What does Madonna House do? by Theresa Davis
Jul 15 What does Madonna House do?
by Theresa Davis
in staff authors
What happens in our Madonna House mission houses? To answer this question, I have to go back to my own journey of many years.
When I was at university, I heard Jacques Maritain, one of the greatest philosophers of this century, give a lecture.
He told us that at one point in their youth in Paris, he and his wife Raïssa were desperately searching atheists. They decided to make a pact that if they didn’t find a deeper meaning to their lives within a year, they would commit suicide together.
What stopped them was a conference they attended with Léon Bloy. Among the many wonderful things Bloy said was this: “The greatest tragedy is not become a saint.
When Maritain shared this story, this line touched the very core of my heart. The greatest tragedy is not to become a saint. I thought, “That’s my goal. I will become a saint!
Now, how do you become a saint? I figured I had to do something big, like St. George slaying the dragon or St. Patrick chasing the serpents of Ireland.
Well, I never found anything great to do. Years passed and I forgot to become a saint.
Then in the mid-1950s I landed here at Madonna House. It was then a small place; there were maybe 30 people here.
I had been here a few days and had yet to meet founder Catherine Doherty. Then one day, in the middle of lunch, it was like something electric was going through the room. Enter this woman.
She was so beautiful. I have no words for it, but it was as if the light entered the room with her. After lunch she got up and talked about God for about three hours. It wasn’t really that long.
Among the many things she said was, “The one thing everyone should want is to be a saint. The greatest tragedy is not to be a saint!
It was still there! I could not believe it.
She continued, “All you have to do is be madly in love with God. And for that, we must live the Gospel without compromise. You don’t live the gospel in a vacuum. Jesus never lived in a vacuum. You live it by doing the duty of the moment. Do little things for love. Live a life of simplicity.
That’s all I had to do? It seemed so easy ! Thank God, I had finally found the formula to become a saint. It sounded so good! Did I know then that every day wasn’t going to be so easy?
Of course, over the days, she taught us to flesh out those words. For example, I remember a talk she gave on the Trinity. It was spectacular.
I had just studied Aquinas in college for three years, but I was never touched by the Trinity until I heard Catherine speak.
Next, two of us were tasked with sweeping the dining room floor. We were there, leaning on our brooms, chatting.
“Wasn’t that a nice conversation?” “Oh, yes, that was great!”
Catherine came back into the room. Spotting us, she asked, “So, what do you do?”
“Catherine,” we said, “we’re just talking about that wonderful talk you gave on the Trinity.”
“God just flew out the window,” she said. “He’ll come back when you’re done sweeping the room.”
I never forgot that. Every day she showed us how to flesh out the gospel.
I could tell many stories. I remember the time his nephew was killed in a motorcycle accident. It was announced over lunch. After lunch and spiritual reading, Catherine returns to her cabin.
She didn’t stay there very long. I don’t know what she did – maybe cried or prayed.
Shortly after leaving us, she called her secretary and began dictating letters. It was his duty at the time. She lived what she taught.
She always said that the duty of the moment will comfort you. It is your deepest comfort.
I remembered that years later when I was at Madonna House Israel. My mother passed away while I was there, and after the first shock of the news, I remembered that to be comforted, I must return to the duty of the moment of MH Israel.
Another thing that Catherine pointed out is that you have to be Before you do. Being is more important than doing. To be honest, for years I never really understood this. On the one hand, we never stopped working from morning to night! Yet “being” was more important; work was to be the overflow of this being.
In the 1960s, three of us were sent to open a mission in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). I was the director. The plan was that we were going there for life. The first two years were set aside for language study and cultural immersion.
As these two years drew to a close, the vicar general of the diocese (the bishop was absent at the Second Vatican Council) kept asking us what we were going to do.
The poverty in East Pakistan was unbelievable, so he wanted us to do some body work of mercy – resume high school or run a dispensary or something similar.
So I wrote to Catherine. “Catherine, we have to think about what we are going to do. Father awaits your response.
She answered and said, “Don’t do anything.”
Father asked me what she said. How could I tell her she said “do nothing”? So I said, “I don’t think she understood me. I will write another letter.
I wrote again. “Catherine, you don’t understand. Father waits for an answer. What are we supposed to do?”
She said, “Theresa, you have to Be there.“There were a whole bunch of other words that I didn’t know, because all I could see was do not do anything.
Father said, “Well, what did she say?”
I said, “I don’t think she got my letter.”
So for the third time, trembling, I wrote: “Catherine, you have to be concrete now. Tell us what you want us to do.
This is what she wrote to me the third time:
“You know, the priests asked me exactly the same question they ask you.
“‘What will you do?’ When people ask this question, what they mean is not only ‘what do we do’, but also ‘how can we justify our existence there and everywhere, except by the production of good works?’
“The exact function of your center is to Be there, love, endure gossip, misunderstanding, false accusations and persecution unto death.
“Just to be; just to love. Remember that the essence of this love is expressed in hospitality, availability, charity and peace.
“What you must realize, I repeat, the exact function of your center, its essence and its basic principle, is to be a community of love among the three of you. All you can give to people is your poverty and the love of God.
“Please, oh please, Theresa, don’t put so much emphasis on production. Never let that be your standard. Fight an endless fight against this terrible, mind-numbing approach to Christian missionary life.
I say all this to answer the simple question—what do we do in our mission houses—because I think that is the essence of all mission work, and of every Madonna House. Yes, even if some of our houses do specific active works, such as soup kitchens and catechesis.
Catherine’s words ended up penetrating the epidermis of my soul, in the deep marrow of my mind. In our homes, we try to be the kind of center that Catherine was talking about, a center of welcome, of availability.
We have houses where all kinds of people meet, Muslims, Jews, Baptists, Episcopalians, etc. We want to be a listening post where the poor come, the whites, the blacks, the lay apostles, the ministers, the priests, everyone. to refresh.
Like all of you, we’re just trying to live the Gospel without compromise, and that’s about it. Above all, I repeat, we are just trying to be, just to love.
That says it all.
The two houses mentioned are now closed.
Adapted from Restoration, October 1998