What Does Madonna House Do?

by Theresa Davis

What happens in our Madonna House mission houses? To answer this question, I need to go back over my own journey many years.

When I was in university, I heard Jacques Maritain, one of the greatest philosophers of this century, lecture.

He told us that, at one juncture in their youth in Paris, he and his wife Raissa, were atheists who had been desperately searching. They decided to make a pact that, if they did not find a deeper meaning to their lives within a year, they would commit suicide together.

What prevented them was a lecture they attended by Leon Bloy. Among the many wonderful things Bloy said was this: “The greatest tragedy is not to become a saint.”

When Maritain shared this story, that line touched the very core of my heart. The greatest tragedy is not to become a saint. I thought, “That’s my aim. I’m going to become a saint!”

Now how does one become a saint? I assumed that I had to do something great, like St. George killing the dragon or St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland.

Well, I never could find anything great to do. Years went by and I forgot about becoming a saint.

Then in the mid-1950s, I landed here at Madonna House. It was a small place then; there were maybe 30 people here.

I’d been here a few days and hadn’t met the foundress Catherine Doherty yet. Then one day in the middle of lunch, it was as if something electric went through the room. In walked this woman.

She was so beautiful. I don’t have words for it, but it was like light walked into the room with her. At the end of lunch, she got up and talked about God for what seemed like three hours or so. It wasn’t really that long.

Among the many things she said was, “The only thing anybody should want is to be a saint. The greatest tragedy is not to be a saint!”

There it was again! I couldn’t believe it.

She continued “All you have to do is be madly in love with God. And to do that you have to live the Gospel without compromise. You don’t live the Gospel in a vacuum. Jesus never lived in a vacuum. You live it by doing the duty of the moment. Do little things out of love. Live a life of simplicity.”

That’s all I had to do? It sounded so easy! Thank God I had finally found the formula to become a saint. It sounded so good! Did I know then that every day wasn’t going to be so easy?

Of course, as the days went on, she taught us how to flesh those words out. For example, I remember a talk she gave on the Trinity. It was spectacular.

I had just studied Aquinas in college for three years, but I was never moved by the Trinity until I heard Catherine speak.

Afterwards, two of us were assigned to sweep the dining room floor. There we were, leaning on our brooms, chatting.

“Wasn’t it a lovely talk?” “Oh, yes, it was great!”

Catherine walked back in the room. Spotting us, she asked, “So, what are you doing?”

“Catherine,” we said, “we’re just talking about that wonderful talk you gave on the Trinity.”

“God just flew out the window,” she said. “He’ll come back when you finish sweeping the room.”

I never forgot that. Every day she showed us how to flesh out the Gospel.

I could tell many stories. I remember the time her nephew was killed in a motorcycle accident. It was announced during lunch. After lunch and spiritual reading, Catherine went back to her cabin.

She didn’t stay there very long. I don’t know what she did—maybe cried or prayed.

Not long after she left us, she called for her secretary and started to dictate letters. That was her duty of the moment. She lived what she taught.

She always said that the duty of the moment will consoles you. It’s your deepest comfort.

I remembered that years later, when I was in Madonna House Israel. My mother died while I was there, and after the first shock of the news, I remembered that in order to be consoled I had to get back into the duty of the moment of MH Israel.

Another thing Catherine stressed was that you have to be before you do. Being is more important than doing. To be honest, for years I never really understood this. For one thing, we never stopped working from morning to night! Yet, “being” was more important; the work was supposed to be the overflow of this being.

In the 1960s, three of us were sent to open a mission in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). I was the director. The plan was that we were going for life. The first two years were set aside for study of the language and immersion in the culture.

As these two years came to a close, the vicar general of the diocese (the bishop was away at the Second Vatican Council) kept asking us what we were going to do.

The poverty in East Pakistan was unbelievable, so he wanted us to do some corporal work of mercy—take over the high school or run a dispensary or something similar.

So, I wrote to Catherine. “Catherine, we have to be thinking about what we’re going to do. Father is waiting for your answer.”

She wrote back and said, “Do nothing.”

Father asked me what she had said. How could I tell him she said “Do nothing”? So I said, “I don’t think she understood me. I’ll write another letter.”

I wrote again. “Catherine, you don’t understand. Father is waiting for an answer. What are we supposed to do?”

She said, “Theresa, you have to be there.” There were a whole bunch of other words that I ignored, because all I could see was do nothing.

Father said, “Well, what did she say?”

I said, “I don’t think she got my letter.”

So for a third time, shaking, I wrote, “Catherine, you have to get concrete now. Tell us what you want us to do.”

This is what she wrote me that third time:

***

 

“You know, priests used to ask me exactly that same question that they’re asking you.

“’What will you do?’ When people ask this, what they mean to say is not only ‘what do we do’, but also ‘how can we justify our existence there and everywhere, if not by the production of good works?’

“The exact function of your center is to be there, to love, to suffer gossip, misunderstanding, false accusations, and persecution even unto death.

“Just be; just love. Remember that the essence of this love expresses itself in hospitality, availability, charity and peace.

“The thing you must achieve, I repeat, the exact function of your center, its essence and its basic principle, is to be a community of love among the three of you. All you can give people is your poverty and God’s love.

“Please, oh please, Theresa, do not stress so much production. Let it never be your yardstick. Fight an endless fight against this terrible, spirit-deadening approach to Christian missionary life.”

***

I’m saying all this to answer the simple question—what do we do in our mission houses—because I think that that’s the essence of all missionary work, and of each Madonna House. Yes, even though some of our houses do specific active works, such as soup kitchens and catechetics.

Catherine’s words eventually penetrated the epidermis of my soul, into the deep marrow of my spirit. In our houses, we try to be the kind of center that Catherine talked about—one of hospitality, of availability.

We have houses where all sorts of people meet—Muslims, Jews, Baptists, Episcopalians, etc. We want to be a listening post where the poor, the whites, the blacks, the lay apostles, the ministers, the priests, everybody, comes to be refreshed.

Like all of you, we’re just trying to live the Gospel without compromise, and that’s about it. Above all, I repeat, we try just to be, just to love.

That says it all.

The two houses mentioned are now closed.

Adapted from Restoration, October 1998