11 Apr Creative Tensions in Madonna House (Yes, We Have Them)
by Fr. David May
This year Madonna House Combermere is celebrating the 75th anniversary of its foundation (May 17, 1947). It is a time when we as a community are invited to reflect upon the nature of the vocation passed on to us by Catherine Doherty.
When I first arrived as a working guest at Madonna House Combermere in late 1972, it didn’t take long to notice that there were a number of tensions inherent in the community life as taught by the foundress, Catherine.
At times I wondered why some of them simply weren’t resolved one way or the other. It seemed to me that this would save a lot of headaches in trying to live out the community’s way of life, not to mention being a welcome step towards something simpler and more streamlined.
However, after hearing Catherine over and over again emphasizing now one side of an issue, now the other, I surmised that this is just the way it is around here, and that one had to deal with it if called to live here for any length of time.
Here are ten areas of tension I noticed (not a definitive list):
1) The importance/value of manual work and the priority of prayer over all else. This seemed a continual source of confusion to many of us, because, on the one hand, there was always plenty of work, way more than we could ever get done, and we were continually being urged to do it exceedingly well for love of Christ, and to do it more quickly and efficiently On the other hand, there was no point to the work, we were told, unless it was done prayerfully, with a recollected spirit, in the presence of Christ, so that the daily liturgy and the daily tasks blended into one offering.
“But how can we do that without more time to pray?” we would ask. Answer: learn to pray always! End of problem!
And by the way, work here has nothing to do with the North American heresy of “productionitis,” (a Madonna House coinage for being obsessed with getting done as much as possible)!
2) The call to work for unity between Eastern and Western traditions in the Church, but we are definitely a Roman Catholic community (well, 95% on average).
Of course, this often implied cultivating a respect and love for things Eastern. Some people were only too glad to do so, especially when they compared it to Western traditions. Others had much trouble doing so and felt that the Roman side was being neglected.
The language in which these points of view were expressed was not always conciliatory. So much for greater unity!
3) Our primary charism is to form a community of love, and our greatest difficulty is to form a community of love! As a 21-year-old, I wondered why people would express their views in a way that was almost certainly to provoke the other person. Didn’t they know that by now? But then I found myself doing the same once I felt more at home in the community!
4) The absolute necessity of the journey inward “to meet the God who dwells within” and of the journey outward to minister to Christ in our neighbor.
In those years (early 1970s), most of the talk was about poustinia and the journey inward as the one necessary foundation for reaching out. Yet we were warned severely that this was anything but introspection! Both were ways of reaching out to Christ.
But in practice it looked to me that some leaned one way, some the other, a few were better balanced, but that no one (or few) had a clear picture of how this works!
5) Similar to the preceding, this apostolate is called to be one with the poor, and yet foundational to that, knowing profoundly one’s own poverty, especially interior poverty.
I wondered how long you had to wait to be ready to go to the poor, something I really longed to do more of. When would I be poor enough to be of assistance to the really poor? Boy, did I have a lot to learn!
6) There was much talk about a relatively new concept Catherine had recently introduced to the community—sobornost (a particular kind of unity and obedience that is very deep)—and at the same time a continual teaching about an aspect of consecrated life much under criticism on all sides—obedience, the old-fashioned kind—go where they tell you and do what you’re told when you get there, etc.
Sobornost seemed so spiritual as to be beyond our reach (it is, without a tremendous openness to the grace of God), and obedience didn’t seem so necessary where sobornost is really practiced and comprehended. But was it? Would it ever be?
7) At the heart of the spiritual life is a personal relationship to Christ, and at the heart of the relationship to Christ is that to Our Lady (and more recently, we’ve added St. Joseph).
My question was, why such complications? Why can’t I pray directly and simply to Christ? I could, I was told; nothing would make Our Lady happier! Good, I thought, that’s just what I’ll do. She’ll be happier and so will I!
But then, I was told, she can help you best in learning about such happiness! O, great! And the best way to let her help you is to be consecrated to Jesus through her. (I knew they’d find a way to get that one in there!)
By the way, have you ever read St. Louis de Montfort?
8) Living the Gospel without compromise is the goal of the Madonna House way of life, and we take that call seriously. (Yes, I could see that was true.) And since it’s impossible to do this, our need for God’s forgiveness in this area is constant.
Oh, no! Another area where we are called to try to do something that can never be satisfactorily achieved. But when I expressed my perplexity and frustration over this, people just smiled and said little. How maddening!
9) People with authority in the community are to be obeyed as if they were Christ himself, and people in authority were to seek the humility of Christ, Servant of all and Washer of his disciples’ feet.
The acceptance of this ideal went deep, I could see, but I could also see that it takes a long time to learn what it really means, from a gospel vantage point, to “make it.” That the humble are raised up and the arrogant brought low sounds great until you learn you are the one needing to be brought low!
10) Church tradition was of greatest importance, treasured, respected, and in an analogous way, communal traditions were also to be respected and appreciated as recalling incidents of grace in our history. At the same time, Madonna House was described as a prophetic community vis a vis the Church and not always well understood.
As to our own traditions, we do well not to cling to those the Lord deems passé, even while treasuring the ones perennially relevant!
I realized there were two possible responses to these tensions in MH life:
(1) To try to get rid of them and settle on one side or the other.
OR (2) To accept that one must live with them and see what happens next.
Next month, I’ll look at the blessings flowing from making the latter choice.
Excerpted from a talk at a day of recollection on December 14, 2021