Chambers of Her Heart,
Madonna House & Priestly Formation


Chapter 6 Chapter 4 Contents List

          Believers in all the great religious traditions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity – live within sacred order. Each of these has its “church” structure, a framework within sacred order in which the specific religious traditions are taught and lived out. For the purposes of this book I will be speaking of the Catholic Church, our dwelling place which the Spirit has constructed to express our faith. Within this Catholic dwelling place there is another inner circle, another all-pervasive divine milieu, which is very important in our Madonna House spirituality, and receives a powerful emphasis here. With a specific scriptural and theological focus, Madonna House concentrates on, and seeks to express in a living way, the mystery of Nazareth.

          Think of it: for most of his earthly life the Lord Jesus lived hiddenly in Nazareth. When we think of “imitating Christ,”of becoming “like him,” we most often meditate on his public life. Seminarians, especially, are formed to teach and preach and guide the people of God, as Jesus did in his public life. But what does his thirty years of hidden life mean for all Christians, and for Christian formation?

          The seminary, with its concentration of studies and some pastoral activity, might be seen as analogous to the beginning of the Lord’s public life: the seminarians are now under the guidance of the disciples of Jesus to teach them how to be disciples. In this interpretation, Nazareth would have been the time in one’s family and parish – the rather hidden preparation for ministry. In Catherine’s spirituality there is a sense in which the mystery of Nazareth is an essential dimension of the whole of the Christian life.

          What is at the heart of the meaning of Nazareth? Why did the Lord live most of his earthly life in a normal, hidden, family atmosphere? Why was it absolutely necessary as a preparation for his public ministry? Why did he wait thirty years before making himself known? What was he trying to teach us? What is the meaning of Nazareth?

          Hans Urs von Balthasar offers this insight:

          Jesus of Nazareth worked with his hands until he was thirty years old; during the longest period of his life, he made his contribution to the world’s work without drawing attention to himself, as a matter of course and without human words, in solidarity with all. (The Glory of the Lord, VII, 518)

          The key word here is “solidarity,” a word so beloved by our present Holy Father. Jesus was learning how to be “the Son of Man,” the title he most preferred for himself. So he lived, for most of his life - quietly, humbly, industriously - the normal existence of the children of men. As our beloved Archbishop Raya once said, “He taught us to be divine and we taught him how to be human.”

          He was also trying to teach us how to love the people with whom we live, how to form a community of love. Listen to Catherine:

          Madonna House is the family of Nazareth, which was a community of perfect love. The spirit of Nazareth is, first and foremost, charity. Even before Christ’s birth there existed between Joseph and Mary a great and sublime love. These two were already a community of charity. Nazareth is our model, our spiritual home. It is a community of love – poor, detached from self and self-will, totally attached to God’s will. (Letter to the Community, 1965)

          You may be saying to yourself, “Is that all? Is that the meaning of those thirty years?” Well, yes. He was coming to teach us how to love one another, and that if we do this the world will know that we are his disciples; and the world will be made whole again. This loving of one another must begin with, and always be centred in, the people with whom we live. Loving the people closest to us is always the most difficult thing, but also the most sublime, the most desired.

          How often people are out in the streets of Jerusalem, preaching and teaching, but they do not love the people with whom they live. Their formation has been backwards; and their ministry will fall on deaf ears. They have left Nazareth too soon (or perhaps never really been there in any profound sense.)

          Various aspects of the lessons of Nazareth will be touched upon throughout this book: Christ’s being a learner and disciple himself; his listening to human nature; his saving of the world by doing ordinary tasks in Nazareth; his profound union with his Father in Nazareth. But in this Chapter I concentrate on our relationship with Mary and Joseph as a model for our own. Catherine saw Nazareth as living with the Holy Family, and learning how ourselves to become a holy family. Both Mary and Joseph seek to lead us to Jesus.

          When I was first asked to be responsible for the pre-sem program (I am no longer), I had to start thinking about topics for the study day. Not able to presume that most of the young men would have had any in- depth Christian instruction, what topic should I begin with to introduce them both to Madonna House and the spiritual life? The life of Christ? The Church? The Scriptures?

          I found myself asking, “Well, how was the Word Incarnate himself first formed in his humanity so he could be the most perfect instrument for communicating his life to us?” And my thoughts turned to Our Lady. Just as the downfall of our human condition began with a woman, so the beginning of the new creation began with a woman. Just as the first human relationship for all of us is with our mothers, so Jesus’ first human relationship was with Mary. In some absolutely real way, this must also be true for us in our journey back to God.

          Think of it: the first humanely formative moment for Jesus was in the womb of his mother. The Saviour of the whole world was physically entrusted to Mary’s womb, there to be nourished, to grow under her heart, and be born. With new technology we are discovering – seeing with our own eyes - just how human the babe in the womb really is. And they are “discovering” beautiful things just after birth: if you leave a new-born babe on mom’s tummy after birth, he or she will begin to crawl towards mommy’s breasts for food. Jesus did that.

          Even during his time in the womb, he began his saving work. The leaping of John the Baptist in his mother’s womb has always been seen by the Fathers as the sanctifying work of the Child in Mary’s womb. This incident is only one sign of the fact that he was already redeeming the world from under his Mother’s heart. He was formed in his early years through his relationship with Mary and Joseph. From them he received his first instructions in being human, in prayer, and in the meaning of the scriptures.

          We, too, says Catherine, “are pregnant with Christ, chosen by him, led by him. We are brought to the Nazareth of Madonna House to give birth to him and to allow him to grow to his full stature. We live with the holy family, as Jesus lived with Mary and Joseph for many years.”(Ibid) The Infant Christ begins his growth within us just as he grew in Nazareth – in relationship with Mary and Joseph.

          Catherine often said that the two themes for the formation program (and for Christian formation in general) should be Mary and prayer. On one occasion she gave a talk to the pre-sems, and this is what she said:

          You see, it stands to reason, doesn’t it? If you’re a little boy, I give you to your mother. And she forms you. Mary can really form a priest, because that’s for her Son. And she has insights that are so profound. She loves priests, and future priests, so much, that it’s incredible that they don’t love her. She watches over all those priests who are her Son’s.   

          There is also a meditation of Catherine’s where she spoke of Madonna House in terms of the four chambers of Our Lady’s heart. I will use this “loving environment of her heart” as a framework for entering into the mystery of Nazareth.

          Just as most homes have a little hallway before entering the main house where you can brush off your shoes, shake off the rain or the snow, so the ante-chamber to Mary’s heart, in Catherine’s symbolism, is the de Montfort consecration to Jesus through Mary (discussed below). Then Mary takes us by the hand and leads us into her house, her heart. In the first chamber of her heart, she teaches us how she lived and loved and worked; how, even before the Lord’s coming the Holy Spirit formed her as a daughter of Israel, and then as the mother of the new creation.

          In the second room (chamber) she introduces us to Jesus. He becomes our daily companion. We have meals with him, visits with him, and he speaks his words of life and instructs us.

          Next, she leads us into the third chamber, St. Joseph’s workshop. Here we are apprenticed to him in order to learn silence and contemplation. Finally, she takes us by the hand into the fourth room, which contains the unlimited vistas of the mysteries of God.

          The beginning of our salvation, then, started with the Lord’s relationship with his mother. Perhaps you are not familiar with the phrase about “going to Jesus through Mary” made famous by St. Louis de Montfort. This is not mere piety, or a quaint way of speaking. Jesus actually came to us through Mary. Without her there would not have been an incarnate Lord. Some of the Fathers of the Church spoke of her as the “neck” of the Mystical Body. And just as in the human anatomy sensations must pass up and down the spinal cord through the neck into the brain, so too, in the Body of Christ, grace passes back and forth from Christ through Mary into the Mystical Body.

          This is a very profound truth. When Catherine and her husband Eddie made the de Montfort Act of Consecration, they both experienced some new depth in their lives, and the beginning of another astounding stage of the apostolate. Ever afterwards, Catherine saw this act of total consecration to Jesus through Mary as the great doorway to the Christian life.

          Catherine and Eddie made their act of consecration to Jesus through Mary on February 2, 1951, in the chapel of the Sacred Heart in Ottawa. In an article entitled, “Mary in My Life,” she said it was the end of a long journey. As a Russian Orthodox she had always known and loved the Bogoroditza, “She who gave birth to God, but now the Holy Ghost, her spouse, brought me to her in a special way”:

Suddenly the veil was lifted and I saw. I saw the whole pattern fall into line. God the Father, to Whom I have been going for so long, chose Mary to bring the Lord of Hosts to us. She was the way of His Incarnation. The Holy Ghost was her Spouse. The hidden life, which I always considered the school of Christ, was also the school of Mary’s love for Him, for us. The Incarnation, the Redemption, hung upon her fiat.

    It staggered me. Yet, I waited until Christmas and the return of Fr. Callahan [her spiritual director]. I asked him many questions. He answered them all. Then my husband and I began the three weeks preparation. It was completed on the feast of her Purification. We consecrated ourselves to her entirely and forever. The long journey was ended.

          According to Catherine’s own testimony, something of spiritually epic proportions happened on that day of their consecration. Not only did all the pieces of her inner journey come together: in her spiritual world, some wholeness was achieved when “we walked out of the church. It was so nice to be utterly poor, and better still, to know that the little we had possessed was all hers. That day could well be called the real foundation day of Madonna House.”

          Vocations increased; some long winter of waiting as regards the growth of the apostolate was over. This northern garden of Our Lady, Combermere, started to bloom.

          Catherine had given her life to Christ in a very profound way many years before. But some miracle of grace happened in her soul when she made this gift of self through the hands of Our Lady – when she became a slave of Mary. Perhaps it was some new depth of childlikeness, realizing that if she wanted to give her life to Jesus she had to place it absolutely into the hands of our Lady, and allow her to teach and guide her the rest of the way.

          What I decided to teach, therefore, as the very first step in formation, was Pope John Paul’s encyclical, The Mother of the Redeemer (presently the most authoritative document on Mary), with the intention of leading the men to entrust themselves completely to her.

          I’m sure you’re familiar with the Pope’s famous motto, Totus Tuus.” It means, “I am entirely yours,” referring to Mary. How can we say we are entirely Mary’s? Aren’t we entirely the Lord’s? The secret is that Mary’s whole intent is to give us over entirely to her Son.

          First of all, the Father entrusted his Son entirely into Mary’s keeping: Jesus became entirely Mary’s. The most precious reality ever to enter our world – Jesus – was first entrusted to Mary’s keeping. (To Joseph’s also, whom we will consider later.) Whether we realize it or not, she was and is the gateway to Christ. He is the Way to the Father; Mary is the gateway to Christ. The consecration is meant to make us more aware that she is this portal.

          It is not my intention here to summarize the Pope’s teaching. But I do want to say something about the nature of this total consecration that, for the first time in an encyclical, a Pope mentions. Then, in his first Holy Thursday Letter to Priests, he said it was his desire that all priests make this act of consecration.

          On your first visit to Madonna House you would be taken on a tour which would include a visit to the statue of Our Lady of Combermere. She has her hands outstretched, as if welcoming and ever seeking her children. If you stayed with us for even a few days, you would be struck by our strong love for Mary. Some people are put off by our Marian piety, thinking it exaggerated. But we have come to believe that, rightly understood, it is impossible to love her too much, or be too dedicated to her.

          I quote from Vita Consecrata: “The primary objective of the formation process is to prepare people for the total consecration of themselves to God in the following of Christ.” The de Montfort consecration has precisely as its aim this absolute dedication to Christ.

          For many people, a problematic aspect of the de Montfort consecration is the phrase, “I deliver and consecrate to you, as your slave, my body and soul, my goods, etc.” “What kind of sick spirituality is this!” you may be objecting. “As your slave!” I just ask you to persevere with an open mind and heart to what I will haltingly try to say about this concept of slavery to Mary.

          Put simply, the word is an attempt to express our absolute entrustment to Mary, and through her to the Lord. The absolute gift of self to God is the goal; the deeper mystery is that this takes place through the gift of ourselves to Mary.

          Yes, I agree, the word “slave” connotes for us, in the contemporary mentality, a really degrading kind of relationship. If we were playing a word association game, and someone said “slave,” we would immediately say things like “cruelty, degradation, injustice, evil.” Our imagination might turn, perhaps, to slave markets, to black people with chains around their necks and shackles on their feet, and to buyers examining them on a platform as they would a horse or a cow.

          Personally, I don’t think the word is essential. The meaning of words change with time and culture. It may now be too loaded a term for some people to use, and not worth the time and trouble to try and explain it. But will you just wait a moment and consider the rest of my explanation!

          Let me dwell for a few moments on the, yes, scriptural basis of this word before going on to say what the consecration means practically.

          Let me point out that “slave” is a very scriptural word in terms of our absolute relationship to God. In Luke 1:48, the Greek word used in Our Lady’s hymn is not really “servant” or “handmaid”. The Greek word is doule, and it has only one meaning – slave. The Greek word for “servant” is diakonia. For some reason the Greek author didn’t choose it for what he wanted to express, namely, the absolute nature of Mary’s dedication.

          Again, in the famous passage in Phillipians 2:7, when St. Paul is trying to express the absolute self-emptying of Christ, he says he took the form – not  of a servant, as it is most often translated, but – of a slave, a doulos. If this word, in the first century, had the same bad connotations it has for us, evidently it didn’t prevent St. Paul from using it.

          He uses it also in regards to himself in Romans 1:1 “Paul, a slave (doulos) of Jesus Christ. And again in 1 Cor. 9:19: “Though I am free and belong to no one, I make myself a slave (doulos) to everyone.” Significantly, the two translations I have consulted here actually use the word “slave”: “So, though I was not a slave to any human being, I put myself in slavery to all people” (The New Jerusalem Bible). One wonders why it is allowed to have its full force in these texts and not in other places in the New Testament translations?

          I can only conclude that the sacred writers were not trying to convey the degrading, demeaning, abject nature of the Lord’s and Our Lady’s state of soul, but something beyond those meanings, something to express the absoluteness of the gift of self. So they used the word for “slave.” Does not God own us body and soul? They used the strongest word in their culture to convey this absolute relationship to God.

          The strongest scriptural argument against the use of this word would be John 15:15, where the Lord says, “I no longer call you slaves (doulos) but friends.” But even as friends, we still belong to the Lord absolutely, body and soul.

          A most helpful insight I received about the legitimacy of using this word was from an article by Catherine herself on the consecration. She said: “Why do we hesitate to use the word `slave’? We haven’t hesitated to become slaves of sin.” Didn’t Jesus say as much to the Jews, and to all of us, that whoever sins becomes a slave of sin? We don’t hesitate to become slaves to food, sex, ambition, and so on, so why do we wince at -think it beneath us! - to become slaves of Jesus and Mary! You can change the word if you wish, as long as you understand the depth of the meaning it seeks to convey.

          What, then, does this act of consecration to Jesus through Mary mean practically? De Montfort speaks of it in four ways: we live our Christ life through, with, in, and for Mary. A brief word about each of these dimensions of our relationship with her will be helpful.

          As I mentioned, Christ actually came into the world and to us through Mary. She is, therefore, the gateway to Christ. Christ is the Way to the Father, and Mary is the gateway to Christ. In the Mystical Body, all grace has actually flowed through her to us. She was the first believer. No one could possibly have believed in Christ if she had not believed. All faith, therefore, has a Marian dimension, since our faith is only possible as an extension of her faith.

          Her fiat was the most important human act in the history of the world. God could give her all the graces necessary for her mission as Mother of the Saviour, but there is absolutely one thing God could not do: He could not come into her womb without asking her.

          The Fathers of the Church reveal something of their spiritual emotions (a rarity!) as when St. Bernard says: “O Virgin, hurry and answer! The whole human race is waiting. The heavenly hosts are waiting. Hurry! This is not time for a false humility.” And because of Mary’s perfect openness to God, her absolute gift of self (“I am the slave of the Lord”), God was able to enter the human race. Similarly, when we say yes to the Word of God, he takes flesh in our lives, and the salvation of the world is continued in us.

          And everything that we do passes through her to Christ on its way to the Father. The consecration is meant to make us more aware of this dynamic. It happens anyhow, whether we are aware of it or not. But to be a fully conscious Christian, we must ratify this process, desire it, see it as an essential truth of the Mystical Body. De Montfort himself put it this way: “To go to Jesus we must go through Mary. She is our Mediatrix of intercession. To go to God the Father we must go through Jesus, for he is our Mediator of Redemption.” Yes, we have direct access to God. But, like Esther, Mary always accompanies us into the royal throne room. When the Father sees us, he always sees us in the company of Jesus and Mary.

          The phrase “with Mary” is analogous to the second chamber of her heart and concerns our imitation of Mary. Just as we speak about the imitation of Christ, we also ask ourselves, “How would Mary act in this situation.” Mary is the first disciple of Christ and his most perfect follower.

          We often glance inwardly at people we admire and ask this question: “How would the Pope act and think in this situation? What would St. Francis have done in this circumstance?" Just as Mary formed Jesus in his early years, we ask her to form us. And we do that by turning to her and meditating on her virtues, especially the attitudes of her heart; and we try to put them into practice. She was the perfect human person. By using her as a model we can grow in the likeness of her Son.

          The meaning of “in Mary” flows from her position as Mediatrix, as neck of the Mystical Body.

          She is not in us, or we in her, substantially, as the Trinity is in us and we in them. She is not is us as Christ is substantially in the Eucharist. She is not in us as our soul dwells in our body. She is not the “soul of our soul,” as the Holy Spirit is. But neither is she in us as a mere moral presence, as when we simply think of her and seek to model our lives upon her. How, then?

          The great theologian Garrigou-Lagrange, explained it this way: she touches us somewhat as the rays of the sun touch us. The sun is not substantially in us; we’d burn up. But its rays really share in its substance, and those rays and their effects not only touch us but even enter into our bodies. It is not simply an idea in our minds that the sun is touching us.

          We are substantially united to the Body of Christ. If all grace must pass through Christ into us, all grace has a Marian dimension, a Marian flavor and conditioning, since it passes through her to us. Passing through her, the rays of grace come to us bathed in the attitudes of her heart.

          Again, to repeat, this is not mere piety, or a charming way of thinking about her. The Pope’s encyclical, and what is being revealed today by the Holy Spirit about Mary, point to the profound mystery of the relationship of this Woman to us all. The Pope says that our relationship to her is an integral part of the Christian life.

          The meaning of “for Mary” is indicated in this other phrase from de Montfort’s consecration: “Leaving to you the entire and full right of disposing of me, and all that belongs to me, without exception, according to your good pleasure, for the greater glory of God, in time and in eternity.” If all our “being in Christ” passes through Mary to Christ, the Head, our acts and the merits of our actions are modified by her motherly presence before entering the Son’s divine Heart.

          All these dimensions of our Christ-life happen when we are baptized, and take place even if we are unaware of this mystery. The Consecration to Jesus through Mary is simply a ratification of this mystery of Mary’s place in the Mystical Body, and a desire to live more consciously in union with her.

          In the second chamber, Mary leads us to Jesus. Her whole concern is not to lead us to herself, but to her Son. Knowing Jesus better than anyone else, she can teach us the attitudes of the heart with which to approach him, and how to love him and be completely dedicated to him. Most of this book will be concerned with this getting to know the Lord Jesus. But she was the one most perfectly open to the Word and, as expressed in the previous Chapter, it is openness to this Word that is the gateway to salvation. Who better than Our Lady can teach us this openness?

          Having entrusted ourselves to our Lady, and after she has introduced us to Jesus in the second chamber, she then leads us into the third chamber of her heart to meet her husband Joseph. After Jesus, did she not love Joseph more than anyone else, and does she not continue to do so? To be a child of Mary is also to be a child of Joseph.

          St. Joseph is the patron of the Universal Church, a truly unique privilege. The whole Church as been entrusted to him because of his fidelity. The Saviour of the world was entrusted to the womb of the Virgin. But in God’s plan, mother and child need the protection and support of a man, a husband, a protector. God the Father looked around the world and decided that the most faithful and reliable man for this mission was Joseph.

          Imagine: Joseph was entrusted with the two most precious treasures in the history of the world – Jesus and his Mother. The whole redemption of the world depended on their being protected so as to accomplish the Father’s will. Joseph was chosen to guard and protect them so that the Father’s plan could be accomplished.

          The Church is the reservoir of this redemption. Who could guard the Church better than Joseph, that wise and prudent and faithful man, who accomplished this task for the Mother and Child? Joseph, especially, teaches us fidelity in guarding and preserving the treasures of the faith.

          Another special grace of Joseph’s intercession concerns vocation. He surely had plans of his own for his future life and family. He was planning to wed Mary and, no doubt, raise a large family; maybe open a carpentry shop with his many sons; maybe move to Jerusalem where there would be more work. Joseph gives up his own plans to submit to the Lord’s will for him. The scriptures tell us that he had his doubts about it all, and perhaps many more doubts even during the hidden years.

          Joseph is the perfect patron for finding one’s vocation. He had his plans, but God spoke to his heart and asked him to fulfil His plan. The Lord has work for all of us to do; and young people frequently come here to discover God’s will. Often they come with a plan of their own, and ask God to help them with their plan. They haven’t gone deeply enough. What they learn to do - we hope - is ask God what his plan is for their lives. The proper vocation prayer is, “Father, what is your plan for my life?” Joseph knows all about this. He is the one to pray to and ask for perfect openness to the Father’s plan, and for the fidelity to carry it out.

          There is an enormous crisis in masculinity and fatherhood in our day. Sociologists are speaking about “Fatherless America” as the greatest social problem. Countless forces have contributed to the disintegration of the family, and many boys are growing up without fathers; and consequently without a strong masculine identity. St. Joseph can teach men about their masculinity and fatherhood.

          It was Charles Peguy who said that “the revolutionaries of the 20th century [read Third Millennium] will be fathers of Christian families.” He didn’t mean they will be the leaders of underground revolutionary movements. (The Gospel is the only real revolution. Other man-made revolutions, inspired by human ideologies, seek to accomplish humanely what Christ desires to do through his Spirit.) He meant that families are the living cells of society, and that fathers will be on the front lines of culture and change. The father, if he is taking his God-given place in the family seriously, is the head, the leader. He will bear the brunt of the assault.

          When St. Paul speaks of the man (Eph 5:23) as the head of the woman, the word he used means a leader, one who goes before and shows the way. The word does not have the connotation of domination but rather of protection. The husband represents God the Father who leads and protects. As these fathers go, so goes the family and the world. It will up to them in a special way to form the families of the third Millennium. St. Joseph is the patron of the laymen of Madonna House.

          One day, on the feast of St. Joseph, I walked into Catherine’s cabin and said, “Happy feast of St. Joseph!” She said, “He should have talked more!”

          Nevertheless, many of her reflections about St. Joseph revolved around his silent contemplation of the mysteries of Jesus and Mary. As well, he teaches us the silence of the heart that is necessary in order for these mysteries to penetrate deeply into our often unquiet souls. Joseph walks through the Gospels without uttering a single word.

          Catherine often connects Joseph with the contemplation of the mysteries of God: “Joseph was a contemplative. How could he be anything else? He lived with God and God’s Mother. He was a man wrapped in silence, a man evidently of deep prayer.”

          We will be discussing later the need for silence, and the need, as Catherine says “to fold the wings of the intellect” (Chapter 9), so as better to hear the voice of God. While there certainly is a strong intellectual component in theological studies, the Fathers of the Church understood theology as permeated with a life of prayer, listening to the Holy Spirit, and allowing him to shed light on the mysteries of the faith. Too much “theology” today is not really open to revelation and the teaching of the Holy Spirit in tradition and scripture. It is crucial for your “doing theology” that you learn how to listen to the Spirit in silence.

          St. Joseph is not often thought of as a “theologian,” but he was one of the greatest. He can be your teacher. After our Lady, he probably was the greatest of all theologians in that he knew in his heart the deep meaning of the mysteries of God. Was he was not taught by Jesus and Mary!

          All that was said above about entrusting ourselves to Mary can – with certain modifications – apply to Joseph as well. Could we not consecrate ourselves to Jesus through Joseph? Did he also not form the Lord Jesus in prayer, work, and in an understanding of the human situation? Was not Joseph, for Jesus, the earthly icon of the Father? In a human sense, did not Joseph communicate to Jesus the nature of true fatherhood, manhood, work, the male dimensions of human existence? For many people, their relationship with God the Father leaves much to be desired. Joseph can teach us about the Fatherhood of God.

          As I mentioned, we do not have one single word from him in all the scriptures. He can teach us the value of silence in our relationship with God.

. . . o o o . . .

Chapter 6 Chapter 5 Contents List