One year ago today, Thanksgiving Sunday (according to the Canadian reckoning), I was at Madonna House in Combermere with all the seminarians. It was a wonderful weekend with the MH community, men and women who live together following the Little Mandate of Catherine Doherty under the promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience. It was truly refreshing to leave the bustling city and join in their life of simplicity, living off the land, really in touch with creation – and the Creator who made it all.
Our visitation made a lasting impression on the seminarians – and on the members of Madonna House. I find myself here again, this time alone for a week of prayer, reflection, and rest, a type of extended Sabbath as the seminarians are on Study Break. Almost every member of MH that I have met have asked about the seminarians and when will be their next visit. Perhaps in the second term, during the Great Fast is all I can offer at this point.
Two years ago, I was invited to MH during the hottest part of the summer to give a talk to the community on all the Eastern Churches. I enjoyed the experience immensely, and I think they did, too. I met at that time a member by the name of Rose (I changed her name for this piece). We found out that we both have a love and devotion to St. Mary of Egypt. As we shared about her impact on our own personal spiritual journeys, I mentioned to her that I had received from a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal (Fr. Groeschel’s community) a first-class relic of St. Mary of Egypt, with the accompanying authentication documentation. Rose looked at me, and with a little smile, asked me to bring the relics with me next I visit “so I can give her a little smooch!” And one year ago, Rose was able to make that smooch a reality.
A little smooch. I love this phrase. It betrays an intimacy that is oft forgotten in our relationship with the saints. It was the very Friar that gave me the relic of Mary that taught me by example of this intimacy. We were at World Youth Day in Paris (1997) and awaiting to be let into the area for priests to concelebrate the final Eucharist. It was rumoured that Pope John Paul II would announce that St Therese of Lisieux would be proclaimed a Doctor of the Church (indeed, JPII did make this announcement at the end of the Mass). What caught my attention was how my brother priest referred to this great saint with great intimacy, calling her “Tessa” like she was some older and endearing sister.
It got me thinking about my relationship with the saints. I have to admit, in the final analysis, I treated the saints with a consumerist attitude. I wanted or needed something (not necessarily a material item) and I would ask them for their prayers. That was it. I never got to know them, to love them. It was that day in Paris when I started to re-think things. And I started with Mary of Egypt.
I first discovered this incredible woman when I was in seminary and started to investigate the Eastern Churches. I had learned that a certain story about her and Zosimas the priest was read during the fifth week of the Great Fast. I waited that year for the Thursday Matins and escaped from the Latin Seminary to the Ukrainian Catholic Seminary (the very one of which I am now Rector), and while it was read in Ukrainian, I followed in English. I was moved to tears by her repentance. I was moved with my identification with her of her wickedness, of her discovery of the hole that cannot be filled but by One, by her desire to venerate the instrument of love and mercy (the Holy Cross), and her obedience to a simple and challenging ascetical life of prayer, her joy. She has become for me the model of an asceticism of joy (more on that later).
So when I brought her relics to Rose for a smooch, I have to admit that I gave a smooch as well. As a matter of fact, Mary gets a smooch from me every night before I retire. I have come to l know her life, and she prays for me because I have revealed my life to her, and both of us, brother and sister together in baptism, in Christ’s death and resurrection, live in His mercy and love, she already perfected as one of the saints, me being perfected by His grace with her prayers.