Merry Christmas 2016!

photo credit: Josh Hrkach 2011 (copyright)

photo credit: Josh Hrkach 2011 (copyright)

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:8-11

“Fear not little flock, fear not. Come with me to Bethlehem. Let us celebrate a joyous Christmas. Let us be merry and happy no matter what because Christ is born.” Catherine Doherty

Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year!

The Cross and Easter Morning

Photo by Ellen Hrkach

Photo by Ellen Hrkach

I’d like to share this beautiful article by Catherine Doherty, foundress of Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario.

This Holy Week and Easter Week, I meditated much on the Cross and on the Resurrection. And I was struck at the power of the Liturgy to bring those two together. From the very beginning of Lent, the crescendo of the Liturgy of the Church brought us to Good Friday… Her day of mourning… Her day of loss.

Yet even during the Triduum of Holy Week, even on Good Friday itself, anyone attuned to the Liturgy — the Church’s school of love and knowledge — could sense that behind the darkness of Good Friday, already the light of Easter was shining.

Likewise, anyone could sense that during the tremendous joy that filled the Church and her liturgy during Easter and Easter Week, the shadow of the Cross was not far.

It came to me then, that this was the answer to our every day, ordinary, Christian life. That this inter-weaving of light and dark, of joy and sorrow, of pain and absence of it, was a pattern that the Church through her Liturgy brought before the eyes of her children to prepare them for the reality of their earthly lives.

It taught them beautifully and powerfully that the lot of human beings was this symphony of alternating pain and sorrow, joy, and gladness.

Better than any psychiatrist, it pointed to the immense realities of life, never allowing her children to wander into a dream world of their own that would take them far away from the Cross and the Resurrection, into a world of their own making, full of idols, fashioned by their own hands, and oh, so dangerous to the welfare of their souls.

Cross and Empty Tomb

Through her liturgy, the Church by pointing to the inseparableness of the Cross from the empty Tomb, taught her children all about hope. Saying, in effect, that when things seem all wrong, practically hopeless, that is the time when hope should be at its strongest.

For each one of us must have his Good Fridays, but each one must always remember that Good Friday is only the beginning of the story of Love. That it leads to Easter mornings, and eventually to the final Easter morning — to the home coming, to the Beatific Vision.

At the same time, the Church through her liturgy, teaches us that when we experience great moments of joy and gladness — which, of course, God in his mercy always gives us, his beloved children — we must not expect that they will last all our lives, for like the newly baptized catechumens of Early Christian times, we can wear our white robe of joy and gladness for just so long, and, then, life takes over again and we must appear in our everyday garments, shouldering our cross again, because through it, we shall know Christ… through it, we will really become his followers… through it, we will achieve the real goal of our lives — sanctity!

The Cross and Easter morning with the Resurrection of the Lord, Easter and the Cross. Tremendous images given to us by the Church to teach us the way to the Father.

I thanked God for this meditation. It explains so much. It helped so much.

To look at the the extensive list of books that Catherine has written, click here.

This article is free to use under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs License.

A Beautiful Advent Story

Donkey Bells
One of my favorite Advent books and one that I read every year at this time is a book by Catherine Doherty called “Donkey Bells,” published by Madonna House Publications. I love to read this inspiring book curled up in a comfortable chair by the wood stove, a hot chocolate or apple cider beside me, Advent and Christmas music playing quietly in the background. This lovely book is filled with heartwarming stories, customs and traditions (such as the Advent wreath, baking, the blessing of the Christmas tree) and moving reflections for the season. It is a beautiful way for children, teens and adults to prepare their hearts for Christmas.

The following is a story from Donkey Bells: Advent and Christmas by Catherine Doherty
(Available as a paperback and e-book)

Donkey Bells (by Catherine Doherty)

It came to me, during these days of Advent, that I should share with you a custom which is not necessarily liturgical but which adds to the enjoyment of this lovely season. It has deep spiritual connotations; at least it did for our family, and for many others I knew when I was a young child.

When I was a little girl, my mother used to tell me that if I was good during this holy season of Advent, and offered my little acts of charity and obedience throughout Advent to the little Christ Child for a gift on his birthday, then sometime during Advent, at first very faintly and then quite clearly, I would hear bells. As she put it, the first church bells.

These were the bells around the neck of the little donkey that carried Our Lady. For mother explained that Our Lady carried Our Lord. She was the temple of the Holy Spirit, the first ‘church’ as it were, since Christ reposed in her. And the donkey, carrying Our Lady and sounding his bells as he walked, wore the first church bells.

Around the second week of Advent, mother wore a little bracelet that had tinkling bells. As she moved her hand I could hear them tinkle, and I got excited because I associated them with the donkey’s bells.

As young as I was, my imagination would build up a lot of little stories about the trip of Our Lady from Nazareth to Bethlehem — stories which I would share with my mother, and which would spur me on to further good deeds and little sacrifices.

During the third week of Advent, mother’s bracelet miraculously got many more bells on it. The sound grew louder and louder as Christmas approached. It was wonderful.

My brother and I used to listen. Mother’s bells were first around her wrist and then around her knee too. Then more bells, as it got closer to Christmas. We were really excited about them.

I introduced this little custom in Madonna House. During Advent, I wear a kind of bracelet that can be heard as I walk or move, in whatever room of the house I may be. The members of our family tell me that it spurs them on, even as it did me when I was a child, to meditate more profoundly on the mystery of Advent.

Here at Madonna House, we have begun in these last few years to make a collection of miniature donkeys — of wood, glass, ceramics, rope — you name it. And we have an album of Christmas cards (which we save from the many we receive) that depict the donkey in the manger scene.

The presence of the donkey and the ox in Scripture is symbolic of the prophets who foretold the Incarnation. And also of the fact that “the ox and ass know their Master’s voice, but Israel doesn’t know the voice of God” (Isaiah 1:3). So, you see, there is some spiritual foundation for my love for the donkey which brings such great joy to my heart.

I’m sure that, as a child, Christ rode on a donkey many times. And also as a man, of course. In Scripture we know of only two times: one was when the donkey carried Our Lady, who in turn carried God, from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The other was when the donkey carried Christ into Jerusalem as the people laid palm branches before Him, proclaiming him king.

Let us think for a moment: What kind of animal is a donkey? It is a beast of burden, the animal of the poor. Once again, the immense theme of poverty is illustrated in an animal. God chose the humblest, the smallest in status, because among the animals the donkey is considered very low. So God is teaching us a lesson here — a lesson of humility, of poverty, and of simplicity.

Have you ever seen a newborn donkey? Well, every donkey has a black cross on its gray fur, a marking which is especially noticeable just after it is born from its mother’s womb. It gets less clear as the donkey matures, but still is visible. I share this fact with you to teach you to open your heart to the bells of the donkey that carried Our Lady and also God.

The breath of the donkey and the ox made the stable warm. So we meditate on several things at once: the poverty and humility of the donkey God chose, and which should be our poverty and humility; and the breath of our love, which should warm God in our neighbor constantly.

Let us remember that the donkey also had no room at the inn. Neither woman, nor man, nor donkey had a place at the inn. So they went to live in a poor stable that wasn’t too well prepared for animals, let alone as a decent habitation for human beings.

Now, another meditation comes to us. Think of the millions of people who are left homeless on our streets. Tragic is this situation. We, as apostles, must be very careful that we do not exclude anyone from the inn of our heart.

I pray that our heart, our soul, our ears will hear very clearly ‘the bells of the donkey,’ not only in Advent but throughout the year. For whoever who is pure of heart and childlike shall hear the bells of the donkey ring in their life.

(Creative Commons Licence Pass It On by Madonna House Publications is free to re-publish under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.)

Do you have a favorite Advent or Christmas story? Please feel free to share.

Prayer: The Cry of a Child (by Catherine Doherty)

As we get closer to Christmas, I’d like to share a beautiful excerpt, this one from Catherine Doherty’s “Living the Gospel Without Compromise.” This is entitled “Prayer: The Cry of a Child” and is available free as a Pass it On article at this link.

The first step in praying is to understand who we are, and that is awfully difficult. We must acknowledge that we are creatures, saved sinners, entirely dependent on God. We must be, as the bible says, anawim, poor people of God, the poor people of the beatitudes who know that they depend on God. We must face ourselves and realize that we cannot exist on our own, that we are dependent.

To the proud, this is anathema. We look at ourselves and we say “I depend on no one” — and suddenly, in the very saying, we realize that this is not so: we do depend on God. This is the beginning of prayer: that we become beggars before God, knowing that we receive even the steps we take from him.

To begin to pray we must first cleanse our souls of arrogance and pride. In grave humility and as beggars, must we come to him who alone can make us princes and kings and queens, not of earthly kingdoms, but of the kingdom of God. Only when we are thus poor and realize our total poverty, can we go to Bethlehem and meet the Child who became poor for us.

Is there any human being who does not respond to the cry of a child? Did you ever consider the first cry of the Child Jesus? It was his first message of love to us. When we know that we are poor, we can easily enter Bethlehem and answer his cry. We can easily walk behind the donkey that bears the woman and Child. If we are poor we will not hesitate to enter the humble home of Nazareth to take part in the hospitality of Joseph and Mary. Yet the proud and the arrogant look down their noses at simple folk from Nazareth: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

If we realize our own poverty we will follow him who had nowhere to lay his head. Prayer is the interpersonal relationship of a poor man with the Poor Man.

If we remain poor and keep following the Poor Man, a change will take place. Up to a point Christ will console us. But as our prayer deepens, we will enter the darkness of a fantastic faith, a faith that we have to pray for. The time will come when we will have to console Christ. For we see him all over the world — in slums, in Park Avenue — in people committing suicide because of the greed of people.

When we console him our prayer will take on a new dimension. The Son of Man became incarnate that we might console him, so that in consoling him we might learn to console one another, to be tender toward one another. He offered himself as a victim for us on the cross so that we might take him in our arms as Our Lady took him in hers.

Our prayer will be dirgelike, and yet, a joy! Our pain will be purified and our prayer will have moved into another dimension: we will want to be on the cross because Love is crucified. A strange thing will happen: our prayer will become a prayer of joy, a fantastic resting in the heart of God.

Thus from a recognition of our total dependence we are led to a prayer where we realize the Father is coming to us, know the touch of his hand, see Christ’s human face reflecting his glory. Thus does prayer become a total and final resting place, a unity, a complete union of ourselves with God. The darkness of faith grows light and there is no need for words anymore. There is only a need for rest, the rest of a beloved in the arms of her Beloved.

Pregnancy & The First Advent

One of my favorite Advent quotes is from Catherine Doherty, foundress of Madonna House:

“Pregnancy, an advent eternally renewed in every woman expecting a child, is a book written by the hand of God, with each page, each day, each hour, reminding us of the first Advent. Think of the first Advent now, when worlds were hushed and angels still…waiting, waiting for the answer of a young girl! Her fiat, spoken so softly as to be almost a whisper, shook heaven and earth, and began the ineffable, incomprehensible, most beautiful mystery of the Incarnation! Each pregnancy sings of the first Advent. Each time is a time of waiting, of joy so immense that it can only be encompassed by the eyes and soul of a woman in love and filled with the fruit of that love.” Catherine Doherty, Dear Parents

Every new life encompassed within his or her mother’s womb “sings of the first Advent,” as Catherine so eloquently said in her book, “Dear Parents.” Not all of these lives will actually be born. Sadly, some will be miscarried and others will be aborted.

However, for those women who nurture their babies lovingly in their wombs, pregnancy can also be a great time for character growth. Mary was a wonderful example of patience and virtue during pregnancy, having to sit on a donkey for miles and miles, then having to give birth in a stable, with the accompanying sounds, odors and discomforts.

But Mary also acted as my consoler during seven miscarriages. For who else could understand the heartbreak of losing a precious child better than Our Lady herself, who stood under the cross and watched her Son die in agony, then embraced him lovingly after His death?

Let us embrace the last week of Advent with Our Lady’s open welcoming of the Savior, the one she bore for mankind.

Copyright 2014 Ellen Gable Hrkach