Creative Tensions at Madonna House (Yes, We Have Them) by Fr. David Mai



Creative tensions at Madonna House (Yes, we have them)

by Fr. David Mai

This year, Madonna House Combermere celebrates 75and anniversary of its foundation (May 17, 1947). It is a time when we, as a community, are invited to reflect on the nature of the vocation transmitted 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 communal life such taught by the foundress, Catherine.

Sometimes I wondered why some of them just weren’t resolved somehow. It seemed like it would save a lot of headaches trying to live the community way of life, not to mention be a welcome step towards something simpler and more streamlined.

However, after hearing Catherine time and time again insist on one side of an issue, sometimes the other, I assumed that it was just that way here, and had to be dealt with if one was called to live here for an indefinite period. of time.

Here are ten areas of tension I’ve noticed (not a definitive list):

1) The importance/value of manual labor and the priority of prayer over everything else. It seemed like a continual source of confusion for many of us, because on the one hand there was always a lot of work, way more than we could ever do, and we were continually told to do it extremely well. for the love of Christ. , and to do it faster and more efficiently. On the other hand, work only made sense, we were told, if it was done in prayer, with a recollected spirit, in the presence of Christ, so that the daily liturgy and the daily tasks combined in one offer.

“But how can we do this without more time to pray? we would ask. Answer: learn to always pray! The problem is over!

And by the way, working here has nothing to do with the North American heresy of “productionitis” (a Madonna House motto for obsessing over doing 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 involved cultivating a respect and love for things oriental. Some people were only too happy to do it, especially when comparing it to Western traditions. Others struggled to do so and felt the Roman side was overlooked.

The language in which these views were expressed was not always accommodating. So much for greater unity!

3) Our first 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 voiced their opinions in a way that was almost certainly to provoke the other person. Didn’t they know it now? But then I found myself doing the same once I felt more comfortable in the community!

4) The absolute necessity of the journey inward “to meet the God who dwells within” and the journey outward to serve Christ in our neighbour.

During those years (early 1970s), most of the talk was about poustinia and the journey inward as the only basis needed to reach out. Yet we were sternly warned that this was nothing but soul-searching! Both were ways to reach Christ.

But in practice it seemed to me that some leaned one way, some the other, a few were better balanced, but nobody (or few) had a clear idea of ​​how that works!

5) Similar to the previous one, this apostolate is called to be one with the poor, and yet fundamental to this, knowing deeply one’s own poverty, especially interior poverty.

I wondered how long it took to be ready to reach out to the poor, something I really wanted to do more of. When will I be poor enough to help the really poor? Boy, did I have a lot to learn!

6) There was a lot of talk about a relatively new concept that Catherine had recently introduced to the community – sobornost (a special type of unity and obedience that is very deep) – and at the same time continued teaching on one aspect of consecrated life much underestimated. criticism from all sides – obedience, old fashioned – go where you’re told and do what you’re told when you get there, etc.

Sobornost seemed so spiritual that it was beyond our reach (it is, without a tremendous openness to God’s grace), and obedience didn’t seem so necessary where sobornost is truly practiced and understood. But was it? Would it ever be?

7) At the heart of the spiritual life is a personal relationship with Christ, and at the heart of the relationship with Christ is that with Our Lady (and more recently we have added Saint 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! Alright, I thought, that’s just what I’m going to do. She will be happier and so will I!

But then, I have been told, it can best help you to discover such happiness! Oh great! And the best way to let her help you is to be consecrated to Jesus through her. (I knew they would find a way to get that one in!)

By the way, have you ever read Saint Louis de Montfort?

8) Living the Gospel without compromise is the goal of the Madonna House lifestyle, and we take this call seriously. (Yes, I could see that was true.) And since it is impossible to do that, 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 done satisfactorily. But when I expressed my bewilderment and frustration about it, people just smiled and said little. What madness !

9) Those in authority in the community should be obeyed as if they were Christ himself, and those in authority should seek the humility of Christ, Servant of all and Washer of the feet of his disciples.

The acceptance of this ideal was deep, I could see that, but I could also see that it takes a long time to learn what it really means, from a gospel perspective, to “achieve.” That the humble be lifted up and the arrogant be brought down sounds great until you learn that it is you who needs to be brought down!

10) Church tradition was of the utmost importance, cherished, respected and, analogously, community traditions were also to be respected and valued as recalling graceful events in our history. At the same time, Madonna House was portrayed as a prophetic community vis-à-vis the Church and not always well understood.

As for our own traditions, we would do well not to cling to those the Lord deems outdated, even cherishing those that are eternally relevant!

I realized that there were two possible responses to these tensions in MH’s life:

(1) Try to get rid of it and settle on one side or the other.

OR (2) Accept that you have to live with them and see what happens next.

Next month, I will look at the blessings that come with this last choice.

Excerpt from a conference during a day of recollection on December 14, 2021

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