Chambers of Her Heart,
Madonna House & Priestly Formation

Chapter 4 Chapter 2 Contents List


          If I was writing a profound theological treatise for you (which I am not), I’d have to start out with a Chapter on the Blessed Trinity, which is the ultimate divine milieu in which we all “live and move and have our being.” Thanks be to God, a great deal is being written these days about the Trinity in the life of the Christian. Because of her Russian background, Catherine anticipated this in the recent West. She often spoke about the Trinity and, in our Constitution or Way of Life, she said that the Trinity is the ultimate model for our life together.

          I am not going to start out in this way because my approach is more experiential. When you first enter Madonna House your mind will not be immersed in the mystery of the Trinity! It is the final goal of our pilgrimage, and probably a few years away yet from your mental horizon. When on a pilgrimage, one must pass through different towns and landscapes before reaching the holy place. You will see signs that keep pointing you in the right direction, but you will experience many more lands before the final destination.

          Thus, as we make our journey through various dimensions and layers of your pilgrimage in Madonna House, I will, from time to time, make some connections with the Trinity, to keep your eyes straining for a glimpse of this final Milieu.

          One of your first experiences of Madonna House – in a matter of hours – will be that everything is very ordered, and you are being asked to enter into it! This is the first “divine milieu.” The phrase comes from the writings of Teilhard de Chardin. It is a beautiful phrase. All peoples of faith attempt to live consciously and practically within a milieu, an atmosphere, penetrated by the divine. I will first describe Madonna House in general terms according to three such divine atmospheres – sacred order, salvation/healing, and the chambers of our Lady’s heart (Nazareth). A number of other approaches could have been chosen. Mine will be one attempt to describe, in terms of Madonna House, something of that “other world of spiritual realities” that Dawson spoke about, the entrance into which is at the heart of Christian formation and education.

          Then, in the following Chapters, I will consider certain aspects of this formation more specifically. But every aspect is penetrated by a multi-faceted divine milieu, ultimately leading to immersion in the Trinitarian life.

          I will be repeating the following vision in various ways: the basic formative agent is the community life itself. It is through all the aspects of the life together that the Trinity effects our transforming union with them. As the theologians say, the Trinity is always within us substantially, otherwise we would cease to exist. But our participation in the divine life as persons is a matter of mutual love. In this sense it is true to say; I love, therefore I am. Chambers is about how the community of Madonna House fosters love for the Trinity.

          A sacred order exists throughout all of creation, whether we know it or not, whether we follow it or not, believe in it or not. It bears fruit within us when we follow it, especially through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Christian view of reality is that God’s laws are shot through everything – our spirits, our minds, our bodies, the earth, the whole cosmos.

          These laws are now fully illuminated by Christ – “I have come not to destroy the law but to fulfil it.” This applies not only to the revelation in the Old Testament but to all of the Creator’s merciful guidelines for our well-being. The great temptation is to view these laws as limiting, keeping us dependent, immature, restricting our true growth. In a way this is the major perception and criticism of the modern world about Christianity and the Church: “The Church’s teaching is against true freedom, against total human fulfilment, and even against the nature of the human person. The Church obstructs human progress and development.”

          The present Pope is acutely aware of this criticism, and has spent much of his intellectual life refuting this falsehood. The Church, as did ancient Israel, sees God’s laws as “a light for our eyes and a lamp for our feet” (Ps.119:105), and not as obstacles to the pursuit of authentic human happiness.

          G.K. Chesterton (whom I consider one of the greatest Christian minds of all time) gives us a vivid and accurate analogy of what happens when we venture beyond the boundaries of God’s sacred order.

          Children are playing joyfully on an island in the middle of the sea. They are protected from the sea by a huge, solid wall. One day one of the children says, “This wall is limiting our freedom. Let us take it down so we can enjoy ourselves even more.” So they dismantle the wall, only to discover that the mighty waves of the ocean now come crashing in around them. Their joy and security are gone; their play is ended. “They are huddled in terror in the center of the island, and their song has ceased.” What they thought was a limitation to their freedom was actually protecting their true liberty to play in safety and joy.

          This image, of course, can apply to space and geography: if you take down a fence, be sure you know why it was put up; if you step too close to a precipice, you may fall over, and so on. But the analogy  primarily has a metaphysical, spiritual intent: we were created to function in a certain way. True freedom and happiness are found within these limits.

          So many people in the modern world are like these children, terrified now in the middle of the island of planet earth. They have transgressed the restraints of nature and nature’s God in the search for an illusory freedom. What they have actually done is unleash truly titanic – and often demonic – forces that they cannot control, forces that threaten to engulf them.

          The laws are the walls that protected them. They can no longer play securely if they take the walls down. They are not happy because their lives are now precisely form-less – without perimeters, without outlines that define the beauty of life’s mysteries. This is happening not only in nature and in the environment, but within their own bodies. They are filled with angst, a nameless terror stemming from a meaningless and uncontrollable universe.

          The lives of the saints – those who lived profoundly within sacred order – were not dull. Just read them! They experienced more life, more romance, more excitement than anyone because they knew the freedom and exhilaration of playing within the boundaries.

          Yes, of course, as one seeks to love God more and more, there is a kind of “narrowing” and limitation that takes place: you must stop doing selfish, foolish, and dangerous things. You can’t have fun by jumping over the sea wall. This indeed “limits” one’s activities. But it limits our activity in the same way in which the athlete’s and artist’s activity is limited: their expertise becomes more directed, more focused, more perfect, more beautiful, because more in conformity with keeping the rules of the games and the guidelines of true art. The lines of a painting, yes, limit the colors from going all over the canvas. But it is precisely these lines which create the beautiful picture.

          Since the Trinity is the source of all order, there must be some kind of divine order even with the Trinity. Someone sent me a book once called The Chaos Theory. The author’s point was that events in nature that seem chaotic to us, such as water going over a falls, or clouds in the sky, really do have an order about them. Perhaps it is only the intelligent creature’s wilfulness that is the source of what we call chaos.

          Living within sacred order is one of the keys to the richness of our experience of life here at Madonna House. We are trying to live within the sacred boundaries of life expressed in nature, in the Gospel, in the teachings of the Church. It is the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, who is the Artist and Architect guiding our efforts. The paradox of every living thing is that it is both alive and bounded; the paradox of intelligent creatures is that we are free and bounded. Catherine’s guidance of the community was one continuous and profound instruction in how to live enthusiastically and joyously within sacred order.

          The modern world is dis-orientated, over-stimulated, with a plethora of facts and information, but without any order. Thus it abhors the ordinary, bounded life, and constantly seeks excitement and novelty. (This is reflected in sports by the invention of new  and dangerous feats of athletic prowess.)

          Our motto at Madonna House is “To restore all things to Christ.” One of the keys to this restoration is St. Paul’s “obedience of faith” in

          God’s order, playing the notes of the symphony he has composed. We are not the creators of the musical score, not the authors of the drama in which we are involved. Within boundaries, we can create music and improvise the play, but always under the guidance of the supreme Conductor and Director. We are the apprentice/artists, learning how to play, how to act our parts according to the script. The ultimate question is: “Am I Thy master, or art Thou mine?”

          One of Catherine’s words of life to us is, ”Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me [Christ].” In any art form it is the small details which make for perfection. Every note of a symphony is small, but the whole symphony is precisely composed of the harmony of thousands of small notes. If you slurp over the individual notes you are really destroying the symphony. There is simply no way to play the symphony except by learning to play the individual notes well. But in the art of life, many people say, “Let’s just live and be free and not get bogged down in all the minutiae and picayune details. Let’s just LIVE!

          At Madonna House we try to do each small thing as well as we can, since all of creation is made up of very, very small elements. The most important ingredients of our activity are in the intentions of the heart, but the way we express this outwardly is also important. In this way we achieve a growing sense of the sacred order which permeates everything, and we enter into it. There are many good people who want to save the world and bring peace and harmony to all. Catherine used to say that they must begin by doing the dishes without complaining.

          Whether it’s doing the eternal dishes, or meeting guests, or writing books and letters, or cleaning your room, or talking with your brothers and sisters, whatever it is, it is not small in the eyes of God. Yes, it’s small in scope, but that’s the whole point: everything is both small and very important at the same time. Atoms are very small, blood and brain cells are very small, but if even one is damaged, havoc can ensue.

          I would like now to apply this insight to several aspects of our way of life. We will be discussing them more in detail later on, but first I’d like to situate them within this reality of sacred order.

          Someone once described our community as “simply orthodox,” in the sense of “right belief, right doctrine.” (Actually, “orthodox” means right worship.) The Spirit leads us ever more deeply into what Chesterton called the “romance of orthodoxy.” The articles of the Creed – “I believe in God, the Father Almighty…and in Jesus Christ…On the third day he rose again from the dead,” and so forth – are like the stones of that wall protecting the children. They are the precious truths of the mind which keep the flighty religious imagination from wandering into an unlimited swarm of notions and ideas. Without the Christian Creed, the human mind and imagination is capable of every conceivable distortion about God and life.

          This Creed is the clear, profound, true remedy for all confusions and vagaries of the human mind. It is the strong wall of defence that protects us from superstition, fantasy, and the thousand-and-one false pathways of the human mind. The Creed has survived two thousand years of existence, surely a sign of divine protection, and quite beyond any merely human ability or competence of preservation.

          Here at Madonna House we discover that the truly great adventure of the mind is not an exploration into all the latest bizarre theories rampant in our world. The greatest adventure of the mind is entering into this sacred order of belief, and living out these truths more deeply. The Catholic Church is waiting for the end of all intellectual fads. (St. Augustine says somewhere that there mysteries we should not inquire into, but wait until they are revealed to us in heaven.)

          Thus, we do not spend a lot of time investigating or gathering more and more novel theories about the faith. We are not lacking the truth: “He who follows me does not walk in darkness but has the light of life.” We are striving for a deeper faith and love so we may live out better the truth we already know. Tertullian says that once you have discovered the truth you do not keep searching, but live in the truth you have found. St. Francis of Assisi did not believe truths different from what we believe; he just believed and lived them more passionately. (I will consider this “stewardship of the mind” more specifically in Chapters 8 and 9).

          For us, faith in the Church is an essential guide to sacred order. Many people even in the Church think that she is confused about the faith. She is not. Many people may be confused; some priests and bishops may be confused. But the Church in her Magisterium is not confused; the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not indicate uncertainty; it teaches with authority and clarity. All the bishops gathered at the Second Vatican Council were not confused. Pope John Paul II is not confused: he is not having an identity crisis. (A prayer on the heart of another member of the community for the men in this program was “that they have a great loyalty to the Magisterium of the Church.”)

          This approach often seems restrictive and narrow, but there cannot be a variety of answers to the great questions of life. If there is a sacred order, there must be a guide to help us know what it is. We believe the Catholic Church is that guide. There is no need to be fearful and in terror before the crashing waves of modern confusion if we allow the protective walls of the Church’s truths to surround our minds and hearts. One of the present Pope’s constant refrains is, “Be not afraid.”

          If there is a sacred order then one must be open to receive it. Docility is a key virtue at Madonna House. The Latin word for teach is “doceo,” and docility is the attitude of openness to being taught. It is closely related to “obedience” which means to listen. Here at Madonna House the members take a promise of obedience. It is our way of pursuing the fine points of the art of the Christian life.

          If you want to learn to be a musician you would go to a teacher and obey instructions. You would admit your ignorance. You would give yourself over to this teacher to be taught. You would not see this as a loss of your freedom, or a restriction on your personal initiative and creativity. You would actually be stupid if you thought you could teach yourself. It is, then, a highly intelligent act to obey someone who is more proficient than you in what you want to learn.

          It is really the same in respect to learning to live the Christina life although, admittedly, it may require a deeper trust in the teacher, since you are submitting not only a certain talent to be formed but your deepest life and character. Wishing to submit ourselves to God’s sacred order, we submit ourselves to Christ who speaks to us and guides us through those who know the Christian life through experience. A grace greatly to be desired for anyone who comes here is trusting that the community knows how to live the Gospel better than you do!

          One of the deepest and most challenging dimensions of this obedience occurs in relationship to a spiritual director. (Most people who come here have never had a spiritual director, so it is truly something to be learned.) It’s perhaps in this area, most of all, where the core wound of sin – pride – is unmasked. The human problem is not basically ignorance but arrogance – a blind, defiant, irrational drive to do what I want, God or anybody else notwithstanding. This is the really destructive tendency. It clouds the mind and weakens the will, pulling and impelling the person in all sorts of wayward directions, instead of towards the will of God.

          Thus, even where good choices are involved, or in instances where you may really know a better way of doing things (for example, in our library, because you have a degree in library science), we ask people to obey in order to root out of their hearts this arrogance. Sin itself is irrational. Perhaps some of the deep roots of this weed can only be removed by accepting directives which are – not necessarily irrational, and certainly not immoral – but which we do not decide and determine for ourselves.) In people who are just beginning the Christian life, arrogance is often still entwined around these wilful desires like a poisonous vine around a rose bush.

          Thus the call to obedience permeates our whole life. We try to witness to the real freedom found in such obedience. Even now it’s possible to taste something of the new creation because we obey God’s laws which are “sweeter than honey in the mouth.” When St. Paul tried to sum up how Christ saved us he said “he was obedient, even unto death, death on a cross.”

          Strange as it may seem, living in obedience to Christ is the quintessence of adventure. Adventure has something to do surprises, risk, daring, hazarding into the unknown. One cannot really plan a surprise or adventure for oneself. The effects of original sin is us prompt us to plan our own lives, map out our own path to holiness. Often such a planned existence is not only dull but joyless and dead-ending. The obedient person ventures forth into the life-giving surprises of God. No one has ever been on a greater adventure than the saint at the height of his or her abandonment to God’s will. Then every moment is an adventure (albeit, sometimes an adventure into the vast mystery of the ordinary), every moment is a surprise, every moment is filled with true life. It is a taste of our original life in the garden that is gradually being restored to us through obedience to Christ.

          Sometimes peoples’ first reaction to the experience of our way of life is that too much obedience is required in seemingly insignificant details. One of our community expressions in relation to performing such details is the sacrament of the moment, the duty of the moment. To do God’s will at each moment out of love for him and your brothers and sisters is the royal read to holiness. (A pre-sem once said, “There are an awful lot of duties of the moment around here.”)

          It is important to mention, however, that this path of obedience does not entail an ever greater and greater multiplication of details. But, like the budding artist learning to play the piano, one does have to learn an abundance of rules and techniques in the beginning in order to know the basics. Then, when the technique has been learned, one can eventually go before vast audiences without even a musical score, and play beautifully and effortlessly. The great artist has not forgotten the details: he has internalized them perfectly. They are now his “second nature.” (Sir Thomas Beecham, the great English conductor, used to walk to the podium before a performance and ask the first violinist, “What are we playing tonight.”)

          For us, God’s sacred order is our “first nature,” but it must be a restored nature: our relationship to the order was distorted through ignorance and rebellion. In includes, of course, attention to outward actions and behaviour, but even moreso the purifying inner attitudes. The outward details are a means to an end.

          With the proper attitudes to God’s order we become truly ourselves. Now we can simply love – not in a naïve, unreflective, confused way – but with a spontaneous clarity and charity that was meant to be our nature from the beginning. No one is more free and truly spontaneous than the child of God playing within sacred order.

          Other areas in which we experience our insertion into sacred order is in our relationship to the land, arts and handicrafts.

          We have a farm on which we grow most of our food. It is probably in relationship to the land and growing things that the human race first learned to respect sacred order. Even before the Fall we were gardeners. Many of mankind’s first religious rituals were performed precisely to influence the powers behind nature. People knew instinctively that there were laws, and that they could not manipulate them. But perhaps influence them? Countless books have been written about the connection between our gradual loss of contact with the earth and growing things and the loss of faith in God.  There are other causes of atheism, but when we lost contact with the earth, we lost one of our greatest contacts with nature and nature’s God.

          In working with nature one can experience a life-force at work which is beyond us, a power whose dawning we must await, respect, and reverence, and which is not subject to our control. I doubt if any real farmer is an atheist, even among those today who ride atop huge combines! These latter are less in touch with the earth, but they must still await its generosity.

          Handicrafts and arts are also teachers of sacred order. If you wish to know the joy of turning a pot, of weaving, of candle making, of “writing” an icon, you must become very docile and obedient to the nature of these crafts. You must have the humility to admit that you know nothing about them; and then have the docility and patience to be taught. Otherwise you will never be a craftsman. You may have a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, but if you wish to learn weaving you must return to kindergarten and allow someone to take you by the hand and teach you, like a child. We probably find it difficult to learn anything new because it is difficult to have to keep returning to kindergarten. It is part of the mystery of original sin that we easily recognize these principles about art, but cannot apply them to the art of arts –life.

          Do you see the root principle behind all these observations about our way of life, behind the Christian life? We experience genuine pleasure in weaving only by submitting to the art and discipline of weaving. You can only know the thrill of a good harvest by observing nature’s way. And when it comes to the ultimate art of life, we can only truly live and be free and joyful by submitting to the sacred order as communicated to us by Christ through his Church.

          This ultimate plan is summed up most beautifully in the beatitudes of the Gospel – the be-attitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…the peacemakers…those who hunger and thirst for justice.” These be-attitudes are the Lord’s final instructions for living in sacred order. They are attitudes of the heart that are in harmony with the Father’s will. It is in these attitudes that the true freedom of God’s children is to be found. The whole of our Madonna House way of life is designed to implant these attitudes in the heart, and to cultivate them by the various conduits and implements of grace we will be reflecting on.

          Just as Gandhi remarked that, if Christ had said nothing else except the Beatitudes he would be one of the greatest religious teachers of all time, so I say of Confucius (of whom I know nothing very much), that he would be one of the greatest teachers of all time if he had said nothing but the following:

          The ancients who wished to illustrate the highest virtue throughout the empire ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their own selves. Wishing to cultivate their own selves, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.

          Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their own selves were cultivated. Their own selves being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole empire was made tranquil and happy. (Great Learning, I)

          Confucius, in his genius, had the process right. However, not knowing Christ, his “knowledge,” the foundation of everything, was essentially inadequate and flawed, to say the least. In our Christian view it is the living knowledge of Jesus Christ that is the foundation for this life process. He is the rock on which our house is built. “This is eternal life, to know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

          This process, for us, is trinitarian: it is the Holy Spirit in our hearts who communicates the living knowledge of Christ, “brings to our minds everything Jesus has told us,” teaches us how to “investigate things.” The Holy Spirit, by his presence, rectifies our relationship to the Father, guides our discernment in actions. These actions, then, form the basis of  the “civilization of love.”

          The basic enterprise, then, for Christian formation, is this: how can this knowledge of Jesus be communicated to the whole person in a living, comprehensive way? Each word in this question is very important: Christian formation; knowledge of Jesus; the whole person; in a  living and comprehensive way.

          I believe Catherine Doherty’s genius expressed in the community provides one answer. In the next Chapter we will discuss more specifically – but still in a preparatory manner – what this living knowledge is, and how it is communicated in our community.

          To sum up this Chapter: Madonna House seeks to witness to the truly great adventure of life within God’s sacred order. We are discovering that there is nothing more exciting than living the way God planned for us to live “from the beginning.” (A favorite phrase of the Pope’s.) It is not without pain and difficulty. But then, real adventures are not without pain either. Climbers of Everest, football stars, ballet dancers – what daring, sweat, pain and courage are required for these feats! And, although the divine image is already in us like an uncut diamond, it takes time for its beauty to be revealed. (A helpful distinction here, from the Fathers, is between the image and likeness. The image is our deep person – free, creative, which is the “immortal diamond,” to use Gerard Manley Hopkin’s expression; the likeness consists in all our faculties which express  the person. This likeness has been damaged by original sin, and needs to be restored.)

          The full flowering of God’s grace throughout our whole being takes time. In Madonna House we have stopped trying to grab for fulfilment prematurely, as did our first parents, by-passing God’s law. (St. Irenaeus says Eve was impatient, and wanted to “become like God” quickly, without waiting for God’s plan to unfold. And is this not the modern temptation, to want everything right away?)

          Our souls are like gardens that must wait for nature’s processes to work. We sit at the feet of elders, patiently waiting for words of life. We thus learn to wait upon God who cannot be manipulated to act according to our desires. His grace, when it comes, is like the rain which energizes the nutrients in the soil. Only God can actually make things grow. We can help to stone the garden and do some weeding. Then we must wait. Gradually the likeness is restored, and we begin to experience the ever-present reality of the image.

          In Christ, the flaming sword is no longer across the entrance to the garden. The chaotic waters of the flood have receded. Already we hear, be it ever so faintly, the Voice of the Gardener: “Come out from hiding, my beloved children, and take possession of the garden that was yours in the beginning.” Gradually, gradually, we are coming out into the open and walking once again with God in the light and in the cool of the evening, playing and delighting before him in joy and freedom.

. . . o o o . . .

Chapter 4 Chapter 3 Contents List