Friday: from the archives

An Advent homily by Fr. Pat McNulty from Madonna House:

Faith: A Subjunctive Mood

It was about 3 a.m. when I pulled my car into the checkpoint at Canadian Customs and Immigration. Though there were trucks in their own lane, mine was the only car around.

The middle-aged man in the booth requested my ID and then asked, “Where are you going?”

“To Madonna House, a Roman Catholic community in Combermere, Ontario.”

“What’s the purpose of your visit?”

“I’m a priest and I’m going there for a retreat.”

“Odd day-um qui lay-tiff-i-cot,” he said.

“I beg your pardon.”

Ad deum qui laetificat…”

“Oh, ahhhh… Juventutem meum,” I answered.

The man smiled, gave me back my ID and said, “Better brush up on your Latin, Father. Welcome to Canada. Have a nice day.”

That was, of course, a long time ago, back when every Catholic boy who had ever served at Mass knew that Latin phrase. Those were the first words out of his mouth after Mass began at the foot of the altar.

You can read the rest here.

Staring at a Mirror

Fr. Pat McNulty from Madonna House’s reflections on the Gospel reading today:

Staring at a Mirror

by Fr. Pat McNulty.

I don’t understand why you’d do somethin’ like that right out before God an’ everybody.

Well, there was a trend in the ‘60’s to learn how to be at home “in your own skin,” your own emotions and fears. Since all of that was quite new to us bourgeois thinking folk we needed some help.

One of the popular methods in psychology at the time was called, “group therapy”—basically like-minded people working things out together with professional guidance.

Why didn’t y’all just go fishin’ and talk it out with God?

I guess because along the way we learned that some inner lies just don’t get unravelled in your life unless you “talk it out” with another human being who can challenge you and support you. (By the way, that’s really part of the genius of confession in our Catholic tradition.).

So one of the things we did in our group was to sit in front of another person and look into that person’s eyes for thirty seconds while repeating our own name over and over slowly without blinking or turning away. Then we changed places and let them do the same with us.

Afterwards we would come back together in the larger group and talk about what was going on during the eyeball-to-eyeball.

You can read the rest here.

“Regardless of the Homily

Wonderful advice from Fr. Pat McNulty on how to listen to any homily:

Regardless of the Homily

by Fr. Pat McNulty.

September. School. Yuk! I hated going to school and I had to go for 25 years—from age 5 to 30. But I loved learning, and it was a blessing whenever I had a teacher who could connect the two.

After I was ordained, when I thought that I had at last finished going to school, I was immediately assigned to teach in one of our diocesan high schools! And I didn’t know the first thing about teaching.

So that September, feeling like a five-year-old going to school for the first time, I was on the lookout for teachers with a reputation for making learning come alive—hoping I might learn to do the same. One such was Sister Mary Eileen, who taught science.

In those days teachers did a little bit of everything, and one of Sister Mary Eileen’s other jobs was bookkeeping, a job she probably got because she had the gift for making every penny count.

Some of those “pennies” were being wasted by students who left lights burning in empty classrooms at the end of the day. So knowing she would never find out who had left them on, she devised a technique to help everyone learn the cost of electricity.

Whenever the lights were left on, Sister Eileen would go to that classroom. Then, in front of the whole class, she would take the class list, pull a long hatpin out of her sleeve, close her eyes, and take a stab at the list.

To read the rest, go here.

“When You Can’t Say Your Prayers”

I am going to be “off the air” for a little over a week.  All of The Servants of God’s Love will be on retreat this coming week.  I’m going to leave you with an article by one of my favorites, Fr. Pat McNulty from Madonna House.  He starts out:

When You Can’t Say Prayers

by Fr. Pat McNulty.

What do you say when you think you have just written a significant, deep, wonderful, life-giving, fantastic, momentous, world-changing article and your editor says, “I read it carefully several times and could not get a handle on what you are saying”?  to read more, click here.

“I can’t find the words”

Fr. Pat McNulty (Madonna House) on Mercy Sunday:

I Can’t Find The Words

by Fr. Pat McNulty.

A reflection for Mercy Sunday or Holy Week or any time you are having difficulty believing in the mercy of God.

You’re acting a bit strange, Father Pat.

Yeah, I know, Father. I’ve got a problem.

Oh! What was your first clue?

Well, it’s like I can’t find words with which to talk about mercy any more, and here we are looking at this great feast of Divine Mercy again.

You without words? Now that is a problem! But why not just try and see what happens?

I already have: I’ve written about it twice formally and both times I got this look like—I don’t know—like there’s going to be a “burning at the stake” or something, and I’m the prime rib.

Oh, come on, Pat. You’re doing that melodramatic thing again. If you’ve got copies of your articles, why don’t you just read one for me and let me be the judge?

Well, as a matter of fact, I just happen to have a copy of one of the articles right here in the prologue of the little book I wrote. (Ahem.) Are you sure you want me to do this?

Yes, I’d like to hear it.

All right.

Once upon a time, an old man died and went to Hell or Thereabouts. He was deeply grieved and sorry though it seemed a just desert, for he had never really loved God as fully as he was able or his neighbour as he ought. Now Death had “thieved” him, and he had come to naught.

As soon as he arrived There, he began saying the name of Jesus over and over.

The howling creatures who inhabited That Place set about to mock and scorn him with loathing and disgust: “Your religious mumbo-jumbo will cease soon enough when you discover that saying That Name becomes as useless in Eternity as it was in Time.”

Eternity did indeed wear on but so too the old man’s endless cry. It so upset everyone There that they pushed him down, ever deeper down, until he reached a depth where few had ever been—so deep it seemed outside That Place.

And then one night—there are no days There—his cry ceased, and he was never seen or heard from again.

They say that the same angel who accompanied Christ from That Place for His Resurrection still waits There for those simple souls who pass by with the Name of Jesus ever on their lips and carries them away.

Or so they say.

So! What do you think?


No, tell me what you’re really thinking?

Ah-h-h-h-h, I don’t think it’s a good idea to be too public with that kind of writing, Pat, especially at this time of the year when the wood is nice and dry. You know what I mean?

Why, do you think it’s heretical to push the edges of Divine Mercy like that so we can get closer to it or for it to get closer to us?

Maybe it’s not, but it’s certainly a delicate process about a very holy thing, don’t you think? In any case you said you’ve written about it twice formally. Maybe the second article isn’t so…precarious.

You don’t “just happen to have a copy” of that one with you, too, do you?

No. But I don’t need a copy of that one because I’ll never forget it. It was during that time when I was in the Sinai Desert. One night I had this dream? Nightmare?

Everyone was in line for the Final Judgment. I was watching this very intense, painful, messy encounter between Christ and someone at the front of the line, someone I vaguely recognized but couldn’t quite see what with all the dust and mess going on.

As I stretched for a better view I heard, “McNulty,” and I knew the time for my Finals had arrived!

I slowly made my way into the open area with my head bowed. I stopped there before Jesus Christ. He lifted my face to look into my eyes and as he did, I could see the person who had just finished his Finals and was now standing at the Pearly Gates looking back at Christ.

The man’s body language spoke loud and clear: “Are you sure I’m supposed to go in Here?” Christ motioned him on and then I recognized who it was.

I couldn’t believe it! I went into a tirade about truth and justice, right and wrong, fair and unfair, until Christ interrupted me, and said, very gently, “Patrick, my mercy is mine to do with as I see fit. And, it’s yours, too, if you want it.”

At that I woke up in a panic crying out there in the desert, “No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!”

The man I had seen in my dream who was about to go in through the Pearly Gates was none other than Adolph Hitler!

What? That’s crazy!

I know.

And why would you want to imagine someone dying, as if they went to Hell, and then got out. That’s borderline heresy in my book.

No! No! That’s the whole point: we dare not try to fit Divine Mercy into any category which we already have. We have to look at it in such a way that it is truly divine and in no way mine!

But we’re not saying, “No need to worry, Jesus will forgive everyone in the end anyway!” No. It’s like…. Oh, forget it. It’s too much for words.

Yes, indeed, I think it is too much for words, Pat. And I think maybe it’s time for you to write about lesser things like maybe vigil lights or charcoal for the censor, that sort of thing.

After all, it’s a sign of a good writer to know when he is out of his element. And it’s obvious (to me) that when it comes to Divine Mercy, you’re definitely out of your element, Pat.

That’s it! You just found the perfect words, my friend! That’s it! “When it comes to Divine Mercy we are definitely out of our element.” Of course! There are no words! That’s why the Spirit so generously allows us to imagine these extreme things about it, because “we’re out of our element.” It is Divine Mercy!

Thank you, my friend. Thank you. Thank you. Now I can go back to just resting in the name of Jesus all day long as I always do and let all these wonderful, extreme images come and go as God sees fit. It’s all part of Divine Mercy. Amen!

Ah-h-h-h-h-h. I’ve got a friend, Pat, who does professional counselling, if you’d like to talk to someone further about all of this…..

Strange, because you know what I was thinking when you said, “friend?”


I was thinking, “What a friend we have in Jesus!” and it suddenly dawned on me, what other Word is there to explain Divine Mercy than the One Who is Mercy. Jesus. Just think, I could have done this whole article in one Word! Maybe next time. Thanks, Father.


Smiling during Lent

A “guest post” from Fr. Pat McNulty from Madonna House:

Did Jesus Laugh?

by Fr. Pat McNulty.

When you fast do not put on a gloomy face like the hypocrites do (Mt. 6:16).

It was the loudest doorbell I had ever heard. And when I pushed the little black button a second time, I was certain that every monk turned toward the door in monastic desperation as if to say, “What? Don’t you know this is a monastery!”

Yet when the door opened, there stood a monk with a smile that was put together with his whole face. It was so delightful I didn’t even notice his almost-shaven head and his foot-long beard.

There is something very special about smiling. So much so that science continues its desperate attempt to explain the phenomenon. Some explanations seem fair and some foolish.

One says that smiling, like exercise, releases powerful natural body elements (endorphins) into our system making it possible for us to tolerate pain more easily. That would make most people I know smile more.

But how about this one: smiling constricts the facial muscles and thus reduces the amount of blood flowing to the brain and temporarily cools it down. The cooler the brain, the happier we are. I guess polar bears must be really happy, huh!

But one thing that is generally agreed on is that there are two kinds of smiles. One involves only the lips and the cheek muscles, and the other involves both these and the eye muscles.

They say you can smile with the cheek and lip muscles even when you are not happy or in agreement with someone else, and most people will never know for sure if it’s a real smile or one put on for the occasion.

But once the eyes are involved the person who is smiled upon can tell exactly what we really mean: it’s there in our eyes.

The cheeks and lips may seem to say, “hello” or “have a nice day,” but the eyes express the real message: “Get a life,” or “Get a job,” or “Don’t bother me, I’m busy.”

I didn’t need any scientific explanation to know immediately, from his eyes, which smile this monk was showering upon me when he opened that monastery door. “Come in, little friend,” he said, “What can I do for you today?” And he meant it.

It didn’t surprise me to learn, not too long after, that I had been staring into the face of Fr. Solanus Casey, who is now up for canonization.

Nor did it surprise me to discover over the years that there were lots more like him in my hometown monastery, monks who would never become famous but whose smiles did.

It was in the eyes, and almost all of them had it.

People often ask, “Did Jesus laugh? I mean, you know, a good ol’ belly laugh?”—as if we might finally find something in common with him if he had.

Well, at least we know that he told us not to be gloomy. When you fast do not put on a gloomy face like the hypocrites do (Mt. 6:16). Gloomy means “dismal, grim, dark, long faced, without laughter.” These are all things you can hide with smiling lips and face muscles but not with the eyes.

You can fast for forty days and forty nights from visiting the mall, from TV, from beer, from coffee, gossip, and eating between meals. You can spend ten hours a day in church on your knees, and then smile like the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. But in the end the truth is in the eyes.

So this year it comes to me that maybe a good Lenten discipline which would help me not look gloomy when I fast could be that of simply looking into the mirror every day. Every day I could smile and then look into my own eyes and see what message I find. Do I merely “muscle” my way past other people all day, or does my heart join in the festivities?

I might even go a little further with this Lenten fast from gloom and mention a specific name each day as I look in the mirror and try to smile on that person with my eyes. That ought to crack a mirror or two.

But what if it seems hopeless? What if the mirror on the wall tells me that I am not the fairest of them all, that my smile is just my lips and cheeks? Maybe I could ask Jesus to help me want people to see beyond my own pain and sin into a heart that knows Him anyway and wants them to know Him better, too.

Yes, a Lenten fast from gloom could make Lent go very fast indeed—especially for everyone else around me.

But P. S. you didn’t answer the question: Did Jesus ever laugh?

I would say that if Jesus ever laughed, it was intimately connected to his smiling. And his smile could not have been a polite smile like when you hold a door for someone, or a nodding smile when you pass and greet someone in public, or even the kind of smile you give when someone smiles at you and you return the smile.

Jesus’ smile must have opened up his very heart to those who looked into his eyes. When that happened between him and someone else, I imagine they suddenly smiled “out loud” together. And thus was born, I think, a new kind of laughter.

It must have been something like what happened that day at the monastery door when Fr. Solanus smiled at me: we both started laughing. It was not nervous laugher, and it was not polite laughter.

The laughter flowed through the smile, from the heart, and was visible in the eyes. Suddenly we were smiling together “out loud.”

I remember it with Catherine Doherty, too. Her smile was so profound you knew she was looking into your very soul. At first it was a fearful thing, but then one day you realized she was letting you look into her soul, too, and the fear was gone. And after that, every now and then, unexpectedly, eye-to-eye, you smiled together “out loud.”

Perhaps when Jesus tells us not to be gloomy during our Lenten fast, he is trying to teach us how to smile from the heart so that we notice less and less the other person’s physical condition, social or economic status, woundedness, or personal sins or our memories of the same.

Then perhaps by Easter, we will rise from the gloom-tomb again and suddenly find ourselves smiling together with Jesus “out loud” the laughter of Resurrection.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, what does my smile say to them all?

We are all beggars

If you read my blog, you know that I enjoy reading Fr. Pat McNulty from Madonna House.  In a very recent article, he talks about experiencing poverty during Lent, discovering how poor we really are.  An excerpt:

Since that first Lent, much has changed in my life: there has been growth, healing, and conversion. But in some deep, deep place in my heart, I know that the real change hasn’t taken final hold yet. And it’s down there in those depths that I need to discover how poor I really am and how to beg for God’s mercy and for the ability to embrace this poverty with new hope and joy.

For I am insufficient unto myself. I, along with all of mankind, am on a restless pilgrimage, a pilgrimage in search of a final fulfillment which those who are truly poor know is theirs only in the kingdom of heaven.

We are all beggars! It’s nothing to be ashamed of. The Son of God was the poorest beggar of all, and it didn’t bother him a bit. It was, he said, his food to do the will of his Father!

But so many of us do not recognize our own poverty and thus cannot figure out why we are always so spiritually hungry.


I don’t love my spouse anymore. That’s poverty.

My child just died without warning in an accident. Why? Why? That’s poverty.

He’s a lousy preacher, but we’re stuck with him. That’s poverty.

My kids don’t have anything to do with God anymore. That’s poverty.

I don’t like this senior citizen dwelling I’m in. That’s poverty.

Why do you not heal me of this sickness, Lord? That’s poverty.

I spent a fortune on my education, and I can’t find a job commensurate with it anywhere. That’s poverty.

I’ve lost my job and I can’t find another one of any kind. That’s poverty.

I don’t want to grow old. That’s poverty.

I can’t stand my neighbour. That’s poverty.

I have no friends. That’s poverty.

Nobody understands me. That’s poverty.

Our poverty is all around us. We are all beggars. And The Beggar we follow has been there, done that, and wears the scars of those wounds. He knows exactly how to teach us to embrace our poverty as he embraced his. Even our need to be taught is our poverty!

Our desire to learn is our begging. And his response is the food that gives us new life.

Lent is a perfect desert-time for us to own our poverty, great or small, to put real words on it, to cry it out, to yell it out, to beg it out, and finally to embrace it as it is, whatever it is, and wrap it up in his mercy.

Then by Easter, after we’ve looked again with Jesus deep into our own personal poverty, the Risen Lord can show us how to reach out even more to one another—whether we are rich or poor.

If you want to read the whole article, just click here.

Good news for dust and ashes

I guess I’m still catching up with Lent.  .  .  .  Because of our dear friend’s death and her family still being in town and all of our grief and exhaustion, Ash Wednesday remains a blur–except for the oh-so-real words: “Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  Here is an article by Fr. Pat McNulty from Madonna House on this very topic:

Good News for Dust and Ashes

by Fr. Pat McNulty.

One Ash Wednesday, the ashes on Fr. Pat’s forehead began a change in a young woman’s heart.

“No thanks, I only smoke filters,” she said as I offered her a cigarette. She was smoking filtered Kools. Yuck! I was smoking a real cigarette—Camels.

We found ourselves on the same train. She had boarded in Chicago and I in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. I took one of the few remaining seats in that car, the one next to her.

As I sat down, she politely whispered, “Excuse me, but you’ve got something all over your forehead.”

That “something” was ashes from the Ash Wednesday Mass I had just come from. They became the stimulus for a very nice ride together on Amtrack.

We eventually ended up in the dining car for coffee and a cigarette, and we talked about the weather, politics, the latest movies, the Chicago Bears, and finally, ashes and God.

My “Kool friend” was in her late twenties, a beautiful and intelligent young lady. She had the job of her dreams and the man of her dreams too—though, as I found out later, he was already married and had a family.

“I used to be a Christian,” she said, “but it never really took, I guess.”

“Oh, it always takes,” I said. “We just have to catch up to it.”

“I guess so. I don’t know much about your Catholic faith, but I have always been intrigued by your Ash Wednesday thing. How does it go?”

“Remember, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”

“Yes. That. Don’t you think it is a bit of bad news to be talking about God and dust? Isn’t religion supposed to be good news?”

“Well, if we don’t begin with the truth, if we filter it all out to suit our own purposes, then it’s not real news anymore, is it, let alone “good news?’”

“Yes, but…”

“Many people don’t believe in the extent of their own mortality until they see it with their own eyes. They do not believe they are totally involved with and dependant on a God who could return them all to dust forever in a flash and leave them there if he wanted to.”

“That doesn’t sound like good news to me.”

“The extent of our own mortality—dust thou art—and God’s loving presence mixed in with all the ashes, through Jesus Christ, is the Good News!”


I think we were both surprised when the conductor called her Ohio stop, because the time had passed so rapidly. We returned to our primary seats and, as she gathered her things together, I quickly wrote out my phone number and address on a book of matches I had taken from the dining car and gave it to her in case she wanted to talk more.

The train stopped. I helped her with some small luggage. She thanked me. I smiled and said to her, “Excuse me, but you’ve got something all over your forehead.” She quickly brushed it, looked at her hand, then at me. She was still laughing as she made her way up the aisle.

I’m sure people in the car wondered why the man with the Roman collar and the smudge mark on his forehead was waving to the young lady through the window as the train pulled away from the station. But I knew her repentance had begun.

It was almost two years later when I heard from her again, though I had not forgotten the incident. In fact, she had come to mind on the Ash Wednesday after that.

Her father had died since we had met, and because his long battle with cancer had left his body in such an appalling physical state, her mother had had him cremated. This had deprived her and her siblings of that final closure with their dad, which body-funerals can provide.

When they gathered for the scattering of the ashes into the winds over the Atlantic Ocean, she was devastated. He had been her best friend, and now he was just ashes thrown to the wind. “Why would God do that?” she asked.

We wrote to each other a few times off and on over the next year or so. She eventually returned to the Christian faith, met a young man at church, and they had set the wedding date. (Now why did that not surprise me?)

I was unable to be present for the wedding, but I sent her a special gift, my favorite crucifix, and I attached a piece of palm to it. I wanted her to have them.

And I reminded her that from such a simple Palm Sunday “thing” comes that powerful Ash Wednesday “thing” that had pointed her ever so gently toward repentance. “Excuse me, but you’ve got something all over your forehead.”

To this day when I receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, I cannot help but wonder how our chat would have turned out if I had taken my cue from the more cool, filtered Ash Wednesday blessing, “Repent,” etc. etc. vs. the real one, “Remember, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”

I don’t think the filtered version would have done it for this young lady. What she needed was the shock of real ashes leading to repentance.

And I believed it then as I believe it now: if you don’t get the “unto dust” part of Ash Wednesday first, you’ll never really get the “repent” part either.

P.S. She stopped smoking because her father had died from smoking-related causes. I asked her to pray that I could stop too. And if I knew where my “Kool” friend was today, I could let her know that this old “Camel” finally made it.

After frolicking with death by smoking for about forty years, I was finally able to stop about ten years ago. Till then I guess I imagined I was ready to return to dust anytime God wanted. But on second thought, I think I realized I needed more time to repent. Actually a lot more time!

The meaning of Mary’s “fiat”

I have been a faithful reader of Restoration, the monthly newsletter of Madonna House in Combermere, ON, for years.  I always read it from cover to cover.  One of my favorite columnists is Fr. Pat McNulty.  He’s one of the “salt of the earth.”  I thought I would share with you one of his Advent columns from past years.  His topic was the meaning of the word fiat, spoken by Mary in response to the angel at her Annunciation.  You can read it here.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.