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Madonna House: Restoring all things to Christ

In May, I visited Madonna House in Canada, for two weeks. This very special Catholic farm community is nestled in the little woodsy town of Combermere, Ontario, along the Madawaska River. The setting is serene and lovely. Madonna House is a return to Nazareth, a sacred sanctuary, a Holy Family home, where communal Gospel living is carried out through a simple, concrete rhythm of the day: prayer, liturgy, work, meals, tea time, spiritual reading, and shared family time.

This lay apostolate was founded by Servant of God Catherine Doherty and her husband, Eddie Doherty, in 1947, and is comprised of priests, lay consecrated men and women, called staff members, and guests like myself who come to live the community life for a week to a year. Seeking to “restore all things to Christ”, the daily life is made up of ordinary tasks – washing dishes, sweeping the floor, weeding dandelions, chopping onions – out of charity for God and one another. I found it to be a very nourishing and formative experience. I could sense immediately the “Divine order” of which Catherine wrote. There is a sacred rhythm to the day, a time for everything, and incredible organization, structure, and systems that have been honed to bring peace and effectiveness to the operations of a home for many. It strikes me as a healthy, wholesome, pure microcosm of society.

One day at lunch, I was so touched as I looked around. At one table, sharing a meal, is Brian, the auto mechanic, Andoora, the beekeeper, Gudron, the head of kitchen, Ruth, the head of the gardens and greenhouses, the farmers, the laundresses, the priests, the artisans, and the editors and publishers. When do you see all of society sitting together and sharing a meal, united in bread, and in the evening, Manna from Heaven?! The lion and the lamb. The Kingdom of God, over a bowl of soup and a hot homemade loaf of rye with freshly churned butter.

I think what stood out to me the most was “doing little things exceedingly well for the love of God.” If you are wiping down the salt and pepper shakers, you’re doing it for love. If you are scraping beehive frames, you’re doing it for love. If you are sorting beans and spices, you’re doing it for love. This was integrating and grounding. All things for Christ. All an offering. All in communion. Over time, God invited Catherine to live out “The Little Mandate”, and she shares this with us, the Church:

Arise – go!
Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor.
Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me,
going to the poor, being poor,
being one with them, one with Me.

Little – be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.

Preach the Gospel with your life – without compromise!
Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.

Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.

Love…love…love, never counting the cost.

Go into the marketplace and stay with Me.
Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.

Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour’s feet.
Go without fears into the depths of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.

Pray always. I will be your rest.

This is what one lives at Madonna House; and Catherine encouraged this Gospel living as a call for every person, man and woman, no matter what our state in life. A call to “love… love… love, never counting the cost.”

I was invited to make a Poustinia while I was there. Poustinia is a term Catherine brought from her homeland of Russia, and it means “desert day”, a time in solitude to seek a deep, close communion with God, in silence, fasting, and prayer. Traditionally, one goes into a small log cabin hermitage in the woods, bringing only bread, water, and the Bible. Catherine then speaks of carrying a Poustinia in our hearts as we enter the marketplace. Mary heart in the Martha world.

During my peaceful, restful Poustinia, two words were given to me: infinite tenderness. Also a poem flowed out of my heart. I shared it with the Madonna House community as a thank you, after my last dinner there. I share it with you now.

Te Deum

You are Mystery
You are Song
You are Dance
You are Long ing
You are the ache
the hole
the filling
I am a bowl
of soil tilling spilling
Hands in soil heal the soul
Brim me over
Make us whole.
Lavish Your Life
Waterfall on this
poor one of strife.
Bless me
Lead me
Let it be done
Thy Will
Thy Heart
Mama’s Son
Let us console Him
Little lonely One
Let us (be)hold Him
Star of Bethlehem
Rising in our hearts
Oh come and let us start
in this now, here
Exiled and met in the middle of nowhere.
in the duty of the moment
Buckets square, buckets round
Rags, more rags.
Cat pails
Kitty Gypsy
Bailey wag his tail.
Brothers and sisters.
Holy Family Home.
We sit Sonkissed
in the quiet of the still
Rest us
Move us
Love us
Crimson Dove us
from Above us
We open
and receive Heaven’s Husk
into our stardust
souls You never leave
To You we cleave
Drink up deeply
Send us honey
valley of tears
comfort for the fears and
years sown in sorrow
reap a bright morrow
Come, let us gather the wheat of weeping,
sheathes of sadness
toils of madness
Wrap us
Wake us into new gladness
Flawed beauty Your nest.
Tender sweet smiles, fraternal fest.
Come, be our guest!
Light these eyes up again!
Peel peals of laughter
Let all that bubbles
bust open in rapture!

For the Cross is empty !
Our Savior is risen
He’s alive! they say
I want to see –
– Then stay! Abide with me.
Be loved
Not up, but everywhere! He’s here, stay awake!
Be held, little bowl. Be filled,
You are loved
Te Deum.

Copyright 2023, Marian West

Marian West is a Catholic “heartist”, seeking to live the art of heart to heart in every encounter. She lives in Lancaster, PA, and is grateful to have recently opened a space called Marigold, offering the Grace of the healing arts. Marian is a modern dancer, vocal artist, licensed massage therapist and labor doula. In 2006, Marian received her B.A. in Dance from DeSales University and then received her massage training at the Swedish Institute in Manhattan in 2007. She served as a missionary with Heart’s Home in Brooklyn for 14 months, offering a presence of compassion to the abandoned, lonely, and suffering. Marian prays that the Blessed Mother be her heart, hands, movement, and melody to touch Christ’s broken body in our thirsting world.

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