collage of canoeing, hoeing garden and sitting on a dock, quietly watching the river

Vacations and Vocations

by Fr. David May

Just about everyone around here is on vacation except us and the people who make their living hosting people on vacation.

In Madonna House, summertime vacations for staff are basically frowned upon and only occasionally granted. We have nothing against summer vacations per se, of course.

It’s just that we have the summer program for young people, the summer gardening for our bellies in winter, the summer trade at our gift shop for the poor, the summer vacation-retreat for families at our Cana Colony, the summer flowers to tend for the sake of having some extra beauty around, and so forth.

So, when someone here bails out of these wonderful work opportunities to take a couple of weeks off in July or August, it’s well, unusual if not unheard of.

After all, there are other months in the year for holidays, like January or February or even March or December or November.

To repeat, we have nothing against vacations, but our foundress Catherine did tell us more than once that “there is no vacation from God.” Not that we’re looking for one.

There’s no vacation from a vocation like the one we have here either. No matter where we go, we have promised to live in poverty, chastity, and obedience. People notice when we are not faithful and can be scandalized, but of course it’s wrong to break solemn promises in any event.

And the nub of it is that fidelity to our simple if not austere way of life should be our joy whether on vacation or not. A vocation, after all, is forever.

Forever is what we eventually promise to live around here (usually after seven years in temporary promises and nearly two years of applicancy).

We’ve never gone for keeping our promises only “for life,” as if heaven will finally let us off the hook.

No, we believe we will be marked for all eternity by a commitment made on this earth in this earthly life, and the thought of that, if one thinks about it at all, brings a lot of joy.

Because poverty means my treasure is Christ and his kingdom; chastity means my heart is wholly his and thus my whole being is inclined in love and adoration of the Lord in himself and in my brothers and sisters; and obedience means that the Father’s will is fully accomplished at last.

So, if you ever visit us during the summer months, there’s a good chance that you’ll find those of us assigned to Combermere somewhere in the neighborhood, busy but not wandering off very far.

Of course, quite a few come to join us in this experience in the summer months, since that’s when they get vacation time. For most people, it’s the easiest time to come up here (it’s usually “up” from where most of our guests live) to share in what our vocation has to offer.

Some even get a call to this vocation like we did at one point. Or at least the seed gets planted even as we are hoeing and cultivating the gardens to keep the weeds from going to seed.

(A weed, by the way, is distinguished from our crop species in that it never takes a breather from growing, never takes a vacation from putting down roots, sending up shoots, and otherwise trying to choke out our vegetables and strangle our delicate flowers with their bare hands. Shame on them!)

There’s no vacation from a vocation, but that doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy ourselves while we work our way through the hot(ter) summer months.

After all, the Madonna House inheritance is a beautiful way of life, that is, a way to live out the Gospel, and the Lord knows there’s joy in that, no matter what the season, and no matter whether one is on vacation or not.

More specifically, what does that mean? Well, it means that our spiritual “locus” in the Gospels is somewhere in the neighborhood of what the Holy Family lived and experienced in Nazareth, after they got back from being in exile in Egypt due to unstable political conditions in Galilee.

Now that things had simmered down somewhat for a time, there was time and space for the eternal Son of God to grow up as a normal human being in a very normal village in a backwater of the Roman Empire.

So, they lived as a hard-working family in what many regarded as an utterly non-outstanding place. But they loved and cherished one another, prayed with a contemplative spirit, and loved their God.

They were kind to all, did little things exceedingly well out of love, and were themselves a perfect community of love. There was something like a flame burning in their hearts, which became evident when Jesus went public years later and they said of him zeal for his Father’s house will consume him (cf. Jn 2:17).

Nazareth can burst forth from time to time with someone deeply grounded in God alone, burst forth as Jesus did, an unexpected flame from heaven, speaking the truth and offering light and life to all who listened … and to those who did not.

What we learn here is that, for all we do, what we do is not as important by a long shot as who we are, since we are called to have God burning within us like a flame consuming all that we do as a sacrifice of love and faith.

See how my language gets more and more poetic, the more I think about our vocation in this vacation-ideal part of Ontario?

But that is the way Catherine Doherty spoke about our vocation. And that is what happens to you, after a time, if you have a vocation like this one.

On the one hand, a “little things” spirituality makes you more aware of the significance, say, of cups lovingly washed and a room properly swept; but you are being filled in the meantime with a burning concern for the whole earth, that it will come to know the love of God that surpasses all understanding in Christ.

We may go out, some of us, and speak about all this, or we may not. Most of us remain at home tending the home fires, so to speak. But after a time, you start to “become a prayer” for all humanity—beginning with our friends and benefactors, but soon extending to the whole nation, the Church in our part of the world, and far beyond.

The issues of today may seem far from a place like this, a fact which some of our visitors appreciate, though others have commented that we are living in a kind of Shangri-La. (To these we sometimes say, “Stay a little longer!”)

But these issues touch us here in various ways, through our visitors, the news, various governmental regulations affecting us all, and spiritually through our own interior struggles in the areas of sexuality, freedom of conscience, and gospel of life vs. culture of death with all its many tentacles reaching to snuff out life in the name of freedom and compassion.

If you’re living in touch with God, these issues of our time cannot help but affect you in some way as they affect him.

And while his part remains in many ways a mystery, our part is clear enough. Despite an idyllic location for a vocation, the battle goes on here, too, often in a hidden way.

But if you know anything about visions in the night and the confrontation with evil in the poustinia desert of the soul, you have an idea of how “in touch” one can be even in the most peaceful of settings with the workings of a world never far from our own.

All of this is nicely tucked away along the Madawaska River in the village of Combermere, in which, for two or three months of the year, boat traffic mixes with the cry of the loons—where vacations, vocations, and those haunting invocations mingle peacefully and mysteriously under summer skies.