This article was published in “D’un Point-Coeur à l’autre” #29, the French magazine of Heart’s Home in December 1999.
At the end of my novitiate, I had a real fascination for a woman. Later on, when I began studying theology, in Paray-le-Monial (France), I had a fascination for another woman. For almost 25 years, I have been faithful to both of them. Their books are my food. I try to be inspired by their freedom and their love, and they teach me how to pray. The first one comes from Russia. She was born in 1896 and died on December 14th 1985. She had to go through a very difficult life; she had to immigrate to England, then to North America. Her name is Catherine de Hueck Doherty. She founded a nice spiritual family in Canada, called Madonna House. The second one was born in Switzerland in 1900. She was a doctor in Basel and, like Catherine, got married twice. Her name is Adrienne Von Speyr. Cardinal Von Balthasar was her spiritual father until the end of her life.
I was moved by Catherine de Hueck’s zeal, her radicalness and the seriousness of her conception of spiritual maternity. I was also moved by her respect for priests, her commitment to serve the poor, and her way to do the little things. She considered herself as in love with God; she had a real passion for Jesus Christ. And it was true. Adrienne von Speyr impressed me with the depth of her contemplation. Following her, we discover that the Mystery is always greater than what we could imagine. Her views on the Eucharist, confession, the mystery of the Church or on the communion of saints, on the sense of consecrated life or of marriage are so rich that the Mystery of the Trinity Itself becomes greater, more surprising, more infinite than we could perceive it, and incredibly attractive.
This is the second autumn I spend in Canada, in Combermere, where Catherine de Hueck founded Madonna House, and where most of the members of her community live today. This is a wonderful place. The buildings are located along the Madawaska River. In autumn, when the sun shines, it seems that everything is on fire. It is above all a place where peace prevails. The approximate one hundred members of the community, simple lay people, do very simple things. They live together under God’s sight, as if they were members of the same family. They don’t have any particular apostolate. Many people, however, visit Combermere, but the members of Madonna House don’t prepare anything special for them. They rather propose to them to share their lives. So, just like them, these visitors sleep in dormitories, pray, work on the farm or in the kitchen, inside or outside, and, at night, play cards while drinking a cup of herbal tea, or read books along with the others. And this life is surrounded by an atmosphere of great simplicity and fraternity.
Day after day, it is surprising to see how the eyes of the visitors light up, as if they were able to see beyond. It seems that faith and hope enable them to perceive something essential that they had forgotten for a long time. I believe that this transformation is due to prayer, but also to the rediscovery of simple things done with great love. In fact, this resurrection comes from the magic of the little things.
Nowadays, great actions, spectacular achievements or records only are valuable. We refuse to do hidden, humble or simple things, considering them a waste of time or degrading, or even dehumanizing. We have forgotten the value of Nazareth. We buy machines to wash our clothes, ready-cooked dishes for our meals.
This contempt for humble tasks like making one’s bed, carefully ironing one’s clothes, tidying up, doing the housework, polishing one’s shoes is closely linked, in our world, to a loss of hope. One says that doing all these little things every day does not make sense. Consequently, his whole life, slowly, does not make sense any more. The very people who neglect these small things are those who, soon, find that their lives do not make sense. In addition to that, if these people have little relationship with their peers, and feel lonely, as it is often the case in our western societies, the idea of committing suicide can come very quickly to their minds.
God considers as great all that we do for love of Him, all that is “accomplished in His Son”: sweeping lovingly is much greater than running a country arrogantly. The treasure that we will be able to offer to Jesus Christ when He opens to us the doors of heaven will be made of these little things done with love. “Are we walking the path He has laid out for us―the strange path of the monotonous, little duties of every day, that could become gifts more precious than those of the Three Wise Men? What are these little things? Here is a short list: dishwashing, filing, going from one meeting to another, answering doors and telephones, dealing with uncouth or difficult people, facing hopeless situations in school or catechetical centers. Yet, all of these could become a cascade of precious gems, of gold too heavy to bear, of grains of incense that would cover the earth.”
This could sound like an outward sign and, in fact, it is still an outward sign in the poorest countries. But many of us need to hear it again and again, just like the Beatitudes, because we find it difficult to follow God’s logic, God’s manners. We judge according to criteria that are opposite to God’s views. We are tempted to build a Tower of Babel when God only asks us to peel potatoes. Catherine de Hueck was very concerned, because she felt her “dearly beloved” children did not understand this. “Today, I fell asleep at 3:45 A.M. Around 2:00 A.M., a sad, mournful tune was going round and round in my heart and head: ‘Lord, when will they understand and implement the connection between Your luminous truths, love, and switching off electricity, taking care of clothing, realizing the significance in all these acts?’ I fell asleep hearing that. I have been thinking much lately about our vocation. It seems to me that Nazareth is the hidden, little village to which we have to go and live, there with the Holy Family to become whole again. It is there that we will learn about the little things that we always talk about, and always say must be done perfectly for the love of God.”
This secret transfigures our ordinary life which becomes particularly fruitful. “You see, this is the essence of our vocation: to connect an ordinary and seemingly boring life with its repetitious details, with Love Who is God. Then the boredom vanishes, and a day spent in sorting buttons is glorious. Then a day at the typewriter, when your back is aching and your mind reeling with tiredness, is a day that has redeemed many souls, how many, God alone knows. We must have that awareness and make that connection. If it isn’t made, it is a wasted day. What a horrible and a tragic thought that one of the most precious gifts of God, time, has been wasted.” Moreover, it seems that every action done in communion with God creates a close link between Him and us, an uninterrupted spirit of prayer that makes us transparent in His presence.
“How is it possible to live this life as a vocation, unless you connect every gesture and breath with God? Unless you have an awareness of every lamp that is lit unnecessarily? Unless you pick up everything after everybody and after yourself, especially, so as not to burden your brother? Unless you are completely in every little thing with your whole heart, your whole soul and your whole mind, this is not a vocation for you. Go elsewhere, but wherever you go you will certainly have to do little things. Try to do them without love, and see what happens, but doing little things with your whole heart is our vocation.” Living the spirit of Heart’s Home may not only mean being present to the persons, but also to things, small things, very small things.