May 16, 2011
Nadine and Cam MacDonnell shared their faith and life journey, with an emphasis on the future

WCR PHOTO | GLEN ARGAN

Nadine and Cam MacDonnell shared their faith and life journey, with an emphasis on the future

The following is the text of the talk Cam and Nadine MacDonnell gave at the May 5 session of Nothing More Beautiful. The theme for the evening was The Church We Believe in is Apostolic.

Cam:

When His Grace asked us to give this talk we had thoughts that are probably similar to those some of you may be experiencing now — “Why these people?”

There is no earth shattering revelation coming. I will give the disclaimer that we live a remarkably ordinary life and from a marriage perspective, we’re not very far along that life yet. So you can be assured that this talk will not be as retrospective as some others since our lives, God willing, are mostly in front of us.

There has been one other couple invited to be witnesses at Nothing More Beautiful, Mike and Terese Ferri. The Ferris were married two years before Nadine or I was born and had the experience of 33 years of marriage and raising 14 children on which to draw.

LOOK TO THE FUTURE

So with that in mind, our witness will be more of a look forward, speaking of the challenges we face and of the hope that we do our best to maintain in the face of these challenges. We will share the wisdom that our Church and our friendship with Christ, both direct and through others, have given us.

Nadine and I had fairly similar upbringings: we were both raised as cradle Catholics in families with two parents and three children, both of us are the youngest in our families. The first important difference is the location: I was born in Winnipeg, Nadine here in Edmonton. We both attended Mass weekly at modestly-sized urban parishes.

For me, parish life was my first exposure to the Church. I fulfilled the usual ministries of altar serving and reading. And like most adolescent men, always disliked not being able to sleep in on Sunday.

MEETING THE JESUITS

My experience of the Church grew beyond parish life when I went to St. Paul’s High School, a Jesuit all boys’ high school in Winnipeg. For the first time I met priests who were not parish pastors. At St. Paul’s, between five and 10 Jesuit priests and novices worked in the school daily as teachers or administrators.

Faith became a more regular part of my day and since everyone participated, it was not something that I felt as shy about as I did at public school. I do not know if I had could say that I had a friendship with Christ through my high school and undergraduate days.

As university came and my independence grew, sadly my faith did not. I think I found it easier to be apathetic or even critical towards Church teachings, since they were challenging, being as they were against my desires and intuition.

Being a critic is fun; a critic does not have to stand for anything and can breathe in a feeling of enlightenment and find approval by simply flapping in the prevailing winds of society. Later, I would learn it was my intuition that was lacking.

A PATIENT GOD

Thankfully, our Lord is patient. After my bachelor’s degree, I moved to Edmonton to pursue a master’s degree. Shortly after my arrival, I discovered St. Joseph’s College and its vibrant 10 p.m. Sunday Mass. My personal faith grew by encountering Christ in other young people my age who were passionate about their faith, loved the Church and were proud to be Catholic.

My most significant experience came through a charity group at the University of Alberta named Because of Love. Through that group, I came to serve at inner-city soup kitchens including the Marian Centre, among others, on a weekly basis.

It was eye-opening. I began as a young man with a lot of zeal to change the world and cure poverty in a single stroke. But, as months went by, I saw that change came very slowly, if at all. My perspective shifted from inner-city crusader to merely trying to follow the Gospel a little better and be where Christ would be.

Our small group served the people who came each night, offering a little food and conversation with a goal no greater than working one day at a time. Planning was at an absolute minimum, with the non-committal nature of students and variability in those we served, we were never sure if we would have enough volunteers, enough cars to car pool, or enough food or too much food.

LEAN ON FAITH

Eventually, I learned that I had to give up on being completely certain of almost anything those evenings. I learned to lean a little on faith that the Lord will provide. It was if the Lord was whispering in my ear: “Let go, trust me, I am working in you.”

To make a long story short, through the people I met and my experiences here in Edmonton, I transitioned from sharing in my parents’ faith to living my own.

Nadine:

As Cam mentioned, I grew up here in Edmonton, the youngest of three children in a Catholic family. I do remember making my First Communion, attending Sunday Mass and being confirmed.

However, I became much more aware of the true gift of faith probably around the age of 13. I had the awesome privilege of attending World Youth Day in Denver, Colo.

I really was attending this event under the radar, since I was just 13 years old. It must have been divine intervention, and the fact that my 16-year-old sister would also be travelling with me. To be honest, I did not really know what this was going to be all about, I knew the pope would be there, and that we were travelling a grueling 30 plus hours in a bus, and that was all.

And so began my love of the person of Jesus through the person of John Paul II. Cam likes to remind me at times that we have a new pope, when he catches me saying things like, “Well, like the pope says . . .” referring still to John Paul II as our current pontiff.

JOHN PAUL II’S APPEAL

This, I hope you can appreciate, does not reflect negatively on Pope Benedict, but shows me the overwhelming impact John Paul II has had on my life.

From Denver, I grew in my faith — again, completely a gift from God. My sister attended Mass during the week, and I started going with her, much to her displeasure at times . . . and understandably. What teenager wants their little sister tagging along? I should clarify that my sister was and still is very good to me.

I graduated from high school and started university here in Edmonton, not really knowing what I would end up doing. So, the following year I left school and worked. God truly blessed my endeavours that year, fulfilling many of my heart’s desires — one of which was to volunteer for six months at an orphanage in Peru.

Here, I learned the somewhat harsh reality that I really lead a privileged life. Did I know poverty?

Not at all. It hit me: If I found myself in dire circumstances there in South America, without a penny to my name, my parents (likely) would fly me home to Canada — they would help me out.

Yet, the people that I worked with there at the orphanage did not have the option to leave their life or to change their circumstances. What would become of the children that I served breakfast to, or baked bread, or washed laundry for? They really did have a warmth and a joy about them, not all of them certainly, but given their circumstances, where did there love of life come from?

Life in Peru was simple. I would serve breakfast to the little kids, walk some small children to kindergarten, walk to the farm and bake bread there for the house. I would help kids with schoolwork in the afternoons and occasionally attend school functions with them.

One of the greatest lessons for me was slowing down my North American pace of life. Just before leaving Canada for Peru, some friends gave me the book The People of the Towel and Water, which just happened to be written by Catherine Doherty, foundress of Madonna House. It was uncanny how the chapters in this book matched the daily tasks I filled at the orphanage – doing laundry, baking bread, cleaning, farming, building.

BECOME A NURSE

I also decided in Peru that I needed a profession in which I would be able to give something more concretely helpful than just myself . . . and decided to pursue nursing.

As I write this witness and reflect on my life, I realize that I have still not learned this lesson. What was God asking of me? He was simply asking me to give him myself. Still, I decided to go into nursing so that I would at least have myself plus some very practical medical training to give back to him and to the world.

I was accepted to the University of Toronto in the faculty of nursing. Most people would think of Toronto as a blatantly secular city (which it is). I see it as my Rome or Jerusalem.

Here, I was inundated with grace and faith and friendships in Christ. School really was the backdrop to an immersion into a life in Christ. I was blessed with many friends — now parents, lawyers, philosophers, teachers — who loved Jesus, loved his Church and loved life. They loved life so much that they dedicated much of their time to defending the life of all, especially the unborn.

I met an incredible Basilian priest, Father Pat, at 86 years old, nearly blind, walking feebly with a cane, who still in his old age was rounding up students to pray with him weekly, and was still gathering a fold to join him promoting the dignity of every person, however small. What zest for life and a true inspiration he was!

I have never read so much as I did in the two years I lived in Toronto, and probably most of what I read and remember was not my nursing textbooks. God was speaking to me largely through John Paul II’s writings on the human person, on Love and Responsibility, on the Theology of the Body. He was also reaching me through St. Edith Stein.

Their writings on family, human sexuality and the role of women were nearly palpable to me. I could almost hear them speaking as I read their understanding of God and his children. I was privileged to live in Toronto the year leading up to and following WYD 2002. It was a time of grace.

OFF TO AUSTRALIA

I moved back to Edmonton and started work at the Stollery Children’s Hospital. I worked for a year and a half to get some nursing skills and experience under my belt before heading to Melbourne, Australia, to delve into the teachings of the Church I had so come to love while in Toronto.

I attended the John Paul II Institute, but as it turned out, only for one semester. For various reasons, I could not continue classes there.

Not everything in life goes as planned. How could God ask me to give up something that I longed for, studies that were truly good, learning about him and his Church? But he did.

Not to be dramatic, but it was a small death for me to give up my studies in theology. At the time, I remembered a friend who talked about giving up someone that she loved, and she called this her ”Isaac” — recalling how Abraham was called to give up something good, his only son, for love of God.

Of course, the angel of the Lord stopped Abraham just before the moment of Isaac’s death, and I hoped he would do the same for me. This was my Isaac: giving up the studies that I was certain God had called me to, and he did not stop me from doing so. And so I was back in Edmonton, back at the Stollery working as a nurse.

Along came Cam, and marriage. Marriage to us is nearly synonymous to parenthood, our daughter Livia was born 12 days before our nine-month anniversary. From reaching out to the world and the seemingly limitless possibilities of various vocations and how to live them out, to life with a newborn.

It is wonderful, but I am still in the midst of understanding what I would call a narrowing of life. I am no longer able to pick up and leave home and country in pursuit of God’s will, perhaps this was never what he intended in the first place. His will is very much right in front of me in my home, and graciously accepting this beautiful reality is sometimes difficult.

I think about St. Thérèse de Lisieux, cloistered, attaining holiness in tiny tasks, yet she is also named patroness of missionaries. She seems an unlikely candidate for this role, but it is such an edifying thought for me. God really isn’t calling me to unlikely and unattainable tasks, once again he is asking simply for myself.

I obviously hadn’t learned this lesson, yet through my experience in Peru, and so I am living the lesson once again as a new parent — not what you do, but who you are.

Cam:

When Nadine and I were married, she was working at the Stollery and I was a doctoral student at the midpoint, or so I thought, in my studies. We entered into marriage with the excited enthusiasm that any newly married couple feels.

Excited to begin our life together, we eagerly proceeded to try to do what we thought we were supposed to: buy a house. Only, all of a sudden, we couldn’t afford one, not in Edmonton. So we rushed to buy what we could and soon saw that it was not the right choice. Within a few months, our two bedroom apartment was not worth what we paid for it.

We consoled ourselves by saying that we would work diligently, I would push into my doctorate to get as much done before starting our family to recover a bit from what was now, clearly, a poor financial decision.

We wouldn’t wait too long, lest we had any challenges in conceiving. Quickly, our concerns about fertility were put to rest. Before we even had moved into our apartment, we learned we were pregnant.

GOD LAUGHS

As the saying goes “Man plans, God laughs.”

Cam MacDonnell is seen here at the Marian Centre during his inner  city warrior days.

WCR FILE PHOTO

Cam MacDonnell is seen here at the Marian Centre during his 'inner city warrior days.'

So there we were, three months into marriage, financially precarious, me still a student and a baby on the way. Very little had gone as planned, aside that is from being married. Is this what marriage was going to be like?

From there, we sort of fell into a new plan, reminiscent of my days at the soup kitchen and Nadine’s days in Peru: Working one day at a time, doing the small things. In our lives as single persons, we pursued education away from home and other interesting experiences. In short, we could quite easily pursue our heart’s desires.

But now, with much invested emotionally and financially, we couldn’t simply run off to another adventure. We had to accept this unexpected future and the uncertainty that came with it.

And frankly, trusting God was challenging, as we felt let down at that point. We felt like the apostles with Christ asleep in the boat in the midst of a storm, waiting for him to wake up and calm the seas. The lesson was as clear as it was difficult: Let go, put your trust in me. I am working in you.

It may sound trite to stand up here and say that our faith was shaken by financial challenges. But, yes, it was. As any parent will say, financial uncertainty has a different meaning with mouths to feed.

PRAY FOR UNDERSTANDING

Nadine and I pushed along for the next several months. Friends and family were supportive and we prayed that somehow we could come to understand why these unexpected turns had happened.

What came was our first child, born nearly nine months to the day of our wedding. In the words of our Holy Father, a very “thought of God” come into our midst. While the immediate changes were too many to count, our life was infinitely enriched when Livia arrived.

Perhaps our experience is best summarized by G.K. Chesterton: “If you plan an adventure, you are not on an adventure. If you engineer joy, it is not joy. The best things in life come to us as gifts.

“If you plan a child, that child is but an egotistical extension of yourself, your vanities and your caprices. The family is good for us precisely because it does not conform to our wishes. Every child born to us comes to disrupt our routine. God gives us children to break open that hard shell of self.”

We take hope that the challenges we face now will serve us when we see our children facing similar trials so that we can impart assurance to them that we made it through something very similar. I can certainly see the wisdom.

For how often do our families discuss the times in life that went exactly as planned? No, we talk of the times of trial: long road trips and disastrous Christmas dinners because it is these times that we understand what is truly valuable — the people, our families and our faith, as those are what remain when all else falls away.

Nadine:

When Livia was about five months old, I had the unbelievable privilege of volunteering at the Marian Centre here in downtown Edmonton. The Marian Centre is an apostolate of the Madonna House community founded by Catherine Doherty in Combermere, Ont.

MARIAN CENTRE BLESSING

Approximately a dozen members of the community live here in Edmonton at the Marian Centre. They operate a soup kitchen five days a week, serving the poorest in our city. They live on donations, giving most of it back to those in need to whom they minister, and live a life of prayer and faith.

They were just what Cam and I needed. While we were kept up nights wondering if we were going to make it financially, here was a group choosing poverty willingly. They take promises of chastity, poverty and obedience and live an example of our Catholic faith that is truly inspiring.

Cam and I still visit often. In their humility they will disagree, but we can see faith touches every moment of their life. They put their trust in God’s providence tangibly every day.

At the Marian Centre, Livia was the “kitchen supervisor,” as the staff there liked to say. She would sit in her little carrier while I dried and put away dishes. We were regular Tuesday volunteers and got to know and love the folks we worked with. As Livia became more mobile and required more attention, I became more useless in the Marian Centre kitchen. Once again, what I was able to do narrowed.

AS OTHERS SEE US

However, God through the love of Madonna House staff, repeated time and time again that it did not matter that I did less for them, they loved our visit. On many occasions, the staff would say things like “Livia is our lesson in just being” or “in being present.”

Well, I would hear that and feel some consolation when we just visited for tea time. I could no longer check off my list: made soup for homeless, mopped floors, dried and put away dishes — I was reliving the lesson of what it truly means to make a gift of oneself.

The staff are always joyful about our visits and sharing our family life with them. They have helped me learn this lesson for at least the third time: what I do doesn’t matter so much as my surrender to who God is calling me to be.

If I missed a week volunteering (to use the term loosely; it became mostly visiting) or if I became irritable at home, Cam would gently suggest a visit to the Marian Centre. He knew that I changed noticeably with each visit there.

The truth is they always send me home with much more than I come with — they simply cannot be outgiven. In this way, they truly are living examples of Jesus, and this is how he revealed himself to me once again.

GOD’S GIFTS

Even today, we cannot say for certain where our lives will lead. In 2009, we welcomed a son and are expecting our third child in June. God is keeping us accountable to our marriage vows: Will you accept children lovingly from God?

Cam will finish his doctorate soon and we will begin a new chapter in our lives. Building on our “vast” experience of four years of marriage, we do not know what it will be like, we will have our ups and downs, but we know it will be okay.

In the day-to-day, Cam and I, like most people, bounce between joy, sorrow, anger, excitement, noise and quiet. Every day is much like the one before and much like the next. We take comfort in the little things and regularly discuss where our life is going, trying to be at peace with the uncertainty and seek God’s will.

Fortunately, each Sunday we hear of the apostles trying to follow Christ. We do not have the benefit, nor the challenge, of being able to touch our Lord directly as the apostles did, but the task is still ours.

Reflecting for this talk about the apostolic nature of the Church, we pondered the apostles’ story — a group of individuals, who I imagine were never too sure that they understood what was going on around them or at least never too sure how to respond.

GOD IS SILENT

Like them, we have tried to awaken our Lord, certain that our boat was taking on too much water and that he seemed to be asleep through it all. Or after the crucifixion, to wander the streets of Jerusalem, in fear for their lives, in grief, in doubt (was he really gone? was it a lie? why didn’t I do something?). Just like us, they couldn’t understand what he was doing.

However, it is at those times that the Lord improbably comes to us on the road and we do not recognize him, we only mumble “Do you not know what has happened these days?” Our Lord founded his Church on the weakness —but also on the fidelity — of the apostles to whom he promised the constant assistance of the Holy Spirit.

We believe in the succession of bishops from Peter, but there is also a succession to us, the followers of the Church, in the teachings of the apostles and the same assurance of help from the Holy Spirit.

Fortunately, Jesus choose to surround himself with a group of fisherman, regular folks, like you and me. Even more so, the Gospels seem to continually highlight the failings and misunderstandings of this group in regards to their leader in much the same way we do.

Cam:

Like Peter, Nadine and I are constantly trying to tell the Lord the way things should go: “This must not come to pass, Lord.” Fortunately, we do not hear the rebuke of “Get behind me Satan,” but we are reminded that the Lord has great faith in us and that we are the Church Christ built upon the Rock of Peter.

Similarly, we may echo James and John asking for God’s favour to elevate us to positions of influence and esteem at Christ’s side. Today, we desire power and wealth, being uncomfortable as we are in perhaps being lowly and poor, even though that is the example Christ clearly set for us. I can also identify with Thomas, insisting on evidence I can touch, like the wounds in his hands and side, before I will believe that Jesus is working in my life.

We take comfort in the apostles’ strength, but also in their mistakes and humanness. We too seek to tell God the way we think things should go. The hardest words to mutter in prayer are “according to your will.”

GOD’S WILL

In our modern world, we are constantly told that it is wrong or foolish to rely too much on God. It is true that we must honour our responsibilities, but perhaps we can let go of the direction we think our life will lead in deference for God’s will.

Let me propose a crazy theory about the way the Lord might be working in Nadine’s and my life and why, perhaps, we are at the place we are.

Our neighbour in the complex where we live is a 70-year-old woman who recently lost her husband after a long battle with cancer. Maybe, just maybe, we ended up where we are so that we could comfort Joyce during this time. Could it be true?

What is more important: my lofty plans or that an elderly woman is a little less lonely? Remember to think how God might think — a God that was born in a manger, in a poor town, to poor parents. Had God told us that is why we are there, we certainly would have bungled it by trying too hard.

PRAYERFUL PRISM

I may be completely wrong about this hypothesis, but it is an interesting lens with which to look through life. What we usually want are great things, while the Lord desires little things done with great love.

Fortunately, there are disciples that have led the way: It is well known that Father Henri Nouwen left a life any aspiring academic like myself would dream of: teaching at Harvard University and lecturing around the world, to take care of Adam, a severely handicapped 19-year-old in a L’Arche community.

I do not place myself in the leagues of Henri Nouwen, but it is well known that he too struggled mightily in his life, unsure of himself and his path, as we all do, but are sometimes too proud to speak of it.

WASH THE DISHES

Recently, I was reading the book Nadine mentioned by Catherine Doherty, called The People of the Towel and the Water. I could only chuckle when I came across the line. “At times God may ask us to forget we have a PhD and simply wash the dishes.”

We are grateful that Jesus chose the apostles he did, their imperfections are in us and in true Christian irony, give us comfort. Beyond the Twelve, Nadine and I thank God for the wondrous variety of saints with heroic faith through the ages, we have shared a few of our favourite companions with you tonight: Catherine Doherty, Henri Nouwen, Edith Stein, G.K. Chesterton and of course Blessed John Paul II.

Nadine and I regularly seek guidance for living a life in Christ through these “close friends” of his. Their lives are so compelling, not only for their faith, but because their faith endured tremendous hardship and challenges; many that endured for their whole lives. They are the true witnesses in Nadine and my life.

QUIET STILLNESS

To summarize: we cannot speak to you of great miracles, of being knocked down by light, speaking in tongues or having visions. Our experience of Christ’s friendship and love is quite regular and beautiful — it is through attending Mass, sharing our faith with friends, through family, the sacraments and a quiet stillness that comes for fleeting moments when we are able to quiet the noise of our lives enough to hear it.

We are not certain yet what else God is calling us to do or be in our lives: that road lays in darkness ahead. But, when trials come, we will do our best to remember the two lessons Christ has taught Nadine and me.

The first, is to let go, put our trust in Christ, and remember that he is always working in us. The second is that what we do for Christ is secondary to who we are and our relationship with him.

ST. THERESA’S PRAYER

We would like to conclude with a prayer, from St. Theresa, that has been of great comfort to us over these years especially:

May today there be peace within.

May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.

May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.

May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.

May you be content knowing you are a child of God.

Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us. Amen.