A shrill locomotive bell, obtained decades ago from the Pennsylvania Railroad and mounted on the peak of the dishwashing porch, rings each day at 3:25 p.m. at Madonna House apostolate in Combermere, Ontario. Dozens of community members and guests stop their work, put down their tools, and get together for a cup of tea and a slice of bread with cheese, maybe an apple, and, on a lucky day, cracklings (bits of the kitchen’s leftover fats and skins crisped in a frying pan). We’ll sit and chat for about twenty minutes. We also have a teatime at 10:30 a.m. and another in the evening most nights of the week. It’s an odd practice. Many guests wonder what this teatime business is all about. How much tea can a person drink? At Bruderhof communities, which share this practice, I hear copious amounts of coffee are consumed. At Madonna House we often serve coffee at morning tea breaks but stick with tea in the afternoons.
Our community’s founder, Catherine Doherty, was a big believer in the restoration of all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10). For Catherine, a large part of what she saw as standing in need of restoration was the human capacity for simply being, and being together. This is why she was so insistent that in the midst of our work – which can indeed be holy in and of itself – we also take breaks. Breaks remind us what the work is for: work is for humanity; humanity is not for work. That is to say, as Pope Leo XIII explained in Rerum novarum, humanity is the end of work and not merely a means for its accomplishment. Humanity is not to be thought of as mere capital along with the other things that play a role in the process of production, or of amassing wealth. The goal of work is the well-being of humanity.
At Madonna House, the constant back-and-forth between the call to work and the call to refrain from work is an on-the-ground, nitty-gritty reminder of the tension between the importance and dignity of work on the one hand, and the need to keep work in its proper place on the other. We stop for teatime. We stop for daily Mass. We stop for meals. We stop for the Lord’s Day. We stop for major feasts.
When I was a guest at Madonna House, I asked why there is such a high ratio of staff assigned to the main center in rural Ontario compared to the small field houses scattered across the globe. Susanne Stubbs, one of the directors at the time, replied: “Here in Combermere, we’re all about feasting. We put a lot of energy into preparing for Christmas and for Easter. And to put on a good feast, you need a lot of people.”
By feasting Susanne didn’t simply mean putting on a fancy meal and eating a lot of food – though that can be an aspect of Christian feasting, and it is at Combermere. The feast is an external expression of a deeper mystery. “Where would you like us to prepare the feast?” the disciples asked our Lord prior to the Passover (Luke 22:7–13). And, speaking of the ongoing celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Paul declares, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore, let us keep the feast” (1 Cor. 5:7–8).
The practice of Christian feasting isn’t contingent upon having fancy food, or having a lot of food, or even having food at all. Susanne’s identification of the Christian feasting that sees the birth of Christ at Christmas and his death and resurrection at Easter as the center of our communal life points to a truth at the center of Christian life in general. “What is all this work for?” I began asking myself as I fixed leaky pipes or turned compost. The answer: We’re doing all this work so that we can celebrate – together, and with whoever comes our way – the feast of Christ’s birth and the feast of Christ’s resurrection.
“Where would you like us to prepare the feast for you?” This question became my daily prayer to Christ as I began the day, performing whatever tasks I was asked to do as a guest, and later as a community member. At Madonna House we celebrate Mass every evening in our little Island Chapel in the woods. So, in addition to looking ahead to Christmas and Easter throughout the year, as we perform the tasks of raising food, maintaining our living space, or harvesting firewood to heat our buildings, we look ahead to celebrating the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ in this daily celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The gifts of bread and wine – the fruits of the earth and the work of our hands, as the liturgy puts it – we offer to God the Father, who has generously bestowed all these gifts upon us.
And really, each of our meals and, yes, each of our teatimes is an opportunity to participate in fellowship with the newborn and risen Christ in our midst, and in fellowship with one another united in him. Each day’s labor, then, is preparation for the feast of Easter and the feast of Christmas that lie months, weeks, or days ahead. And just as much, each day’s labor is preparation for that day’s opportunities to celebrate.
So that’s what the work is all about at Madonna House. That’s why all these people are living together, receiving guests throughout the year, and working hard to keep the woodstoves fueled, the gardens weeded, and the animals fed. And that’s what that harsh bell ringing at 3:25 each day is all about. Fundamentally, it’s a call to keep the feast. We don’t eat so that we can work; we work so that we can eat. We work for the feast, and the feast is for humanity’s restoration and salvation. Each Christmas, each Easter, each Mass, each meal, each teatime, we celebrate Christ’s birth into our midst, his resurrection from death, and the feast that is humanity’s ultimate destination.