Madonna House As A Healing Community

            "How can a Christian community heal people?" a priest once asked a psychiatrist. "Let them be loved by as many people as possible." he replied. The topic presented to me was, "How Do Christian Communities Heal?" and specifically, how does the Catholic community of Madonna House, founded by the late Catherine de Hueck Doherty, heal? To sum up at the very outset everything I will be trying to say in this article: we try to mediate to people God's love for them; we try to love them ourselves according to the gospel; we hope that they will finally love themselves as children of God, made in his image an likeness. Catherine's endless theme was that God has loved us infinitely, and we are called to love him back out of gratitude. This is the meaning of life. We are healed, then, when we know this love of God for us, and can freely respond to it. The source and essence of all healing is to have this loving relationship of a child with the living God.

            First, some distinctions and clarifications.

            This may not need to be said, but, the community doesn't heal: God heals; or, more accurately, healing takes place when the person is responsive to God's light and love. In the case of the physical body, "healing comes from inner resources. Mainstream medicine creates certain conditions under which healing becomes possible again" (Lerner, "Healing," in Healing and the Mind, ed. Bill Moyers, 324). So too, the community is an ecclesiola, a little church. As such it is a sacrament through which God heals. Madonna House seeks to create the conditions through which God can act and the person can trust enough to respond.

More Than Healing

            Instead of the word "healing," I prefer the much more traditional and comprehensive word "salvation." "Salvation" of course, means "healing," and the English word "salve" even sounds soothing. But the dis-ease, the predicament, in which the modern world finds itself requires a remedy best conveyed by the word salvation. If someone was drowning in the ocean, thrown a life-preserver, and pulled to the safety of a boat, we would not say that the drowning person was "healed." Our total human condition is more like that drowning person. As Chesterton said, "we are all survivors of a golden ship that has gone down." And St. Peter Chrysologus uses the same image when speaking of the dove at the baptism of Christ: "A dove announced to Noah that the flood had disappeared from the earth; so now a dove is to reveal that the world's shipwreck is at an end forever."

            This analogy of drowning is helpful also in that we must want to be rescued, be aware of our dangerous condition, and know how to reach out and hold on. Salvation/healing does not take place without our cooperation. Salvation/healing, in the Christian sense, can never be a mere technique, method, or approach for working out one's own cure. This is the peculiarly North American temptation and delusion. If there is a North American heresy, it is self-help salvation. The North American scene has become a veritable supermarket which offers countless spiritual technologies for "helping oneself" to salvation. A technology, basically, is a cause and effect relationship: I do A and B, and -- presto! -- C happens. In contrast, christian healing is based on the premise that God offers the light and strength which must then be accepted by the person.

            Our community is not a technique for healing. It is a place where we seek to live in such a way that we may be apt instruments through which the Lord may be able to manifest his grace. It is a healing atmosphere, a "divine milieu." I will be using the word "healing," then, in this wider religious context of salvation.

The Word

            To integrate into one apt image all the multi-faceted avenues of healing that occur in Madonna House, I will use that of the Word of God. The Lord said, "Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it." If Christians really heard the Word of God and acted upon it, healing would follow. The ancient monastic tradition saw the monastery as a way of preparing people to better hear the Word of God. The various aspects of the Madonna House way of life are simultaneously mediums for communicating the Word of God, as well as disciplines which prepare the spirit and render it docile to the acceptance of the Word. The goal is to enable people to freely respond to that Word. The community seeks to make the Word of God present so it can be heard with the heart and lived out in one's life; expose people to all the ways the Word wishes to address them; help them to recognize God's voice which is distinct from their own desires and false needs; and guide them through their struggle with their own resistances and spiritual deafness.

To Listen Is To Obey

            In Hebrew, Greek and Latin, the word "obey" really means to "listen," in the sense of doing what you hear. As children we all heard at times our mom or dad say -- when they told us to do something and we didn't act quickly enough: "Robert (and they always used our formal Christian names!) didn't you HEAR me!" We knew what they meant by this HEAR: we heard with our physical ears but didn't do anything.

             The biblical meaning of obey is to hear the word and act upon it. Significantly, Jesus never uses the word "obey" in reference to doing his Father's will. He uses much more profound images such as, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me." Like the prophet (Ezk 3:1-3) who eats the scroll of the Word, Jesus feeds upon his Father's will like the body that consumes food. (In olden times, people even swallowed tiny pieces of paper with the Prologue of John's Gospel printed on them. They believed eating this Word of God healed them.) The Word must first of all be made accessible -- "How can they believe if they have not heard." Then, the person must be helped to believe -- make an act of acceptance of the Word as true. This is to eat it. It is then digested through all the ways by which we "work out our salvation." In this way the Word becomes our food -- the divine energy by which we make decisions, are nourished, and healed of all the anti-words we have ingested.

Jesus Is The Word

            Origen said the Father only spoke one Word: Jesus. "In the beginning was the Word...and through him all things were made." While we are called to a relationship with each Person of the Trinity, Jesus in a special way is our Beloved. He "became flesh and lived among us" so we could touch and see and experience him. But every aspect of creation is a word of God: "God spoke and it was made." All of creation should remind us of God, and especially of Jesus. And everything in our way of life should reflect him and become an icon of his presence and love. I will understand "word," then, not only -- and perhaps not even primarily -- in a verbal sense, but as any manifestation which mediates Jesus Christ.

The Cross

            An integrative theme in this whole discussion about healing is suffering or the cross. Although the Word of God comforts and consoles, the Lord basically calls us out of the slavery of sin into the freedom and light of the children of God. This freedom and light cannot be achieved without suffering. Life is not about the avoidance of suffering. A doctor told a patient who had broken her arm and had just had the cast removed that she must exercise it now: "It will hurt but it won't hurt you." Many aspects of our being have been broken; the Word "re-sets" the break. Then we must exercise with our new self. "It will hurt but it will not hurt us." Healing is not be so much about "feeling better" as letting go of all the things that are not really part of our true self in God.

The Mother of God

            Another presence to be presumed throughout the healing process is the presence of Our Lady. Catholic theology sees her as truly the Mother of all the redeemed, the saved. Catherine saw a living relationship with her as essential to the Christian life. We encourage people to make what is called an act of consecration to Jesus through Mary. She functions, you might say, as the feminine dimension in our inner world. And, as Mother of the Church (which is feminine and always referred to as "She"), Mary helps us understand and relate as children to the Church as the beautiful Bride of Christ.

A Meaningful Symbolic Universe

            Much of the healing at Madonna House affects people in very subtle ways of which they are hardly aware. As I grow older I realize more how, as a child growing up in an almost total Catholic world, I was affected by devotions, serving at Mass, home lenten customs, and what I call a the Catholic symbolic universe, even before self-reflection became conscious. Life had meaning. The devotional life communicated it in one way, the teaching of the faith, with God and Christ at the center, in another. There was a place for everything and everything in its place.

            One way of speaking about Madonna House would be to describe it as a whole universe of symbolic meaning. That universe is the Church. Our spirits and psyches require symbols to mediate to us the meaning of God, the struggle between good and evil, the mystery of life and death, and our place in the vast drama of reality. "Primitive" peoples had their mythologies, and the ages of faith had the Christian universe of liturgy, faith, and doctrine which structured one's whole world. Christians and Catholics who come to us may have some of this Christian universe in place, but often they are starved for real food from the table of life-giving symbols. Often they are not in a vital relationship with the sacraments of the Church which mediate the healing presence of Christ. An essential part of the healing process of Madonna House is to make the Church a life-giving, beautiful sacrament, and to un-block their access to the very means of healing.

Sacred Time

            In this context, the liturgical year should receive special mention. As we celebrate each aspect of Christ's life, he is present to communicate to our spirit that very same meaning, strength, and life which he possesses. Thus, we increase our longing for Christ to come into our life during Advent; at Christmas we are filled with wonder at the Father's of his Son; during Lent we admit our need of conversion and repentance; at Easter we realize that we have already risen with Christ and are actually on the other side of death; at Pentecost we thank God for the gift of the Spirit who now lives within us. While these feasts are celebrated in every Catholic parish, the variety and the all-pervasiveness of liturgical customs and symbols here offers an added richness.

            This immersion in sacred time, in the liturgical world, is one of the greatest sources of healing here. Every day there is the Eucharistic liturgy and an hour of the divine office (psalms, hymns and readings.) We encourage people to use their bodies, by bowing, lifting their hands, reverently making the sign of the cross, to express the inner attitude of devotion. In a Christian view of the human person, adoration is the most profound act of which we are capable; therefore it is the most healing. Adoring God daily is a healing for the deep spirit. Often, one of the first comments people make after they've been here for a while is: "I feel that I've come home." It is not simply a matter of encountering a welcoming community which fills the gap of a perhaps inadequate home and impersonal city life. That too. But on a deeper level they are saying something else: "Our spirits are at home." Their spirits, which previously have only encountered bits and pieces of the Christian symbolic universe, or been immersed in anti-Christian symbolic worlds, now find themselves being bathed in an integrated world of faith. Much healing takes place on this level in most subtle, profound, and often unconscious ways.

The Word Of Conversion

            Significantly, the first word Jesus spoke in his public ministry was not about his Father's love, or the nature of the kingdom. It was a word of conversion: "Repent and believe the gospel." People must be aware of their need of healing and salvation, and be open to change. The community as a whole calls to conversion. One of Catherine's favourite expressions was "Friend, come up higher." Jesus is a very loving and attractive personality. It was the poor people who constantly sought him. His call to conversion was not frightening (except to those who didn't wish to be converted).

            So too our community tries to present the Word calling with love. Especially is this necessary today when so many of our young people have been wounded and abused. They will not be able to open up to the Word unless they hear it spoken and presented with love. We believe very much, therefore, in correction. We have come together to call one another to holiness and love. We should be glad to know how to get there. Shot through our way of life is a call to change, to not stay where you are, to move, to grow. But it is done in a context of love so that people can hear this word as a genuine desire for their growth, and not simply as another adult system to "shape them up."

             The Word of Mercy Conversion often means for many the need for forgiveness. Is not this the greatest healing? Psychiatrists have been telling us for years now that the basic problem is guilt. Jesus came, after all, to take our sins away. The sacrament of reconciliation is available to people here on a daily basis. The lifting of guilt from the soul is a giant step towards healing. They also need to be freed from "false guilt and shame," from "feeling guilty" for things that were done to them. Through the word of the Gospel, and hopefully through the healing that has taken place in the community, young people are led to believe in the possibility of healing. Otherwise it will be useless to open oneself up.

            A discernible pattern emerges. First, they often arrive with a facade that "they're okay"; secondly, they begin to take baby steps at revealing themselves; thirdly, they admit their wounds and/or sins; fourthly, they ask for help. Through this process a person becomes open to the healing that is available.

            Besides the supportive love of the community, another important factor assists this opening up: people see that the members of the community are wounded also. One rainy day I was showing a priest our island chapel. As we entered he saw that our roof was leaking. "Oh, thank God!" he said, "Madonna House has leaky roofs. I deal with them all the time. I was afraid the place would be perfect." If you visit us for an afternoon you may think we are perfect. If you stay for a few days you will begin to have doubts. If you spend a few months with us, well, you will see our leaky selves, even if we try to hide them. Actually, because we allow our own wounds to be visible, people are then encouraged to trust that they too will be accepted if they admit and reveal their wounds.

"I Am the Truth"

            We were created by God who is Love, to live according to his plan of love by doing his will. The first break in this plan was in the area of the mind: the devil injected a false idea, and we listened to him rather than to God. Salvation, then, must also be concerned with the re-formation of the mind so that it can discern and desire the truth, that is, God's self-revelation.

            In a verbal sense, truth is communicated in the daily homilies at Mass, at spiritual reading after lunch each day, in lectures during both summer and winter. Madonna House has an excellent library and an array of newspapers and periodicals on a wide variety of topics. On a more individual basis, the word is communicated in spiritual direction, for which priests are available. As directors they seek to teach people how to pray, discern the movements of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, and how to respond. Though not professional psychologists, by their training they are able to deal with ordinary psychological problems. When the subject of healing comes up we think of people going to a good counsellor and getting help in their emotional and psychological life. This, too, is provided for: professional help is available outside the community. At various levels, however, counselling goes on through superiors, directors of training, and other members of the community. On an informal basis, words of life can be spoken at table, in the dorms, while travelling or working or playing together. But our basic "word," you might say, is to be a community of love. Christianity is not first of all a doctrine but a new way of living together.

            The example of others trying to love and serve is one of the greatest means of instruction. The Poustinia Catherine believed very much in the importance of teaching, counselling, and intellectual knowledge. But, in the best of the Christian tradition, both East and West, she insisted that there was another kind of knowledge which comes from one's relationship with God, from the Holy Spirit, from listening to God who can and does speak in the depths of the heart, as Jesus said he would. We do not simply want to know what God said to others: We want him to speak to us as well. Although we need help to discern the voice of God, it is at the heart of our faith that God communicates directly with each one of us. For this we need silence. Madonna House does not have any rules of silence, but we have about 20 poustinias. "Poustinia" is the Russian word for "desert." They are small cabins where people go for a day of prayer and fasting, alone with the Alone. Many go one day a week. The poustinias are an integral part of our life. Over a period of time, this rhythm of silence and community life creates a silent place, a "poustinia of the heart," where other noises are silenced, and the heart can hear the Word, the voice of the Beloved. The poustinias have been an immense help in opening us up to hear the Word of God.

"I Am The Way"

            After acting upon the false idea in the garden of Eden, something tragic happened to our total ability to live for the Creator: some inner harmony and orientation to God was lost. This disharmony in ourselves led to disharmony in relations with others. Brothers began killing one another. Salvation must be concerned, then, with reestablishing loving relationships with others. We believe that much healing takes place in loving service to one another. Although the needs of the individual are a consideration, I would say that the emphasis is on going out of ourselves and seeking first the good of others. We express this by the saying, "I am third." While the individual self has legitimate needs, and we try to meet these within limits, the final healing can only come about by looking away from the self in self-forgetfulness, and by becoming absorbed in a good beyond the self. The healthy person is not primarily concerned with health but with living: health is for life, not life for health.

            The community is composed of men and women. This allows us to learn how to relate to the opposite sex in an atmosphere that is not charged with sexual games. We have our human frailties, of course. But many young people tell us that this is their first opportunity to relate socially to the opposite sex in a familial atmosphere, as brothers and sisters in the Lord. The complementarity of the sexes is a daily occurrence, where men and women can share their gifts, wisdom, and experiences with one another.

            Young people who have had poor relationships with mom or dad often find in an older man or woman a person -- and elder -- with they can work through some of their parental deprivations. Historical and family rootlessness is one of the diseases of the modern soul. We don't know our ethnic roots; and with the rise of broken families, young people often have no real sense of family relations and history. Often, in Madonna House, people get a taste of a family with a history, traditions, and anniversaries. It frequently happens that they begin, sometimes for the first time in their lives, to explore their own ethnic roots and family history. They are now proud to be Celtic or Polish. This rediscovery of their personal roots is also a source of healing.

The Restoration of Culture

            Many other evils followed from the original sin -- the fragmentation of the self and disorientation from God. It led people to build and make things which did not perfectly reflect the loving presence of God. We call it by the broad name of "culture." Salvation, then, in a secondary sense, must also be concerned with refashioning the world in which we live so that it is an aid and not an obstacle to our path to God. Catherine Doherty chose as her motto, "To Restore All things In Christ." The community she founded, therefore, really seeks to restore all the dimensions of the human person, including the cultural environment. She meant it to be a microcosm of a Catholic culture which addresses the various levels of the environment in which the human person lives.


            "Work," was once defined as "love made visible." We would apply this definition to all kinds of work -- art, writing, carpentry, farming, cooking -- any and all ways that the hands can provide service and fashion beauty. And what is fashioned is meant to reflect the Christian vision of life. Many young people come here with a very distorted notion of work. "You work to make money to buy the things you want so you can be happy." This, in a nut-shell, is the "American Dream." Work is a drudgery you have to do to obtain something else. Such a notion makes the daily life of most people quite boring, frustrating, and meaningless, because they are working most of the day.

             We consider teaching people how to cook, wash clothes, chop wood, plant and harvest, clean and sew, fix cars and file cards, as very much part of the healing process. Dr. Karl Menninger once said that love and work are the two strong foundations of life. Work is tackled and taught at Madonna House as an act of love. No honest work is demeaning or boring or meaningless. There is no scale from "menial" work to better or more exalted types of work. We see all work as sharing in God's creative activity. Even before the Fall, we were gardeners.


            "Beauty" is also a key element in our Madonna House way of life, and consequently an important ingredient in the healing process. The late and great theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, considered the restoration of the dimension of beauty to theology as his lifetime goal. The truth must also sing, as well as be intellectually true and accurate. Jesus, the Church, our faith, should be wonderfully appealing and attractive. "Beauty," said Plato, "is the splendour of the truth." Without beauty, truth does not attain its full expression. Beauty must be combined with truth for healing to be complete. So we also have an "arts and crafts" department, where people are encouraged to learn how to create beauty. It's a joy to hear the exclamations of delight when young people bring you their first creations. (I wove a basket once which was a bit lopsided. I showed it to Catherine and she put in on as a hat!)

            All work is a form of art. Young people are often -- not always! -- delighted with themselves in learning how to make soap, tap maple trees, or cook a stew. It is healing to make something with your own hands. Medicine is "discovering" that using one's hands to make something is therapeutic. We have a farm. Healing takes place with renewed contact with animals and with the earth. Gospel imagery comes alive when one is weeding, planting, and harvesting. Nature is alive. God's healing presence is experienced by touching animate creation in its myriad forms.

            The community experience, therefore, is very nitty-gritty, very practical. It is real life and not theory. There is not a great deal of time for dwelling on the self in a harmful, self-absorbing kind of way. In this real experience of life the self is put in touch with all levels of its being. And through love the doors are open to restoration. Madonna House is a total way of life which seeks to be a community of love, "seeks to love people in as many ways as possible." We seek, mostly, to be a channel of God's love, and to love others with a strong love, a love in spirit and in truth. The wounds of people are addressed on countless conscious and subconscious levels. We of the community seek to make the Word of God in Christ present to people, and to help and challenge them to respond freely.

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