Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
February 12, 2001
From shadows into the light
Marian Centre director left pain of childhood behind
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
EDMONTON — The many ironies in Linda Owen's life are not lost on her.
Searching for order in a life of chaos, she was led to a place of order within herself. Escaping from a stormy life with an alcoholic father and a mother who attempted suicide, she found herself in a community dedicated to serving many who came from a violent, angry, alcoholic family life.
Uncertain about whether she could ever give love, she wills herself to love through her service to the poor.
And, unable to forget the pain of her childhood, she now thanks God for that pain. "I know that without all of my past, every little ounce of both insight and suffering, I wouldn't be the person I am today. I wouldn't have the knowledge of God's healing power that I have today. And so I do thank God."
Then there's the charism of the Madonna House community, based in Combermere, Ont., that Owen joined in 1972. Taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, its members live with little, but in a spirit of charity.
"Archbishop (Joseph) Raya, who is a member of our community, said 'Give a little, it costs a lot. Give a lot, it costs a little. Give everything, it costs nothing.
"I believe that's true - that as we spill our lives, share our lives, give of ourselves - we can't do that out of our conscious will. We have to do it out of grace."
Owen learned about the Madonna House community through a series of events spawned by a "major conversion" during a retreat in her native Quebec when she was 16. By the time she was 21, she was on the front lines of the Marian Centre in Edmonton, serving up to 400 meals a day to the poor.
"We were one of the only, if not the only, soup kitchens at that time (the early '70s), and there was a big influx of people looking for work. I was terrified, because I had not had any inner healing, but I think God leads us where we have to go to reconcile ourselves with our past.
"They always say that the reason you join a community is not the reason you stay. When I joined the community, I was looking for some kind of idealistic place, maybe an escape, maybe an oasis in the storm . . . and then God toned me down so that I became more realistic about life."
Then began the journey inward, says Owen, now director of Marian Centre. "You begin to discover who you are and what it is you have to give and where your own personal inner healing has to take place, but also where, because you've been hurt in those areas, you have more to give."
It's in the process of serving and working with the poor that members of the community come to know their own poverty, says Pat Stewart, who joined the Madonna House community in 1990.
"Humility is just knowing yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, your simpleness and your greatness."
It was the humility and simplicity of the community that touched Stewart the first time he visited Madonna House in Combermere, Ont., to discern a possible priestly vocation.
"It was a whole new kind of world for me. . . . I was milking cows and baling hay and shovelling cow manure out of the barn - this real physical labour. And I was with this great family of human beings, who had their faults and rough edges, but I saw people who were trying to love each other, who were really in love with God and trying to live that out."
It was a revelation for Stewart, whose yearning toward God from childhood had remained with him through some turbulent years in college and in the U.S. Navy. After leaving the Navy, and being "zapped by God into reality," he found himself at Combermere for the first time.
He discerned his vocation was in the priesthood and returned to his native North Carolina to be accepted into the diocesan seminary program. But just as the diocese was in the application process to send him to the seminary, and likely to Rome, God "zapped" him again.
"It was on Pentecost 1990, and much to the amazement and disappointment and dismay of my parents and many of the people in the diocese, I came back to Combermere three weeks later and joined the community in June of 1990.
"The things God used to attract me back to the community were the humility of the people, the simplicity and I think the wholesomeness of the life we live, and the wonderful spirit of creativity in the family — there are lots of artists, lots of musicians in this family."
Coming from a wealthy family, Stewart says he realized one problem with having too much is that things lose their value.
"Not having much helps you be more dependent on each other, and interdependent with the people you live with. If you have too much, you become awfully independent and it's not healthy for me to be too independent. I know that from my Navy life, which was pretty disastrous personally."
Interaction with others is the best way to come to know yourself, Stewart says.
"Madonna House is a family, and that's hard in a lot of ways. I can still struggle with depression sometimes and I can still struggle with the human condition, but I come alive and I know I'm alive and I know my spirit is alive. I don't think you can know that in isolation." Owen offers a final irony:
"The journey just begins with the grace of insight, of the knowledge that God is calling us. But then God calls us deeper and deeper and deeper into who we really are. And who we really are is both the shadow and the light."
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.