Chambers of Her Heart,
Madonna House & Priestly Formation

Chapter 8 not yet available Chapter 6 Contents List

          Presuming your are a reasonably well-intentioned and generous Catholic seeking to discover the Lord’s will about your vocation, if you came to Madonna House you would not be intimidated or shocked by our Catholic sacred order described earlier. You would welcome this atmosphere as a place of growth. What no doubt may irk you and make your delicate modern constitution chaff is the discipline of Madonna House.

          You will not be able (for the most part) to work where you want, eat what you want, go where you want, or even pray when you want. You will not have the privacy of your own room. Your bones will tire from manual labor. You will not be able to watch TV or see a movie at your leisure. You may often be at table with people you don’t particularly like, and would not choose to accompany you on a world tour.

          These will probably not be the heaviest crosses you will encounter here, but they will be the first, the most obvious, and certainly the most common and persistent. In short, they will make up part of your “daily cross” that Jesus asks you to carry here.

          The much-loved Pope John XXIII told a group of spiritual directors of seminaries:

          A misguided modernization, tending solely toward making the life of seminarians easier, or of pampering nature too much, would create a personality opposed to that of Jesus, who was both priest and victim. On the contrary, modern adaptation to the demands of the times must be solved through a more profound assimilation with the personality of Jesus and Jesus crucified. (Social Action Notes for Priests, Oct. 1962)

          “Asceticism” comes from the Greek word for “exercise,” what athletes did in preparation for the Olympics – and still do. In Christianity it came to mean the discipline required for living the Christian life. St. Paul often used analogies from sports to make a point: “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (1 Cor 9:25). With the prominence of the Olympics, we know something about the severe training the athletes go through.

          I came to Madonna House in 1971. It struck me that the discipline that was being eroded in seminaries, and in the lives of dedicated people in the Church, was still being taught and practised here. That is not to say it was free from all aberrations. But from my monastic experience I knew that disciplines such as poverty, obedience, silence, manual labor, regularity of schedule, daily prayer and liturgy, were indispensable for the Christian life, and especially for formation. Madonna House was, and is, calling people to practice these ancient and essential disciplines. Catherine, both theoretically and in her personal long life of holiness, had been deeply grounded in the asceticism required for true sanctity. She was able, therefore, to steer her community through the turbulent waters of the post-Vatican II era in this, as in many other areas of the Christian tradition.

          Our present Holy Father, on a number of occasions, cites the lack of discipline in priestly lives as one of the causes for problems in the priesthood. If priests have not learned somewhere to control their unruly appetites, the freedom of the clerical life will often wreak havoc with  their priestly lives. The Pope is simply emphasizing what the Council said on this point: “Let them [priests] not neglect to follow the norms, especially the ascetical ones, which have been tested by the experience of the Church and which are by no means less necessary in today’s world” (Vatican Council II, The Ministry and Life of Priests, III,II,16).

          If you have not come across the “back to virtue” movement in your reading yet, you soon will. “Virtue” (strength) means the ability to act strongly and consistently in a definite way. It takes effort to build up such strength and competency, not unlike acquiring the proficiency in sport, music, ballet, or in anything, really. Thus, you learn obedience by obeying, humility by doing humble tasks, restraint by restraining yourself. It’s not very complicated. But the trend since the 1960’s has been to “be free” and allow people to “discover themselves” by letting them do just pretty much what they want.

          An American intellectual asked his grandson recently what he needs most of all in his life right now. The boy thought for a moment and answered, “boundaries.” He wanted to know how to grow up without uselessly frittering away his energies.

          The point of this Chapter is that no genuine Christian formation is possible without struggle, some pain, and yes, the Cross. “Unless you crucify your passions you cannot belong to Jesus Christ” (Gal 5:24).

          One of the desert fathers said that if a small plant has been bent over by the wind, one must tie it a bit over to the other side so that eventually it will spring up straight. It is not a matter of breaking the plant, but of realigning it: because it has been bent too far in one way, you have to bend it a bit farther in the other direction.

          Our wills have been bent out of shape by sin (read disobedience) and poor formation. They have to be bent back into shape by obedience. This cannot be done by simply using our wills properly, or by relying on some vague, pure spontaneity from within. The image of the plant is accurate: our wills have been irrationally bent out of shape. They have to be bent a bit away from the self so that eventually they will be straight in their willing function.

          This analogy can be applied to all aspects of the human person: we have been polluted with noise, so we have to practice silence even when sound would be legitimate; we have loved others selfishly, so we have to restrain our affections, even when not sinful; we have pampered our bodies, so we have to fast and deny ourselves so we can stand up straight in bodily health; we have fed our minds with falsehoods, so we have to discipline our mental intake to feed on the right ideas.

          Another key word in asceticism is transformation. Asceticism does not seek to destroy anything good in our personality, but attempts to purify it so it can be freely directed towards God, our true good, and that of our neighbor. We scrub clothes hard enough to get out the dirt, but not so harshly as to destroy the material.

          Such discipline is not peculiar to Christian formation, or even to specifically religious formation. You’ve probably had a job. You perhaps had to learn new skills, dress in a certain way, be to work on time, obey those in charge, be conscientious about your task. Without such “toeing the mark” (read discipline) you would not have kept your job. We cannot accomplish anything worthwhile without such discipline.

          Having experienced different forms of the consecrated life before Vatican II, I would say that the major error of asceticism before the Council was this: what was good and necessary in early years of formation should have given way to more responsible human behaviour later on in life. Disciplines for beginners were not modified as people matured.

          Example: in all ascetical formation before the Council you had to ask permissions for everything, in order to learn obedience and humility. That’s okay. But at what point does this keep one in a psychologically harmful dependency? Some thinking after the Council went to another extreme: asking any permission makes one infantile. Give people as much freedom as possible.

          The modern world emphasizes self-determination, initiative, being responsible in following one’s own ideas and insights. Is this not what maturity is? However, from an over-docility in the past, and perhaps even some immature behavior, self-assertion was emphasized to the exclusion of being able in faith to obey someone who represents the Lord. Pseudo-virtues of the past were often replaced by pseudo-virtues of the modern world.

          Another example: silence and separation from the world. As already mentioned, our tradition has always seen a period of separation from the world – novitiates – as very good for centring our life on the Lord after years of non-centring. Question: when does this separation start to have negative effects so that people no longer are able to relate to the world in an adult manner?  When does separation lead to institutionalization? Often the modern answer was that separation itself is harmful, and silence is negative. Let’s put novitiates in the heart of the city (as some Orders have done) and let people be trained “on the job.”

          Many of the laity are complaining that some of the newly ordained priests don’t seem able to resist temptations of comfort; they have superficial attitudes in judgement and speech; they appear ill at ease when faced with their daily duties that demand self-sacrifice, patience and perseverance. The laity wonder if they have been taught discipline in the seminary.

          What a pity if priests who are to teach the laity how to “crucify their passions” do not practice the basic disciplines themselves. Even now many of your contemporaries are being schooled in the hard knocks of life in the world. You will need to know about the cross in your own life, not only for yourself but to be able to lead others up the mountain of the Lord. The ground of your own soul must be broken up so the Lord can sow the seeds of virtue.

          Our age is humanistic. This can cause an imbalance in Christian formation: God is only to be found “in the depths of our relationship with others”; all that God had made is very good, so “let us just use everything without all this asceticism.” This a false humanism. People are trying to slip painlessly into union with God without any discipline and “boundaries.” This is not possible. Pope John XXIII again: “There is no smooth transition from a natural to a supernatural love. To find himself man must loose himself in a spiritual dialectic as imperative in all its severity for humanity as for the individual”(Ibid.)

          I don’t know if you’ve heard this before, but you will certainly hear it when you come to Madonna House: You are called to be a saint. Catherine was preaching this decades before most people read in the Council documents that all are called to real holiness. I’m sure this has always been the teaching of the Church. However, for many centuries there has been an unspoken attitude that monks, priests, and religious are called to be saints, and the laity, well, they just have to be content with the best they can do. At an early age I wanted to be a saint, but I don’t think I ever heard it preached that this was possible for the laity. So I joined a monastery where I could “become a saint.”

          I mention this because at the heart of Catherine’s vision of priesthood is what she wrote in Dear Seminarian: “You are to be a saint maker. Do you know of any better way of `making saints’ than becoming one yourself?” (83) The priest’s most important service to God’s people is to lead and call them to holiness, to teach them that holiness must be at the heart of their own vocation – is their vocation. That they can be holy in their lay vocations. You will not be able to do this unless you are holy yourself. This is one of the themes of our program.

          I mentioned earlier that at the heart of Catherine’s prophetic message is its wisdom to guide one to holiness. By coming to Madonna House, you are being introduced to one of the truly great spiritual guides of all time.

          And so, how will you be able to call people to the proper detachment required for holiness if you are not detached yourself? How will you be able to call people to prayer if you do not love to pray yourself? How will you be able to witness to the benefits of silence if you have no taste for silence yourself? How will you be able to call people to obey the Church if you have not learned to see Christ in those placed over you? How will you be able to love the people of God – Christ’s Bride – chastely, if you are not chaste yourself?

          You want to foster the growth of the Church? You want to make the Church everything Christ wants her to be? Then study the lives of the saints. (Madonna House places an extraordinary emphasis on the saints.) The saints are the only ones who ever really beautified the Church, and they did it by their holiness. Nazareth is the place where you begin to acquire Gospel eyes, start in earnest on the road to becoming selfless, tune up the instrument which you yourself are, so you can play the symphony of God.

          Saints are the real reformers of the Church, and a holy priest can have an enormous impact on the Church and world. Think of the influence of St.Vincent de Paul and t. John Vianney, the Cure d’Ars. And St. Benedict’s choice as a young man led to his becoming one of the fathers of Western civilization:

          It is worth remarking that the Benedictine order owed its existence to the apparent folly of a young man who, instead of doing the proper, sensible thing, which was to go through the roman schools and become an administrator under the gothic emperors, went away and, for three years, lived alone in a hole in the mountains. When he had become `a man of orison [prayer],’ he emerged, founded monasteries and composed a rule to fit the needs of a self-perpetuating order of hard-working contemplatives. In the succeeding centuries, the order civilized northwestern Europe, introduced or re-established the best agricultural practice of the time, provided the only educational facilities then available, and preserved and disseminated the treasures of ancient literature. For generations Benedictinism was the principal antidote to barbarism. Europe owes an incalculable debt to the young man who, because he was more interested in knowing God than in getting on, or even `doing good,’ in the world, left Rome for that burrow in the hillside above Subiaco. (A. Huxley, Grey Eminence, 318-19)

          I could have quoted many similar tributes about Benedict from other more Catholic sources – the Popes among them – but I chose Huxley (who was not a Catholic) because he also was the author of Brave New World. He was prescient about the new barbarism and paganism of the modern world. He recognized St. Benedict as perhaps the supreme example in the West of someone who centred his life totally on God and from that center was able to play the major role in Christianizing all of Europe.

          How did he do this? He established an archipelago of Nazareths and taught multitudes how to live their daily lives in the spirit of the Gospels. It’s one thing to baptize multitudes; it’s quite another to teach them how to live the Gospel in every aspect of their lives.

          Madonna House identifies very much with the spirit of St. Benedict. To many people, Combermere seems like a “burrow in the hillside,” to use Huxley’s expression. But burrowing is a way of getting to the center of things. From that vantage point one can begin the work of restoration, transformation, and renovation. Burrowing is a way of getting down to roots.

          Benedict saw his rule as an ordinary transforming agent, and not as anything exceptional, or beyond normal Christian life. His rule is demanding but hardly impossible. He meant it as a simple Christian guide to living. We also see the Madonna House way of life as the ordinary Christian life, demanding, but not beyond normal good will and effort.

          Another aspect of Catherine’s genius was to teach that the very depths of the spiritual life as taught by the desert fathers and mothers, and by the great spiritual masters down through the ages, is for everyone. At Madonna House, besides the spirit of St. Benedict, you will hear about the desert tradition, the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Little flowers of St. Francis, the Philokalia (the great treasury of Eastern spirituality). In short, you will be introduced to many of the riches of the Christian tradition, East and West. 

          You will be tempted to think (which is the aberration of recent centuries mentioned above) that “these spiritual classics are not for me. They’re for monks and religious.” In truth, there is only one spirituality, that of the Gospel. True, according to our vocation, we live the Gospel in different ways. A parish priest cannot practice the silence and solitude of a Carthusian. But if you don’t acquire a love for silence, you won’t be a good parish priest. A hard-working father cannot fast like a Trappist. But if he doesn’t learn to do some fasting, he cannot even be a good Christian. The Lord said when you fast, not if you fast; and when you pray, not if you pray.

          In the opening lines of the Pope’s Christifideles Laici (the present magna charta of theology for the laity), the Pope says all Christians are called to give up everything for Christ. When I first read that I thought it was a misprint! He meant, of course, not that the laity are called to actually give up all their material possessions, like St. Francis, but that every Christian is called to be detached from material goods, and to make the kingdom of God their real treasure. All are called to these Gospel instructions, but in different ways.

          At a time when people would like, under the pretext of opening up the seminaries to life in order to prepare future priests more directly for their apostolate, to make a complete break with the kind of life traditionally led in seminaries, it is important to reassert all this in the most categoric fashion possible. A man  cannot be, nor will he ever be able to be a priest, who can hand on what he has first received without a prolonged period in which initiation into the sacred sciences goes along with a profound initiation into prayer, in a climate of detachment from the world and renouncement of self. Whoever refuses this admits thereby that he is unfit for the priesthood, and is indeed hardly capable of responding to what are simply the universal requirements of the Gospel. (L. Bouyer, Introduction to Spirituality, 222)

          We at Madonna house have often heard the objection that this “going away to the woods in Canada” is an escape from the world. This objection really doesn’t make sense. We all know that most people do the easiest things. If entering this period of detachment is such an escape, why are not thousands flocking here! Such a period of time is certainly a geographic separation from the kind of atmosphere most people live in – cities, noise, hustle and bustle. But facing more squarely one’s relationship with God, and seeking to purify oneself in order to adhere to him more closely, is certainly not an escape. If it is, it’s an escape from superficial living!

          Jesus was not escaping in Nazareth; Benedict was not escaping when burrowing in that hillside. Both were getting ready for the Father’s mission. One only needs to be here for a few days to realize how little life at Madonna House is an escape from challenges and demands.

          Wherever a person is, if he or she is moving toward God, such a one is not escaping from the world but becoming more free in relationship to it. We are commanded, “Do not love the world.” The world is not first of all, in the biblical sense, a geographic place. It does not mean we do not love our countries, our homes and cities. The “world” is not a place. The “world” is anything within us that is not directed towards God, anything in the culture that is anti-Gospel. Yes, to go some place where inner strengths can be acquired is a separation from the marketplaces of society. But you take the world with you; it is in you. A certain separation, for a time, from the clamor of the noises of the outside world can help to purify your inner heart, and strengthen you for whatever mission the Father has planned for you.

. . . o o o . . .

Chapter 8 not yet available Chapter 7 Contents List