In this episode, I interview Sean Domencic, director of Tradistae, about his experience as founder of Holy Family House in Lancaster, PA.
Holy Family House
When Sean and his now-wife Monica were engaged, they came to realize how important Christian community was to living out the Faith. They started to discuss this idea with a few friends. One of them had a lot of experience with the Catholic Worker, a movement started by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. The Catholic Worker movement is best known for providing personal hospitality to those in need in houses where the workers live with their guests. The Catholic Worker’s emphasis on social justice was very appealing to Sean.
Sean and Monica begin discerning opening a house of hospitality. They committed to the idea while attending a retreat for Catholic couples and families interested in community. After that, everything fell into place. They rented a house with two other friends, and named it the Holy Family Catholic Worker House. The local parish helped them to find people who needed assistance with housing, and they quickly filled the available space. They’ve just bought a second house to expand their ministry.
Community Life at Holy Family House
The members of Holy Family House have weekly community meals and round table discussions, and pray vespers together. They still have outside jobs, so they can’t do as much outreach to the wider community as they would like.
The Future of Holy Family House
Although Sean emphasized that those starting community shouldn’t expect too much right away, he also emphasized that they should be open to wider visions of what might be possible in the future. In addition to their houses of hospitality, he hopes that his community can eventually start a Catholic Worker farm. They are also interested in helping to turn their local parish into a real community, with members living near the Church and building up a vibrant local economy of mutual aid.
As well as talking about the development of Holy Family House, we discussed Christian community in general.
Expectations and Vision
Sean talked about how important it is to have everyone involved in a new community “on the same page”. People can easily come into a project with incompatible visions, which only crop up later. They can cause a lot of heartache and trouble down the road. A clear vision gives a community something to coalesce around.
Friendship and Intentionality
In earlier podcasts, we’ve discussed the importance of starting out organically, starting with friendship instead of a blueprint. Sean agreed with that, but pointed out that such a group of friends does need to move on to something more structured. The ability to commit to a shared project is a test of friendship, and can help to deepen it. Even once this happens, however, the community can’t stop valuing the friendships; the friendship and the vision are the two poles between which the community has to keep going back and forth.
Catholic Social Teaching
It is vital that Catholic Communities have an emphasis on Catholic Social Teaching and on service to the poor. As Peter Maurin said, such communities need to be clear about what the world currently is, what it should be, and how to get from here to there. Without this clarity, Christian community can easily deteriorate into a sort of Christian suburb. Sean also pointed out how important it is that a community embrace voluntary poverty. Sometimes those who desire community want to wait until they can do so from a position of economic strength, but this may compromise the community’s integrity.
Consumerism can easily seep into a Christian community that is focused on providing a “good life” for its members. This can sometimes happen due to the seemingly harmless desire of parents to provide a good education and cultural environment for their children. As Sean said, there’s nothing wrong with education and cultural enrichment; he hopes he can provide these things for his future children. More importantly, however, children need to see that their parents are trying to live out the Gospel. Without this, any cultural environment is likely to become hypocritical, and children are quick to pick up on this.
Avoid Division, Embrace Discussion!
Sean and I discussed the fact that we have various disagreements on ideological points, but that we still see one another as allies. We can see one another’s projects as valuable, due to our shared commitments to the Church and our shared interest in social justice. This is in line with the Catholic Worker tradition of the Round Table Discussion. We need to be committed to seeking the truth, but we need to do so in unity with others who may differ from us. As Tim Keller said in a past interview, there will be political and ideological differences in any community, but these differences can’t be allowed to tear the community apart. Without a commitment to unity, the quest for truth will falter as different perspectives are isolated in their own ghettos.
Sean’s Tradistae project attempts to present the tradition of the Church; in particular, it attempts to show that Catholic Social Teaching is a vital aspect of the Church’s tradition. Too often those interested in Catholic Tradition are only interested in relatively superficial aspects of it. The Tradistae project seeks to change this; it includes a podcast, easy essays, and social media outreach.
A few days ago, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins from the Gospel of Matthew was read at Mass. During the sermon, the priest commented on a surprising aspect of the story. We’re always told that we should share what we have with others. It comes as rather a shock when the wise virgins refuse to share their oil at such a critical moment. What can we learn from this aspect of the parable?
Christians are certainly called to share their wealth and time with others. In Matthew’s Gospel, the parable of the virgins comes shortly before his depiction of the judgement on the nations, in which those who gave generously to the poor are saved, while those who failed to do so are rejected. The oil in the lamps, however, does not represent material goods or even spiritual gifts. Rather, it represents the Christian’s loving and faithful response to Christ. This faith can’t be shared. Nobody can make our personal response on our behalf: it is a deeply personal choice made by each individual.
The importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ means that cultural Catholicism can not save us. A Christian society and culture can make it easier for us to respond generously to Christ, but it can’t replace our personal response. In a Christian culture, a larger percentage of individuals may live outwardly decent and Christian lives. Living a decent life, however, isn’t sufficient for salvation, nor is mere social conformity.
Without proper catechesis, a Christian culture can even impede the making of a personal commitment to Christ by masking the importance of such a decision. Those in a Christian culture may never come to realize that such a choice is necessary, and may instead remain content with going through the motions. I discussed this complicated relationship between personal commitment and cultural values in an earlier post.
Cradle Catholics can be particularly susceptible to seeing the faith as merely mechanical and routine. Many of us were baptized merely because of our parents’ decision. Baptism does make us members of the Church, but baptism needs to be “activated” by a personal choice.
Sherry Weddell discusses this issue in her book Forming Intentional Disciples. She points out that the Church has always distinguished between the valid reception of the sacraments and the fruitful reception of the sacraments. Validity depends on the basic matter and form of the sacraments and the right intention on the part of the minister. The fruitfulness of the sacraments largely depends on the interior deposition of the recipient. Jesus always comes to us in the Eucharist, but whether his coming will transform our hearts largely depends on our cooperation. To illustrate this point, Weddell quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, Pope Benedict XVI, and The Catechism of the Catholic Church. In particular, she cites CCC 2111 and CCC 150:
2111 Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.
150 Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. As personal adherence to God and assent to his truth, Christian faith differs from our faith in any human person. It is right and just to entrust oneself wholly to God and to believe absolutely what he says. It would be futile and false to place such faith in a creature.
For those who want to explore this subject in more depth, I highly recommend Forming Intentional Disciples.
The Modern World
We currently live amidst the ruins of a collapsed cultural Catholicism. In the 1940’s and 50’s, Catholics in the USA still tended to live in enclaves of cultural Catholicism, the so-called “Catholic Ghetto.” Catholics sent their children to Catholic schools staffed by religious orders, socialized principally with other Catholics, read Catholic periodicals and publications, and joined civic and fraternal organizations composed of fellow Catholics. The situation in many Catholic countries was similar.
All seemed well, but a dangerous complacency seems to have crept in. Catholic culture was being passed on, but it was not always fostering a deep personal response to the Faith. When push came to shove, this cultural Catholicism collapsed. Social and demographic factors disrupted traditional Catholic enclaves and societies, and with their disintegration Mass attendance and other markers of Catholic practice declined. How many times have we heard the hackneyed phrases “I was an altar boy, but . . .” or “I went to Catholic schools, but . . .” from someone who no longer practices the Faith, or no longer even identifies as Catholic? This is the final fruit of culture without conviction.
Vatican II and the Call to the Laity
Even as this dissolution began, the Holy Spirit inspired Pope Saint John XXIII to call an Eccumenical council. People were surprised—the complacency mentioned earlier made it appear that there was nothing for such a council to do. Ultimately, the Council addressed the fundamental problem with the old cultural Catholicism by reiterating the Church’s teaching on the universal call to holiness. The Council called on the laity to follow Christ wholeheartedly, instead of just going through the motions. This theme runs throughout the Council documents; it can be clearly seen in the following quote from Lumen Gentium:
Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity . . .They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in Church history. (Lumen Gentium 40)
The message of the Council was not in time to prevent the collapse of cultural Catholicism. Indeed, the essential message was often buried by the fierce debates that rocked the post-conciliar world. Reactionaries and progressives alike focused their attention on modifications to the old cultural shell. The Council’s challenging call to true spiritual renewal went largely unheeded in many places.
God has not abandoned his Church, however. The challenge of the Council remains before us. If we take it up, if we choose Christ with all our hearts and let that choice inform every aspect of our lives, we can become a force of true renewal in the world. From our personal commitment a new, more vital Christian culture can emerge, one that grows from and supports personal conviction, but does not replace or supplant it.
Image of Catholic schoolchildren in the 1960’s from National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
In this episode, Malcolm and Peter Land discuss the first chapter of Let Us Dream by Pope Francis. This is the second part of a series of episodes. The first episode is here.
Going out to the Margins
Pope Francis calls the Church to go out to the margins. There are many kinds of marginalized people in our world, and Pope Francis says that it is among those who are ignored by the world that God chooses to work. We’ll miss what is happening if we’re not on the margins. We need concrete solidarity with the marginalized, not just emotional solidarity.
To have solidarity with the marginalized, we need to meet people where they are at, whether geographically or mentally. We also need to truly listen to others. We can’t barge in with our own ideas to “rescue” people. Instead, we have to be just as ready to learn as to teach. We should not see the marginalized merely the recipients of our aid, but as actors in their own right.
The life of Matteo Ricci displays this willingness to learn. Ricci was the first Jesuit missionary to China. He adopted the customs of the Chinese and incorporated their traditions and philosophy in his presentation of the Faith.
Peter told the story of how he left the Boston College “bubble” and found reality on service immersion trips. These trips were different than classic “mission trips”; they were not structured toward a particular goal. Rather, they focused on just being available to the people in a marginalized area, being with them and listening to them. A theory of service or of solidarity is not enough. We have to leave our “bubbles” of wealth and privilege and allow ourselves to be challenged by reality.
Dialogue, not Compromise
A compromise is sometimes necessary, but it is not ideal according to Pope Francis. Compromises are always temporary, giving space for discernment to resolve something according to God’s will. If one resists the temptation of an immediate, easy solution, discernment can lead over time to a deeper solution which is not a compromise. This deeper, fuller solution might not be obvious before meeting others where they are. This is important for community life; community members need to hold their differences together and choose the path of discernment, not conflict or compromise, which would merely bury the problem.
The Wrong Kind of Certainty
Pope Francis tells us that we don’t have to have all the answers to make a start. In fact, he tells us that the wrong kind of certainly can be detrimental. We shouldn’t show up to a problem with a blueprint solution all ready. That will preclude the kind of dialogue and discernment discussed above. This eagerness for the wrong sort of certainty is a big problem in our culture. For example, we see it in the way that buildings are designed with no relation to the complexities of their site. We can also see this problem when people take any questioning of their position as an attack.
Don’t Count the Cost
We need to build a society of solidarity, and to do this we need combat the indebtedness which plagues our society. In the Old Testament, God instituted the Jubilee Year to cancel debts. In the political realm, we should search for ways to do the same.
On a personal level, Christian community members need to get rid of the American tendency to keep tabs and scores. We need to be able to give and receive freely, both when exchanging material gifts and in less tangible areas of our lives. We need to cultivate forgiveness and generosity. Since we are only stewards of God’s gifts to us, we shouldn’t feel that other people are indebted to us. As Peter said, we need to drop the attitude in which we think “I lent him twenty bucks. I might not say anything about it, but I’m still waiting for those twenty bucks!”
Where can Community Grow?
Community can’t grow in suburbia, because suburbia is too socially exclusive, and too geographically spread out. City cores are often too expensive. Small town American might offer some advantages. Some American small towns still have the structure which can make them viable, and they are “on the margins”. The question of the best location for a community is difficult to answer.
Moses exemplifies the right attitude toward social renewal. As a young man, he saw the oppression of his people, and tried to remedy the situation by his own power. He failed and fled the country. Much later, God told him to go and set the people of Israel free. Moses seems to have learned something over the years. He told God that he wasn’t strong enough to liberate the people. That didn’t matter, however. Ultimately, Moses wasn’t the one who would free the people. Rather, God worked through him despite his weakness and accomplished great things.
With God’s help, we can accomplish great things. We can be “restorers of the ruins” as it says in Isaiah. At the end of our lives, we want to be able to look back and see that we took the risk and gave everything we had to build the kingdom of God. We always have to remember, though, that God is working through us. It is important to provide the space and time for God’s spirit to work through us. And we have to remember that the Holy Spirit can work through everyone, not just through us.
St. Peter’s Basilica by Vitold Muratov, CC BY-SA 4.0; Let Us Dream Cover image, Fair Use
In our most recent podcast episode, Dr. Cameron Thompson used a story about transplanting grapevines as a metaphor to explain the development of culture. To move an established grapevine, it is necessary to cut off most of each vine’s branch structure, and it isn’t even possible to keep all the roots. So long as each vine retains enough of the stem and root structure, it can grow again in a new location, even after spending a few months stored in a bucket of soil.
The new branches will be similar to the old ones, but they won’t look completely the same. Even the grapes the transplanted vines produce will taste different due to the influence of a different soil and climate.
Don’t Focus on Cultural Details
This story illustrates a possible mistake about culture. If Christians become fixated on restoring cultural elements from the past, it would be as if someone planted grapes or grape leaves instead of roots. They would rot rather than grow.
Culture, like a leaf, is an emergent phenomena. It grows through complicated, often chaotic processes over time and reflects a group’s collective experience of reality. We can’t “build” or “restore” or “preserve” a culture by acting on it directly, any more than we can hurry the growth of leaves by pulling on them. All we can do is plant the roots or seeds of culture.
Since a culture grows from a group’s experience of reality, a revitalized Christian culture can only grow from the patient work of Christians living out the Faith together in daily life. The new Christian cultures which emerge from community life may have similarities to other cultures which existed in the past, but won’t be identical to them. If Christians are too worried about the details of the culture which will emerge, it will have the same effect as impatient children who dig up seeds to see if anything is happening yet.
The growth of a vine or tree is a good metaphor for other aspects of a developing community. When a tree is planted, it usually doesn’t look much like a tree at all. Young trees look more like insignificant sticks. Very rich people can afford to plant trees instead of sapling sticks; they can hire a crew with heavy machinery to uproot mature trees and move them to a new location. Such trees generally struggle, however. The insignificant sticks planted by those with more modest means (and more patience!) tend to do better in the long run.
Similarly, it is best if a community develops organically, with an openness to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. Attempting to “build” a full-fledged community to fit some preconceived blueprint is a risky way to start. As with tree planting, a “wealthy” approach is more impressive, but not as sustainable for the long run; we need to cultivate humility and poverty of spirit. Beware of those attempting to impose grand visions on a blank slate! Augustine Tardiff discussed this point in our excellent conversation about Madonna House. I’ve also written a blog post on the subject.
The Life of the Church
Christ often used the metaphor of a fruitful vine or tree when speaking of the Church or of an individual’s response to the Lord. Like a growing plant, the Church is a living, vital reality. As such, the Church grows and develops over time. To quote Let Us Dream by Pope Francis:
That has been the tradition of the Church: her understanding and beliefs have expanded and consolidated over time in openness to the Spirit, according to the principle enunciated in the fifth century by St. Vincent of Lerins: “They strengthen with the years, develop with time and become deeper with age.” Tradition is not a museum, true religion is not a freezer, and doctrine is not static but grows and develops, like a tree that remains the same yet which gets bigger and bears more fruit. There are some who claim that God spoke once and for all time—almost always exclusively in the way and the form that those who make this claim know well. They hear the word “discernment” and worry that it’s a fancy way of ignoring the rules or some clever modern ruse to downgrade the truth, when it is quite the opposite. Discernment is as old as the Church. It follows from the promise Jesus made to his disciples that after he was gone the Spirit “will guide you into all truth”. There is no contradiction between being solidly rooted in the truth and at the same time being open to a greater understanding.
As Pope Francis mentions here, this concept of development is often misunderstood. Conservatives are prone to imagining the Church as if it were something like a snapshot or painting of a tree; something static that can only be preserved, but not developed. Progressives often invoke development, but they tend to forget that development entails continuity. They are prone to imagining the Church as if it were a mechanical system that can be modified and redesigned at will. In contrast to these two view is the vision of Pope Francis: the Church as a living tree, growing, changing, maturing, and reacting, but always linked in a vital unity to the past.
It can sometimes be hard to distinguish healthy growth from an aberration. While it would be counterproductive to hack off every new sprout on a growing tree, it would be equally unwise to celebrate the emergence of mushrooms from a tree’s trunk. Some growths are problematic, antagonistic to the health of the tree. Even a tree’s own branches can grow in such a way as to jeopardize the whole.
In the Church, how is one to judge which growths are a true development of the original seed? Fortunately, we don’t have to make this determination on our own; God granted infallibility to the Church for just this reason. Much as we’d call in a tree surgeon to assess the state of our trees, the hierarchy of the Church is charged with discerning spirits. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
It is in this sense that discernment of charisms is always necessary. No charism is exempt from being referred and submitted to the Church’s shepherds. “Their office (is) not indeed to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to what is good,” so that all the diverse and complementary charisms work together “for the common good.”
By remaining connected to the Pope and the bishops united with him throughout the world, our lives and our communities will remain connected to the vital sap of Christ’s life in the Church.
Cover Image: Large tree on a tree spade. Photo by Dutchmanindustries, CC BY-SA 3.0
A Conversation with Doctor Cameron Thompson
Malcolm and Doctor Cameron Thompson discuss the Benedict Option, both the movement and Rod Dreher’s book of the same name. During the discussion, they draw on Doctor Cameron Thompson’s book The Original Benedict Option Guidebook and on Malcolm’s articles Rescuing St. Benedict from the Culture Warriors, and The Benedictine Monastery and the Franciscan Field Hospital.
The Culture War
Too often, Christian community is seen through the lens of the culture war. In this narrative, building community becomes, in Doctor Thompson’s words, “the back-up option”; something conservatives can fall back on if they don’t win the culture war.
A culture war framing of the Benedict Option is disastrous particularly because it obscures what St. Benedict was really doing. St. Benedict did not share the concerns of 21st century culture warriors. Rather, St. Benedict founded his monasteries because he wanted to follow Christ and help others to do so.
We don’t need to build community because the surrounding culture is hostile. We need to build community because we are Christians, and community is necessary for the Christian life. Christ founded a Church, a community, not just a bunch of gurus with a unique school of thought.
Nor is our battle against flesh and blood, but rather against evil, which runs through every human heart. If we buy into the notion of the culture war, we can be too quick to see outsiders as enemies, and too slow to see and fight against evil inclinations in our own hearts and within our communities.
Rod Dreher’s work contains two divergent narratives: the Benedict Option as culture war and the Benedict Option as Christianity fully lived out. If our community building is to be fruitful, and if we are to be faithful to the original vision of St. Benedict, we must reject the first narrative and embrace the second.
“Liberalism” and the Breakdown of Community
Community is necessary even for a good human life. As Doctor Thompson pointed out, the kind of “liberal” individualism we see in today’s world is a modern aberration. Historically, all cultures were communal. In the past, community was just natural, and Christians could build on this natural foundation. Today, when community is not natural, Christians have to become more intentional about building community.
It should be noted that when we mention “liberalism” in this episode, we aren’t talking about the Democratic Party or the “left”. Philosophically speaking, both Democratic party and the Republican party are classically liberal. Liberals take the individual and the individual’s rights as the philosophic starting point in thinking about community, rather than emphasizing society as a whole.
Liberalism breaks down communities because it focuses on individual selves. This focus is a philosophic mistake, because we only become fully selves through our relation to others. An individual can’t fully understand his or her own personhood apart from relationships to other persons and to God.
The Role of Economics in Community
One of the main reasons for the modern breakdown of community is the elimination of communal economics. For instance, in many countries the common land that would have once been managed by the community has been privatized.
As we work to restore community, it is important that we include an economic dimension. If we all live in the same area but then go our separate ways for work, we haven’t really built an integrated community. Instead, we’ve build something like an American suburb from the 1950’s.
In such a context, there was a certain amount of neighborliness, but a deep sharing of life was absent. It isn’t surprising that when many Americans think of community, this suburban model is what comes to mind for them; it is often the only kind of community that an American has experienced. During the episode, Doctor Thompson talked about his move to Italy, which gave him a clearer perspective on the lack of community in the USA.
This emphasis on local, community oriented economics is just one aspect of a deeper principle. Community needs to be rooted in the local, the particular, the real. Community may begin to develop online, but it needs to move into real life as soon as possible.
Serving Christ in Others
We are called to serve others, but we can’t do so in a patronizing, superior manner. A key aspect of Benedictine spirituality is serving Christ in others, in a concrete, practical way. Everyone around us should be seen, and served, as Christ himself. This attitude can help us to avoid seeing ourselves as the “heroes” who swoop into “save” other people. Rather, if we are serving Christ in others, we have to embrace a spirituality of humility and respectful love.
This recognition of Christ in those around us can also help us to avoid the temptation of forming a clique. Cliques form when an individual or group tries to surround themselves with others who are just like them. They feel that they are superior, and so they only want those around them who respect this perceived superiority. (Doctor Thompson warned that the formation of cliques may become more likely if we see ourselves as Christ and others as recipients of Christ’s ministry in us, rather than seeing them as Christ.) By contrast to the clique, true communities will contain diversity and disagreement. Tim Keller discussed this in an earlier episode.
A healthy community needs leadership. True Christian leadership is simply an aspect of this kind of service to others. The true leader seeks to serve those in his care to the best of his ability. Further, in a Benedictine monastery, the obedience required is not merely vertical, from the monks to the abbot. Rather, obedience is also supposed to be horizontal, between the monks, as well as being internal, the personal obedience to the commitments one has freely made.
Don’t Plant Flowers!
Those interested in the Benedict Option sometimes become too focused on “preserving” particular cultural elements. Doctor Thompson points out that this is a mistake. Instead, communities should focus on fostering the underlying spirituality from which culture can grow.
He used a wonderful analogy to explain this. At one point, he had to move an established vineyard to a new location. If he had planted flowers or grapes or leaves from his vines in the new location, they would have just rotted. Instead, he dug up the roots. He had to leave behind much of the branch structure, but he kept enough of the root and stem so that new vines could grow. Of course, the new growth wasn’t in exactly the same shape as the old growth. Nor did the new grapes that the vines eventually produced taste exactly the same, because the vines were growing in different soil and in a different climate.
Similarly, the implementation of particular cultural practices from the past shouldn’t be our focus. They’re like flowers, leaves or fruit: eye-catching, but not fundamental in the same way as roots. Instead, we should focus on planting the roots of faith lived out in community life, and from those roots a new culture will grow. It will have similarities to other cultures that have grown out of the Faith in other times and places, but will also have differences, as is the way of living things.
The Monastery as Village
The Benedictine monastic model wasn’t invented out of thin air. It was modeled after the Umbrian village or clan that St. Benedict was familiar with. The traditional village contained obedience to legitimate authorities and laws, a shared way of life, communal property, and common worship.
Doctor Thompson suggests that we should take as our model or ideal not the “intentional community” but rather the village, which is more organic and natural. When people talk about patterning life after monasticism, they are often referring to the early modern restoration of monasticism, which wasn’t always true to St. Benedict’s original vision. If we forget the roots of the monastery in the village, we may be unable to successfully draw inspiration from the monastery in patterning our own communities.
Advice for Finding Community
Doctor Thompson had several pieces of advice for those seeking community. (He prefers the term “grow” rather than “create” or “build” community.)
- Live a life of deep, personal prayer.
- Find an experienced guide.
- Look at real life, working examples.
- Try to find others who are seeking the same way of life, but even if they are not similar to yourself.
- Root yourself in a local area.
Working for the Glory of God
In conclusion, we can draw from the last essay in Doctor Thompson’s book. He describes how we each have a patch of “earth”, both literal and metaphorical, to cultivate for the glory of God. As each of us seeks to give glory to God through our lives, humanity is able to encounter the love of God. The building of community can help us to live out this “cultivation.”
In the last podcast episode, Augustine Tardiff discussed the origin and spirituality of Madonna House. Among other interesting points, he explained that Catherine de Hueck Doherty never intended to found a community in Combermere! She thought that she and her husband were simply retiring to a secluded location, where they intended to live quietly with a friend of theirs. The community grew up naturally around her and became more formalized over time. Today the community is quite structured and intentional. It resembles a “lay monastery”; after a sort of novitiate, members promise to remain in the community for life. This structure, however, isn’t something Catherine dreamed up for a future community, but rather something that developed from the organic growth of the community.
I’ve discussed this concept of organic development in earlier podcasts. For instance, in our second podcast episode, I said:
I believe that it’s important for community to be organic, to be unscripted and growing from local characteristics, local particularities …
One other reason that an organic community is essential, is that a lot of community building attempts that start in a more scripted fashion are over ambitious.
The communities I’ve interviewed since then, however, seem to present a contrast with this position; many are highly formalized, with vows, rules of life, and complex leadership structures. Is there a disconnect between the principle stated above and the communities interviewed by this project?
I’ve always said that I didn’t start this project with all the answers. I’m learning from those I interview right alongside the listeners. To a certain degree, my earlier negative stance on more formalized forms of community has been modified by the many inspiring, highly formalized communities that I’ve discovered over the past months.
I’ve noticed with interest, however, a certain pattern in stories guests tell about the development of their communities. The communities tend to have an organic stage of development that proceeds the adoption of formalized structures. For instance, the City of the Lord community and the Alleluia community both grew out of prayer groups. The Bethlehem community started out as a youth group.
This makes it more likely that the eventual structure will be integrally related to the actual needs and shared vision of the group; it grounds the vision in the concrete and the real.
Still, at some point, some individual or group has to consciously make the move toward more intentionality and structure, since a loose, organic group will tend to drift apart over time. There are certain spiritual risks in taking such a step; in particular, the risk of instrumentalization and the risk of blindness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
About instrumentalization, Fr. Simon Tugwell has this to say:
“We can get into the way of thinking that everything that we do needs some kind of extrinsic justification. Asking “Why?” can become addictive. We have, by and large, become suspicious of people just doing things because they want to. When all else fails, we resort to curious pseudo-justifications, like going for walks “for the exercise” or riding a motor bicycle “for the experience”; worse still, we go all solemn and declare something to be “important”. So we decorate harmless occupations with high-sounding significances, like taking tea with someone “just to keep the contact” or “in case he wants to talk”… Our concern for purposes and importance is surely a serious way in which we can get out of tune with God… Enfolding all our conscious and even unconscious hopes and aspirations, there is the plan of God, and what we, from the point of view of our own limited purposes, regard as failures, maybe, from the point of view of God’s providence, important steps forward. It is so simplifying of our lives if we can truly grasp this point… This obviously does not exclude the possibility of our doing much that changes the world around us. That may well be a frequent consequence of our yielding ourselves to the act of God. But it does mean that we are required to take very seriously the gap between our efforts and any genuine achievement. Whatever we achieve in this life is itself only a kind of raw material, or perhaps a symbolic sketch of beatitude… what is important is what we are doing, not what we are trying to do.”The Beatitudes: Soundings in Christian Traditions by Fr. Simon Tugwell
I know that I am personally tempted toward this instrumentalization, toward seeing everything as a means. All too often, I see getting together with friends as a means toward some particular discussion or project, rather than enjoying the moment for what it is. One of the happiest times of my life was the week following a retreat, during which God gave me the grace to temporarily see everything as simultaneously trivial and yet wonderful. Unfortunately, my usual restless spirit of “getting something done” closed in again all too soon.
Blindness to the Holy Spirit is closely related to instrumentalization. We may be certain that the Holy Spirit has inspired us to undertake a certain course of action, and we might think we know why. When the desired result is not forthcoming, we may become confused and disheartened, or press on stubbornly to an achievable goal. It may be that the inspiration toward a course of action was real, but that we did not understand the purpose behind the inspiration. Nor do we necessarily have to do so.
To avoid these two dangers as a group tries to achieve a certain end, it is important to live in the present moment, and to be open to diverse outcomes of any project or plan. Even more important is to value each step along the way for itself, not only for its instrumental value. For instance, St. Benedict’s monastic movement transformed European society in the centuries after his death. Benedict, however, didn’t set out to transform Europe or reform society. Rather he left a life of privilege to seek sanctity as a hermit. When others sought him out, he agreed to lead them in the spiritual life. As his group grew, he sent out his disciples to found satellite groups. He valued each step along the way for itself; living in a cave wasn’t seen as a “step” toward founding a monastery, let alone reforming European society. In many ways, the growth of the first Benedictine communities was very like the organic growth of Madonna House.
There are many reasons for building Christian community, but the most fundamental reason is that community is desirable for its own sake. Christ calls us to share our lives with one another, and so community building should never be instrumentalized. As an organic community begins to move toward more intentionality and formalization, the community might need to plan in a more formalized way, but the spiritual dangers of planning can be avoided by living in the present moment.
Cover Image: Benedictine Monastery at Subiaco, over the original cave of St. Benedict. Image in the Public Domain
In this episode, Malcolm interviews Augustine Tardiff, a member of the Madonna House community in Combermere, Ontario. They discuss the history and spirituality of Madonna House, the life of the founder, Catherine Doherty, and the formation of intentional community.
Origin and Structure of Madonna House
Madonna House is a lay apostolate founded by Catherine Doherty, a Russian refugee who worked with the poor in the US and Canada before retiring to Combermere. Augustine pointed out that she didn’t intend to found a community, but people kept coming, and a community gradually grew up around her. This is similar to the origin of the Benedictines and the Franciscans; saintly figures have the ability to attract others, even without intending to do so.
Eventually, the community became more formalized; it includes lay men and women as well as priests. It is structured rather like a religious order though there are differences canonically speaking. The community members share their goods in common. Most of them live on the Combermere property; there are a number of smaller satellite communities around the world.
New members initially make a series of temporary promises to the community. After having been with the community for ten years, they can make a life-long promise to remain with the community.
Augustine said “Her life story would make a two hour Hollywood movie!” She was born into nobility but lost everything and had to flee Russia after WWI and the Communist revolution. After many harrowing adventures, she made her way to Toronto. She worked with the poor in Harlem and worked for racial justice. Her love of God was what attracted people to Madonna House; she showed them that the Gospel way of life is possible.
Organic Development and Openness to the Spirit
It can be dangerous for a community to start with a highly detailed plan; this can block the workings of the Holy Spirit. It can be tempting to impose a plan or vision on other people. The vision of Madonna House, in contrast, has evolved over time.
The evolution of perspective can also happen to those who join a community. Augustine described his own journey to community life. Initially he was much more focused on leaving behind the problems of the world, but he came to see that this was not a sufficient perspective on community life. Over time, he also came to see that his initial focus on finding a good place to support his personal relationship with God didn’t take relationships with others into account. We don’t have to sacrifice our relationship with God to help others; these two relationships always go together.
Being in but not of the World
Madonna House is not separated from the world; it has a strong emphasis on hospitality, with hundreds of guests coming every year. These guests come to experience spiritual revitalization, and then take that renewal of spirit back into the wider world.
Augustine also stressed how “natural” the life at Madonna House is. He pointed out that it isn’t so far removed from everyday life as to be irrelevant to the normal lives of those who visit. The members don’t wear habits, and don’t “put on” a “holy” aspect. As he put it, the people are “good people”, but they are “just people.”
The fact that the community contains both men and women is also part of this kind of “normalcy.” Augustine remarked that this aspect of the community is unusual but very enriching.
Some of the satellite houses run clothing rooms and soup kitchens for the needy. Many of them, however, have come to realize that there are a lot of other organizations that provide material assistance to the poor. Many of them now focus on offering “prayer and listening houses.” They provide a Christian presence and listen to others, helping to combat the pervasive problem of loneliness. Those who run such houses say they are busy from morning to night. People just keep coming to them.
Living the Liturgical Year at Madonna House
The emphasis put on the liturgical year at Madonna House is one of the aspects that Augustine found particularly appealing. He said that in the world, feast days are hardly different from any other day, but in the community they are a big deal. He also discussed the Eastern Christian influences on the liturgy and spirituality of Madonna House.
Working the Land as Spiritual Practice
Madonna House runs a farm where they grow a lot of their own food. Working the land can help us to realize our dependence on God. The care that farmers have for their animals can give us insight into the care that God has for us. Like the animals, we don’t always understand what’s best for us, and we are prone to getting into trouble, but God loves us anyway.
The Little Mandate of Catherine Doherty: Madonna House Spirituality
During the podcast, Augustine mention Catherine’s “Little Mandate”. It wasn’t that God spoke to her and told her to write this down; rather, these were themes that came to her over and over again in prayer. These principles are the best short summary of Madonna House spirituality.
- 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 of them, one of 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 neighbors feet.
Go without fears into the depths of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.
- Pray always. I will be your rest.
Cover image: Combermere Madonna House. Photo by Rob Huston, CC BY 3.0
- Arise – go! Sell all you possess.
This article was contributed by a reader; we encourage guest submissions.
In the recent article Including the Chronically Ill in Community, Malcolm wrote about the importance and difficulty of including the sick in community life.
This made me think about how many saints have seen the sick as the treasure of their communities. They would show visitors their infirmaries or sick wards as if they were showing them their most valuable possession. Someone was always there to comfort and care for the sick. We need to emulate this in our communities.
Jesus had great compassion for the sick and loved them so much that he identified himself with them. In the Judgement of the Nations, he tells those on his right hand that whenever they visited the sick, they visited him. And of course the sick are also often hungry, thirsty, imprisoned in their homes, in need of being clothed and strangers to their communities. The families of those who are sick sometimes go to great lengths to care for them. Bearing this burden alone, however, can make the whole family isolated and over-stressed. The families of those who are sick also need care and assistance from others.
In many places, Perpetual Adoration has become very popular; parishioners sign up to adore Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament for an hour every week. Since Christ has said that he can also be found in the suffering members of his Mystical Body, it seems that parishes should also organize a similar rotation of volunteers to visit the sick. I once read about a priest who took care of his sick mother. He said that going into her room was like a sacrament. The sick are a “sacrament” in a special way. I have experienced this in my own care of the sick.
Some of the sick might need actual care and assistance, but in many cases, the visitors would be there to offer prayer, companionship, and encouragement. In some situations, actually visiting the sick person might be impossible or unwanted; in such cases, the scheduled visitors could spend their hour praying for the person from their home or from the adoration chapel. Imagine how consoling it would be to know that there were members of the community praying for you around the clock, and somebody was always available if you needed assistance!
Many people reading this would probably feel that if they were sick, they wouldn’t want such attention. They’d hate to be a “bother”. This mentality is very corrosive to the formation of real community, which depends on the mutual bearing of burdens.
As with adoration chapels, many of the volunteers in this kind of program would probably be elderly people, who are often lonely themselves. Such a project would give people who feel that their lives lack purpose and meaning a renewed sense of responsibility and belonging, and it would help to pull the whole community closer together.
Jesus blesses those who carry out his command, “Love one another as I have loved you.” His love means that he is never far from us, and so we should never be far from those in need.
Cover Image: Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament by Lawrence OP, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Malcolm Schluenderfritz and Peter Land discuss the prologue of Let Us Dream, the book in which Pope Francis reflects on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ways in which the current upheaval can inspire us to build a better world.
A Time for Reflection
In Let Us Dream, Pope Francis calls on us to see the COVID-19 crisis as a time to reflect on the state of our world. It upended our usual perspective and our normal routine, which can create a greater willingness to make necessary changes.
Changes might be necessary because, as Pope Francis pointed out, “The Covid crisis . . . is only special in how visible it is. There are a thousand other crises that are just as dire . . . we can act as if they don’t exist. Think, for example, of the wars scattered across different parts of the world, of the production and trade in weapons; of the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing poverty, hunger, and lack of opportunity; of climate change.”
We discussed various preexisting problems that were highlighted by COVID, including the loneliness and isolation of so many elderly people, the growing division and polarization in our society, and the disparity in healthcare between rich and poor countries.
The Hearts of Many shall be Revealed
It isn’t just social problems that are revealed by a crisis; Pope Francis tells us that “when you’re in a crisis, it’s the opposite. You have to choose. And in making your choice you reveal your heart.” We discussed the many ways, both charitable and uncharitable, that people responded to our current crisis.
The Value of Time
The pandemic made us rethink our use of time. Of all the activities we were engaged in before the pandemic, which were really important? What do we wish we’d spent more time and energy on? What things were merely a waste of time, or undertaken for the wrong motives?
Called to be Co-Creators
Pope Francis insists that we’re partly responsible for the outcome of history. He says that God does not give us the world “all wrapped up and sealed: “Here, have the world.”” Rather, he wants our participation both in the ongoing creation and the ongoing redemption of the world.
Redemption through Encounter
We can bring about this redemption or re-creation of the world through encounter, particularly of those who are peripheral in our lives. He calls us to make fraternity the organizing principle of our lives going forward. Society has emphasized equality and liberty, but not given enough emphasis to the fraternity that grows through humble encounter of others.
St. Peter’s Basilica by Vitold Muratov, CC BY-SA 4.0; Let Us Dream Cover image, Fair Use
The Hard Sayings of the Gospel
What Gospel teachings won’t you hear about at a typical parish? Conservatives lament the lack of sermons addressing the worthy reception of the Eucharist and the evils of abortion. Progressives decry the lack of sermons on social justice and care for the poor.
I’ve heard sermons on abortion and on helping the poor, and I’ve heard plenty of “asking sermons” in which priests urge the faithful to support the parish with time, talent, and treasure. I’ve only heard one sermon, though, on the spiritual dangers of owning a lot of “treasure”. That sermon, I should add, was given by a visiting priest. He said that he could only speak on such a dangerous topic because he’d be gone by the morning!
The Gospels strongly emphasize voluntary poverty. The rich young ruler went away sad, because he would not give up his possessions. The rich man, unlike Lazarus, had his good things in this life and eternal fire in the afterlife. God called the man with his bulging barns a fool. The poor are blessed, according to Christ. The Pharisees, who loved money, sneered at God Incarnate.
The Misuse of a Teaching
In a wealthy and powerful country, the topic of Gospel poverty tends to be avoided. It might annoy the rich and cause them to leave the Church. Someone recently told me, however, that Gospel poverty is preached to the poor in the Global South. According to him, in poor countries poverty is preached to the poor and oppressed as a way to keep them subservient and to distract them from the injustice of their oppressors. I don’t know how common this misuse of the Gospel poverty concept is. What is certain is that it is a misuse.
Serving the Poor to the Point of Poverty
The path to heaven for the rich, the only way for them to fit through the needle, is to serve the poor. Such service has to go far beyond that asked by the time-talent-and-treasure sermons. In general, the rich are only too happy to give donations, so long as such giving doesn’t impede their lifestyles. They give of their surplus, not of their need, as Christ pointed out. Fr. Dubay, speaking of this, says:
“We may consider a concrete example. At Mass one Sunday morning in October a serious, deeply religious couple hear that the following week there is going to be a collection for the foreign missions. As they drive home Mrs. Jones is likely to say, “Bill, do you think we could afford something like $20 or $30 for this collection?” After some musing Mr. Jones may well respond that he, too, thinks they could afford that amount as their contribution. While most would indeed consider Mr. and Mrs. Jones a generous couple, we must note something significant. When both of them used the expression “we could afford”, they meant “without changing significantly our level of consumption.” They did not mean “we could afford $20 or $30 if we dine out less frequently or give up smoking or cocktails, or if we cancel our vacation trip, or sell one of our sports cars.”—Happy Are You Poor, pp. 84-85
While we might not consider ourselves “rich”, the average American is wealthy by world and historical standards. If we are able to spend money on unnecessary items, then we are wealthy by Gospel standards. St. Paul writes to Timothy “For we brought nothing into the world, just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it. If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that.” (1 Timothy 6:7-8) The Church calls us to put the needs of those who lack food, clothing, and basic shelter ahead of our desires for recreation, amusement, and fashion.
If the “asking sermons” were really heeded, the rich would become poor. In the body, would the hand ornament itself while the foot bled to death? In the family, would a brother take an expensive vacation while his sister starved to death? This is the meaning of the parable of the unjust steward: the rich are to make friends for themselves with the mammon of iniquity. The rich are to give it to the poor, and it is the friendship of the poor that will get the rich into heaven.
Is this a Swap?
Wouldn’t such a giving away of wealth merely swap the conditions of the rich and poor? No, for two reasons. Practically, there are more poor than rich. Every wealthy individual who gives up a mansion could build many modest homes in the Third World, without making anybody wealthy. “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for anyone’s greed.”
Theoretically speaking, such a “swap” isn’t desirable. From a Gospel perspective, wealth is undesirable, but so is destitution. Destitution is the lack of necessary goods and is bad for the soul just as it is bad for the body. We’re composite creatures, and damage to one part of ourselves is likely to reflect onto the other. The Christian ideal is that of Acts, where we see the rich selling what they have to give to the poor, and where “none of them lacked anything”.
Lifting the Poor out of Destitution
This highlights the folly of preaching Gospel poverty to the destitute. The poor, hungry and persecuted are indeed blessed. Why is this so? Because Jesus identifies himself with them. He lived among the poor, had nowhere to lay his head, and died on a cross. This identification means that as we treat the poor, so we treat Christ.
By all means, the Church should preach the dignity of the oppressed and poor—and the Church must warn their oppressors that eternal ruin may befall them if they do not recognize that dignity and act upon it.
Pontius Pilate was famously indifferent to the truth, and he refused to sacrifice his personal safety and ambitions to protect Truth himself in the guise of a poor, suffering Man before him. If Pilate had seen the face of God in the marginalized, he would have been a transfigured man. As it is, barring a last-minute conversion, we can suppose that his second face-to-face encounter with Christ was not a pleasant one.
The Interconnected Gospel
As it turns out, the neglected or misused topic of Gospel poverty has a close connection to the other “hard sayings” mentioned earlier, to social justice and abortion and the worthy reception of the Eucharist. Social justice without an embrace of Gospel poverty is a farce. The wealthy, merely by reason of their wealth, are unjust and oppressive. From the teaching of Church Fathers such as Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, through Thomas Aquinas and the medieval scholastics, right up to the teachings of Pope Francis and the Catechism of St. John Paul II, the Church has taught the universal destination of human goods. The surplus wealth of the rich belongs to the poor, not due to charity, but due to justice. Those who keep what belongs to another are unjust and commit the sin of theft.
This injustice makes the wealthy guilty of murder; they are responsible for the deaths of those whom they should have helped, including the many children aborted because their parents face economic hardship.
Such callousness to the life of others turns the Eucharist from the sacrament of life into the potential for damnation. St. Paul warns that those who receive unworthily eat and drink damnation upon themselves. What is not so well known is that this warning was given to a community which was not honoring the poor among them. In First Corinthians, St. Paul explains that our reception of the Eucharist makes us into one body in Christ. As members of the same body, we must care for one another.
The Epistle of James on Gospel Poverty
This Christian stance on wealth can be clearly seen in the following quotations from the Epistle of James: he calls the poor blessed, calls on the Church to feed and clothe them, and warns of the coming condemnation of the rich who do not aid the poor.
1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world . . .
2:1-6 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?
2:14-16 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?
5:1-5 Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.
For more on Gospel Poverty, see our outline of Fr. Dubay’s Happy Are You Poor.