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