on myself in tight scrupulosity (and I know how hard I can clamp down on myself!), pressure myself to “get it all right,” and eventually blow a gasket; or I can let God empty me of my self-will and self-reliance and lead me deeper into love.

Everything I learned at Madonna House can be summed up in one phrase by St. John Henry Newman: God has created me to do him some definite service.

God: I’ve learned a deeper understanding of who God  is and of how much I love him.

Created me: God loved me into being and that love is specific. His act of creation is constant, ongoing, and he created me and loves me as I am, regardless of whether I think how he created me is right or not.

To do him some definite service: I have a specific, individually-crafted mission as a Christian, which is to return God’s love by loving my neighbor as myself and by living in poverty, chastity, and obedience as God indicates in a personal call, to the glory of his name.

I had no idea what I was getting into when I arrived in the parking lot of Madonna House on October 10th. But I knew I was coming to offer myself up to God for this time.

And I have learned that all-important principle of kenosis: whatever I give to God, he gives back to me in another, better, more authentic way.

And so, thank you, Madonna House family, for giving me a place to receive my self back from God, purified in this intense crucible of love. I leave with beautiful memories (aside from veggie peeler disasters), and an intense craving for Chinese food. And I actually leave—as myself.