• August 11, 2009

The Little Things

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.

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