How is Catherine Being Perceived?

Catherine: Cause Newsletter #11 — Spring/Summer 2006

Latest News

The Bishop of Pembroke, Most Rev. Richard W. Smith, has appointed the members of his diocesan tribunal, and members of the historical commision that will now begin to examine Catherine’s life and writings. This is a major step in the process of the cause.

From the Postulator’s Desk

I am frequently asked, “How is Catherine being perceived?” Of course, it all depends on who is doing the perceiving. A guest came here once and just sat in the car until someone came out to see who he was. He said he had read Poustinia but was overwhelmed by the number of buildings before him. “What did you expect?” he was asked. “An old woman sitting under a tree,” he said.

Before I narrow down the perceiving audience, let me quote a relevant passage from 1 Corinthians, 2:11,15. We do well to keep it in mind as we survey some perceptions of Catherine: “Who knows a man’s innermost self, but the man’s own spirit within him. Similarly, no one knows what lies at the depths of God, but the Spirit of God… The spiritual man can appraise everything though he himself can be appraised by no one.”

Part of my responsibility as postulator is to try and acquire, for the Church’s discernment, as comprehensive a picture of Catherine as possible. Of course, only God knows who Catherine really is. After God, Catherine herself probably knew who she was better than anyone else. Not as completely as God, but “who knows a man’s innermost self, but the man’s own spirit within him.” We may not know everything about ourselves, but each of us has a profound understanding of himself or herself, and of the work of God in us. Thus, Catherine’s own personal diaries and spiritual journals are absolutely essential for knowing who she was. She was guided by the Holy Spirit in this interior evaluation.

Catherine Doherty on the front porch of Madonna House.

Catherine Doherty on the front porch of Madonna House.

We’re fortunate to have hundreds of pages of Catherine’s own reflections on how she understood herself—her struggles, the graces she received, her failures and sins. Catherine was very honest and ruthless in her self-scrutiny. If anything, she magnified her faults and minimized her virtues.

We also have thousands of her letters which contain an enormous amount of self-revelation. They are not all profoundly self-revelatory; but in her correspondence, especially with community members, spiritual directors, close friends, and priests, we have a great deal of personal insight.

The people in the community who knew her personally, who lived with her for 10, 20, 30 years or more, are invaluable, irreplaceable, unique sources of insight about Catherine’s personality. Neither are these “of one piece.” Everyone has his or her own perceptions. (I’m making a special effort right now to interview more of these people.) They knew her in a way that even her own family, her own relatives, did not know her.

And then there are people who only met her on one occasion, or intermittently over the years. Still, such sporadic meetings have some value. I encourage all who have ever met her, however briefly, to give their testimony, limited as it may be. Sometimes, in a chance or occasional meeting with a person, a new window is opened upon that person’s character, something is revealed that may be quite unique, and that has not come to light at any other time. I have received some very important insights from people who only met her on one occasion.

In order, then, to narrow the field of perception for this article, I have decided to concentrate only on the perceptions of people outside the Madonna House community. Over the years, many of you, our friends, have received, verbally or in our publications, many of our reflections about Catherine. So I thought I’d share with you here how Catherine is being perceived by—you might say—the Church at large. Some of these people have met her on occasion; the majority only knew her through her writings and her reputation.

Madonna House has associate bishops, priests and deacons. While some have met her, not all have. In any case, because they are more involved in the wider Church, their perceptions of Catherine are more influenced by the worldwide ecclesial atmosphere than perhaps those of Madonna House would be.

Our Associates

The doctrinal dissertation of our associate priest, Fr. Don Guglielmi, is the most important theological study that has been done about Catherine. (It was the topic of newsletter #6.) The main thrust of this work presents Catherine as a spiritual mother, which is a theme that occurs frequently in the comments of others.

He shows, especially through her correspondence, that she was, in the truest sense of the word, a spiritual mother according to the ancient tradition of the Church. She was someone who was taught by God himself, and therefore was able to guide others along the way of holiness.

Catherine Doherty in long coat.

Catherine Doherty in long coat.

Another of our associate priests, Fr. Ray Roden, did a paper on Catherine for his psychology course. It has some psychological insights about her and about how she viewed the world of psychology. He writes: “It was clear from the rich emotional life that was Catherine’s that things psychological were at play in her, and that the spiritual and psychological dovetailed and overlapped as they do in each of us to create depths of humanity which are truly mysterious. She herself respected the discipline of psychology and did a good deal of reading in that field.”

Fr. Ray says that she was one of the most profound influences in his life, and that she helped him understand the limits of psychology, and to see the depths of God that are beyond psychology. From a psychological point of view, then, people are finding in her writings treasures to mine.

Another of our associates, Pierre-Andre Fournier, was made a bishop last year. As an associate he knew Catherine quite well, and his testimony is indicative of many priests. He says, “She was always happy to see us. She quit what she was doing and came toward me when I entered a room where she was. On her invitation the members of Madonna House stood up when we priests came to the table to eat. Inspired by the teaching of the Church, she saw the presence of Christ, High Priest, Head of the Church, in us, despite our frailties. This great example has helped me not only to live my life as a priest with great confidence and joy, but also to give support to other priests. I remember her constantly saying to us, a ‘priest is Christ’. I myself welcomed in the rectory where I had been pastor for 12 years, many priests who had different types of problems. I have never regretted it. When a group of priests or deacons invite me for spiritual talks, whatever are my occupations, I never refuse.”

Another of our associates, Deacon Joe Newman, knew Catherine in Harlem as a young man. She was his spiritual mother. He writes: “The B was like a Catherine of Sienna in taking not only priests but bishops to task on the cause of Catholic social principles. Catherine’s life would testify to the reality of Christ’s love in the world and the possibility of Christians loving God and neighbor to a heroic degree. In a very vivid dream a few nights ago [1993] B had me cradled in her arms as lovingly as a mother embraces her son. This is how Catherine embraces all her sons and daughters.”

Various Studies

Fr. Ray Gawronski, S.J., a long time friend of Madonna House, wrote one of the earliest studies of Catherine (1989) for his licentiate at the Collegio S. Roberto Bellarmino in Rome. It was entitled The Spiritual Mission of Catherine de Hueck Doherty. He also sees Catherine’s life and teaching as a guide in the spiritual journey. Here is his description of the purpose of this study. Note that he appreciates how open Catherine was to the work of the Holy Spirit wherever and however he manifested himself: “Perhaps largely because she herself was a Catholic Russian, her spiritual writings are less exclusive than they might otherwise have been. Thus, the accent with which she writes is certainly Russian. Her style, her memories, are all part of what the West would call ‘the Russian soul.’ Yet, if St. Sergius and St. Seraphim figure in her visions, we also find St. Therese of Lisieux’s ‘little ball’ of God, St. Thomas Aquinas and the Spanish Carmelites. Catherine lived long enough to encounter the Asian turn of Western youth, and she was always open to the Native Americans.

“This paper is an attempt at outlining the spiritual journey as she presented it. We shall begin with a detailed examination of her critique of the world in which she found herself. Not surprisingly, this as well finds its source in a Russian book, titled Urodivoi, in which she speaks prophetically as a fool for Christ. Seeing a problem suggests both that one knows what a normal situation is and that one has some idea of where the solution of the difficulty may lie. Understanding Catherine’s critique of modern life implicitly reveals her own values.

“The second half of the paper is given to a study of the solution to the problems of the world as she sees it. Finally, there is a capstone glimpse into the spiritual peaks which open before one who has walked the way she describes.”

Suzanne Scorsone is a very close friend of Madonna House. Presently she works as Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Toronto. Years ago she did a very perceptive study about Catherine’s time in Toronto and the breakup there. It’s an extremely insightful presentation of some aspects of Catherine’s character.

“Liminality” is a concept common in sociological studies. Limina is the Latin word for “boundaries.” I suppose a modern word for it would be “marginal,” and “liminal people” would be the marginalized, those who live on the fringes of “normal society.” The following comment is indicative of the liminal aspect of Catherine’s character as described by Suzanne:

“Virtually from the time of her birth she stood between being both of and not of so many things. She was both and neither Orthodox and Catholic, married and unmarried, a mother and non-maternal, at least in categories that Torontonians could recognize, Russian and several other nationalities, aristocratic and bourgeoisie, rich and poor, intelligentsia and not university educated, radical and conservative, in emphatic obedience to and in specific issue-related conflict with the structures of the Church, lay living under a paradigm of the religious, accepting of the marginal and judgmental of the non-marginal.”

These aspects of her personal history added to Catherine’s experience—and teaching—of being a pilgrim, a wayfarer in this world, where we have no permanent home.

It was in Suzanne’s study that I first came across the description of Catherine’s way of thinking as “iconographic.” By this she meant that Catherine thinks more in images, rather than in linear, logical processes. This is an important insight for those investigating Catherine’s teachings, especially when they will be asking the question, “Is this opinion in keeping with the faith?” Catherine’s faith insights will be more in pictures or symbols, than in the terms of manual theology.

I also have Suzanne to thank for the following insight. Canonization is not exclusively the recognition of sanctity, since there are without doubt numerous saints in the presence of God whose names are utterly unknown on earth. It is rather a formal recognition, providentially inspired, to make known certain persons as examples for Christians. Canonized saints are raised up by the Holy Spirit because he wants some people to fulfill a certain mission in the Church.

The Little Flower is a good example. She was put under obedience to write her life, The Story of a Soul. If she had never been told to do that, she would be one of the thousands of contemplatives who are very holy whom we have never heard about and probably never will. Since Catherine’s cause seems to be progressing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we believe that there is something about her life and teaching that the Lord wants the whole Church to know about.

Sometimes people say that Madonna House is pushing Catherine’s cause. Just for the record, the first person to propose that a cause should be considered was the Archbishop of Edmonton, Most Rev. Joseph McNeil. This is what he wrote to us: “Most certainly I think that Catherine’s life merits opening a cause. In fact, I urged Fr. Peter Nearing [a priest of Madonna House] almost immediately following her death to pass on the word to Combermere that the process should be initiated as soon as possible in order that much contemporary testimony be obtained.”

I think it is significant that this movement towards a cause first came from an archbishop, even before Madonna House considered it. Coming out of the heart of an archbishop, the inspiration is the work of the Holy Spirit, for it comes out of the heart of the Church.
Catherine dressed in her Russian costume for the Chautauqua lecture circuit, 1920s

Catherine Doherty dressed in her Russian costume for the Chautauqua lecture circuit, 1920s.

Catherine Doherty dressed in her Russian costume for the Chautauqua lecture circuit, 1920s.

I have another dissertation in my files entitled A Study of the Writings of Catherine Doherty as a Useful Presentation on Eastern Spirituality and its Implications for Western Christians. The author’s topic is one of the common themes in the perception of Catherine by the wider Church: she is a bridge between the East and the West. Having blended in her own spirit the East and the West, she can serve as an icon of the unity all Christians shared for a thousand years. I’ll quote one paragraph to give you a taste of his thought:

“There are many ways in which the West can learn from the East and the writings of Catherine de Hueck Doherty are a useful bridge. This paper will attempt to show some of the ways her writings reflect the Russian and Orthodox heritage that she knew from her childhood and youth, and has carried with her throughout her life in North America. Her writings have been prompted by a desire to bring some of the benefits of Eastern spirituality to the West.”

In 1982—therefore even before her death—I received one of the earliest studies about Catherine, The Ages of the Spiritual Life of Catherine de Hueck Doherty, by a Belgian, Leon Mathy.

One of the great classics on the various stages of growth and development in the Christian life is The Three Ages of the Interior Life, by Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. He describes what he calls the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive phases of our Christian growth.

Similarly, Mathy found, in the writings of the Orthodox writer, Paul Evdokimov, a description of the spiritual journey of the soul. Mathy then went to Catherine’s writings and traced her own understanding of these phases by comparing them with Evdokimov’s.

When I myself consider writing about Catherine’s spiritual doctrine, showing the stages of her own spiritual life would be one of the most valuable approaches I could take. It would be relatively easy to do, since we have a profound and detailed description of these stages from her diaries. They reveal very clearly how she passed through the stages of the spiritual life.

Catherine didn’t start out in the seventh heaven. One of the reasons I trust her is that she plodded through the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways. For years she made daily meditations, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, and the Stations of the Cross. She agonized through the practice of the virtues and persevered through the deepening ways of prayer. She finally arrived at a very advanced stage of her life with Christ. She travelled through these stages, patiently, perseveringly, and with great desire.

Today, in our “instant society,” the temptation is to jump over the early stages and get into the “unitive way” as quickly as possible. But Mathy shows that Catherine, by her patient, step by step journey, is someone who can help us with our prolonged and often tedious journey to God. Her life is a very instructive presentation of how to progress through the different stages of the spiritual life.

Fr. Robert Taft is a professor at the Oriental Institute in Rome. I don’t know if he’s ever been to Madonna House or met Catherine; but he knows all about us and Catherine. When Lorene Hanley Duquin’s book, They Called Her the Baroness, was published, he wrote a splendid testimony about Catherine:

“A woman of extraordinary presence and energy, the Baroness was bigger than life and quintessentially Russian—open, vivacious, loving, romantic, sentimental, compassionate, melancholy, somewhat chaotic, heroic in suffering, magnanimous and forgiving. Like any person attempting to do good in this world, Catherine needed more than her share of the latter virtue. That is forgiveness. Some thought her a humble and heroic saint, others an ill-tempered, authoritarian, manipulative charlatan. In the balance of who was for her, who against her, I would judge the Baroness hands down winner, not because she did not have strong opponents or personal defects but because her opponents could not hold a candle to her humanity. And whether or not she had the heroic virtue required for canonization is for the Church to decide; but surely she had heroic humanity which is good enough for me.”

When Catherine was interviewing Bertrand Russell, he propositioned her. She said to him, “Have you looked in the mirror lately?” (He wasn’t very good looking!) Fr. Taft said that that comment alone would canonize her.


Catherine in print and media

Catherine Doherty has been the subject of many books, and she herself was a prolific speaker and author with dozens of published works. We hope to introduce you to these popular and important works, considered by many to be modern spiritual classics. The following titles are featured in this newsletter:

In the Furnace of Doubts: when you’ve lost your answers by Catherine Doherty

In the Footprints of Loneliness: when you hear an echo in your heart by Catherine Doherty

On the Cross of Rejection: when your heart is pierced by Catherine Doherty

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