Issue 4

“Spirit of the Constitution”

Catherine Doherty Download Article

The following article is a transcript of a talk given by Catherine Doherty on March 22, 1956 to the membership of the fledgling Madonna House community. Founded in 1947, this group of 20 to 30 mostly lay people and a few priests were already making a commitment based on the evangelical counsels and were in the process of exploring the canonical options available at that time, hence the references to “Constitution” and “the Institute.” In this talk, Catherine is at pains to give the spirit of her vision to the community, whatever its ultimate legal status in the Church.

The talk is reprinted here with the permission of Madonna House Apostolate.

The Spirit of the Institute is one of ardent zeal for the glory of God, the salvation of souls and the restoration of all things in Christ through Mary. You have come here by inspiration of the Holy Ghost to dedicate your life in this very humble Apostolate, hidden like the apostolate of Nazareth, or I should say, like Nazareth was, and like the Holy Family was—unknown, unsung, utterly undistinguishable outwardly—except for a cross, which many wear anyhow from the rank and file of everyday humanity.

What you do matters. But not much. What you are matters tremendously. And not only for yourself, but for the other aim, number two, of this Institute [the first being “ardent zeal for the glory of God”—ed.].

The second aim of this Institute is: to restore man and his institutions to Jesus Christ through Mary in the Lay Apostolate by means of work on any phase of Christian reconstruction. That’s the work that you do, but the way that you are going to do it depends on what you are.

The world is restored to Christ by being a flame. The zeal of my Father’s house consumes me. I cannot rest! This is you, unable to rest because you love. I shall arise and go and find my Beloved, for I shall not rest until my heart rests in him.

And ours are the words: “I sleep but my heart watcheth.” Because we are passionately, utterly, completely (or should be), as we progress along this road of our Institute, in love with God. We breathe, we live, we eat, we sleep, only for one reason—to serve Him whom our heart loves. To serve Him; to extend His Kingdom.

You have heard the plan of God outlined for you well enough. The miracle of that plan is that God invites you and me to participate in it. To put it perhaps a little more simply, pinpointing it to one space, one point of history in that plan of God: behold the Crucifixion. A simple Cross, a Man on it who thirsts—SITIO! Does He thirst for water? For wine? Maybe. But He also thirsts, above all, for souls.

The gesture of a lay apostle of Madonna House Institute is simple; the gesture of his or her life. “My life, Lord—for the zeal of your house consumes me—to bring you souls to assuage your thirst.”

That is the vocation. That is the spirit of the Institute. That is what will make it function. The moment that spirit is lost, the Institute is dead! Even if it covers the earth. It matters not that we are many in number, that our shelves groan under books, that we have an army of nurses rendering services to all the sick, that we live to feed the poor; unless our hearts are filled with the charity of Christ and we burn with the zeal of bringing that charity, whose other name is love, we are like sounding brass. And nothing that we do registers. No restoration follows, only an extension of things that Communists do and pagans do these days, and social workers do. The difference between us and them is motivation. We do it because we cannot help doing it, because, like a person on fire, we must serve, because otherwise our love of God will simply tear us apart. And because any love serves.

Love is not an abstract thing. Love is not something that you can classify, weigh, organize. Love is a fire. It must spend itself. It must spend itself in service. Service is the dry wood to love that makes it into a bonfire that reaches on to eternity and burns there. What you and I have to be is a flame in this tight Stygian darkness, utter darkness of this world. A lamp to my neighbour’s feet. A place where he can warm himself, his hands; a place by which he can see the face of God—for how can a man see in darkness? It is to be, to love, to burn, that we have come together! And who brought us? The Fire of Love, the Holy Ghost. Little flames, coming together, each growing, uniting in various patterns, according to the call of God as expressed by the bishops. Loving, burning, offering ourselves up in holocaust. “It is I that burn, Lord; consume me, take no notice of me in the sense of my weaknesses and my difficulties. Shape me unto Your likeness.”

And we turn our face to God the Father, the Immense Sculptor. There we are; clay yesterday. Dust, we call it. And out of that clay, He fashioned man. Out of that clay, He fashioned man once, and blowing with His breath, He made him come alive and gave him a soul. Now, turning our face to God the Father, we say in all simplicity, “Once more, Lord, clay comes to you, but now clay with a free will. Of my own free will, I come. Shape me into the likeness of Thy Son. I know that before the face of the resurrected Christ will be shaped on my soul by Your hands, O Holy Hands, I have to be shaped into the likeness of the Man of Sorrows. Shape me. For that is the aim of my life. That is the desire of my soul, to be even as my Beloved. Here I am, Father, shape me.”

And God the Father will bend toward me, and you, and in our poor human faces, in a manner of speaking—I speak more of souls—shape the likeness of the Christ in Gethsemane; the Christ of Pilate; the Christ sorrowful; the Christ persecuted, spit upon; the Christ flagellated, crowned with thorns, crucified. And then, someday, God the Father will come and say, “Now arise, for I desire to shape you in the likeness of my Son in glory.” That’s our vocation. That’s the spirit of it: an utter surrender that knows no bounds. What is death to me, but entrance into life? …

I burn with a fire that will never be quenched, until it becomes one with the fire and the movement that is the Most Holy Trinity! Nothing matters except the Lord of Hosts, and His will.

For into my ears constantly should come back again and again—of the members of this Institute—the words of Christ: “I have come to do the will of my Father”. And again the words of Scripture: “He was obedient unto death.” And so, burning with love, a holocaust of it, with a zeal that consumes me for the glory of my Father’s house, I look. How else can I surrender? And I hear, “I have come to do the will of My Father.”

And so, joyous that I have an answer, I say, “Lord, O Lord, I have come to do thy will. For if I do it, I too, do the will of thy Father. For thy will and the Father’s will, is one.” And so I see, in every moment of my day, in every step that I take, the will of God; the duty of the moment speaks to me in accents of a lover, literally.

And so I remember again: “He was obedient unto death.” Crosses are not fashionable in the 20th century, yet. The Iron Curtain has not enclosed this place, this little place we call the Free Nations. As yet, its shadow has not fallen over it, over you. It might. Then, another will give you a speech about a real cross. But the cross of Christ casts its shadow over all of us always. It is a simple death, but, oh, how profound! And how strange and how mysterious. It is a death that within itself carries the very seeds of life. It is the death that opens all doors; the death to self, simple, profound, complete.

When the “I” is no more, except to surrender oneself, then the hallways of the Kingdom of Heaven have come upon earth. Greater love has no man than he dies for his fellow man. Our vocation is of dying that we may live and give life to others. In proportion that I die, in that proportion my neighbour lives. In that proportion I bring the light of Christ, for I spoke of zeal and of fire and of light, but all fire and all light must have a container of some sort—fireplace, stove, lamp—to burn in. Death is that container, death to self. Death is the immense torch we can lift to push the darkness away. For what are we fighting against? We are fighting against not only the world, the flesh, and the devil, but against powers and principalities. And these can be only exorcised in the name of the Father, the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and by love.

Love, the mother of all virtues. Love, the fire that can alone push back the darkness of those powers and principalities. They thrive in darkness. Darkness covers so many things. Whispers become loud in darkness. Evil blends with it. It is so easy to bring doubt, to sow discord, to plant anger against one’s brother in darkness. What will make it disappear? Only one thing: love. Like a poisonous flower, hate flourishes in dank and dark places. In all kinds of marshes; in dead fields or lakes and rivers that used to be and are not anymore. There hate emanates its deadly, stifling, sweet, putrid perfume. Who shall venture into the kingdom of death and hate, real death, death to the soul? Only he who has died to self because he loves; and hence, obedient to the will of God, a lamp, a light, a torch, a bonfire, unafraid—he alone can walk in the darkness and conquer hate! For there is only one thing that conquers hate, and that’s love.

And so, there is our vocation. To burn. To die. So as to become a flame, so as to give room to Christ to grow in us; and once the feet of Christ touch through our feet this earth of ours, it blooms and is restored. Father Ledit [a missionary and friend of the community—ed.] told you, dedication is seen in a face. There is a radiance from that face that catches the shadows in another face and throws them out. …

In everyday life, as you trudge through this vale of tears, which it is, for you are always looking for the Promised Land, aren’t you? You don’t even mind that. You love God so much that you do not care when He will call you. Come a time when you wish to die simply because to live is difficult. But even then you shall say, “Another hundred years? O.K.” Because you are more interested in His will than even in heaven, for it might not be His will that you should be in heaven at this moment when you desire it.

And so, in everyday life, what do we expect of you? Or why should I say, “I expect” because I am just the foundress; Well, maybe I could use the pronoun “I,” but what I think God expects of us: a great simplicity, an absolute naturalness. A humility that comes almost like the air, for who are we? In the line of apostles, we are the smallest, the littlest. We are lay people, consecrated, dedicated, I should say, but lay. We are very small. Remember what I always say. David looked at Goliath, and saw a brook, and in the brook he saw stones, little pebbles, and he had a childish sling. He bent down and picked pebbles up, put them in a sling and slayed Goliath.

The Lord is doing likewise. David is a prefiguration of Christ. The Lord looked at the world and saw the Goliaths of darkness waxing strong, sort of fat and blotchy, and taking away from Him the souls His Son died for. And there is His Son again, with the sling of His grace, bending down into the brook of life, and getting little pebbles—you and me—to place into His sling. It is up to God to shoot. What must we be as lay apostles? The little pebbles must be just this!  Here is the hand of the Lord, and here are the pebbles. They must be shiny. The pebbles were worked over by the water, ready and still. Still on the palm of God’s hand, for Him to pick up and put into His divine sling, to shoot wherever He wants to. That’s all. But, oh, what goes into being still. Chastity, poverty, obedience, humility, simplicity, naturalness, death to self, and charity goes into lying still in the palm of God’s hand, content to rest there.

How are you going to achieve all this? What a program! Almost superhuman. Of course, superhuman. Let us call it supernatural. The only way you are going to find it is in prayer—that strength to stand still, to die to self in the duty of the moment, which for you never will be glamorous, always will be monotonous. … The monotony of variety will get hold of you. New faces with old problems, always the same treadmill, always the feeding of the souls, and always the feeding of the body. Always the clothing of the naked, and the clothing of a naked mind. Always the nursing of tired and sick bodies, and tired and sick minds, and tired and sick souls. Always the same story repeated ad nauseam and ad infinitum.

To the person saying it, new; to you, a gramophone record. What is going to make a gramophone record alive? Pulsating? The Lord. The vocation to love will give you the courage, the all- consuming zeal to listen again and again; to clothe again and again, to nurse again and again, to feed again and again, with the zest of a young person going on his first date.

And so, in the splendour of the greyness of everyday, your days will be spent, like a rosary without mysteries, just one chain without any interruption. And yet all the rosary—the mystery of love, the love of a soul in search of her God. Drop, drop, drop into time, the beads of your days, grey days, grey beads—results, splendour blinding, and incomprehensible. Fire that renews the face of the earth, restores sick and raises the dead, in the sense that you might help a soul to come back to God. Such is your vocation. Strangely hidden, like a rich pearl in the grey, flabby body of an oyster.

It is so simple. You have to pray to endure the monotony of those grey days. To hear your days fall into time, to be gathered in eternity somewhere, sometime, in faith, by God, you have to pray. You have to pray without ceasing.

Moses went up a mountain and there God spoke to him, and Moses came down, and his face shone so much, that the people were afraid. He heard the voice of God. But you, friends, when you are a holocaust of love, when you are surrendered as your holy vocation calls you to be, you don’t hear the voice of God. You belong to God. You are one with Him. You live not. Christ liveth now in you. How much does your soul shine, unbeknownst to you. How much? That shining soul is the essence of the restoration of the world to Christ. That shininess, that light spills itself into the works.

I needn’t talk to you about the works. I must talk to you of the spirit tonight. I find it hard to get words to describe that spirit. It is so simple and so stupendously splendid, that I falter in a sense. All similes, as they come to my mind, drop and are dead before I finish speaking them. And I seek another one to give you the essence.

Simple is our vocation, humble, of God, as time has shown. The Psalm says that there is a rock and in the rock, there are little crevices, where birds, little birds, can nestle. The rock, of course, is Christ. Big people, like John the Beloved, simply lay on His breast. Little people like us can nestle in the crux of His hand, can nestle perhaps behind, in His neck, to speak symbolically, as the psalmist did. We are so small. What a nice place to nestle. He who loves can nestle any place in the arms of the Beloved. Our vocation is that of nestling. Much goes into the right of nestling. Give that much, and you will receive much in return, for you will receive God, who is never outdone in generosity.

If people ask you, “What is the Apostolate of Madonna House?” “We say,” you answer simply, “it is an Apostolate to love, for where love is, God is. And we desire to be God in our midst. For we are dedicated to the restoration of the world—man and his institutions—to God, and the only way we can restore them is by loving, by having God within ourselves, a flame.” The rest will follow. If you are interested in the rest, let me tell you about it, after I have told you about loving. That’s all there is to it: love and death, both life everlasting in Christ. That’s all.

I haven’t mentioned Our Lady, but that is because perhaps to me it is so self-evident that he who seeks Christ without Mary, seeks Him in vain. And that all the things that I spoke to you about, presupposes the entry unto the way to the Father, which Christ is, for He said, “I am the Way.” But the gate to the Way is Mary. And we are DOMUS DOMINAE. Should one mention the self-evident?

All the things I spoke about will happen to you, if you go to Jesus through Mary. For she possesses the secret of prayer, the secret of wisdom, for she is the Mother of God. That’s why I didn’t speak of her in words, for who else can teach you to burn with the fire of love, than the Mother of Fair Love. Who else can teach you to pray, than the woman of prayer? Who else can teach you to go through silence, of deserts and nights, of pain and sorrow, of joy and gladness, than the Woman wrapped in silence? Who can make the bridge between the old you and the new you, the undedicated and dedicated you? But Mary—the bridge between the Old Testament and the New. The Jewish girl who brought forth the Messiah, the Son of the Almighty.

Sometimes it is difficult to speak of the self-evident. It is difficult to speak of Mary, for how can one speak of Jesus without Mary? Of God the Father, who was so well pleased in her that He made her the Mother of His Son? Of Christ, who was her Son, and of the Holy Ghost, who was her Spouse? Our Lady of the Trinity, Our Lady of Madonna House, are one and the same.

Such is the spirit of our Institute, so wrapped up in Mary that I didn’t mention her. Perhaps my silence tried to be a tribute to the Woman wrapped in silence. But maybe I should say that all that we do in this house, and in this Institute, we do through Mary. For all of us here today, listening, are slaves of her. That’s why we are free. That is why we can dedicate ourselves so utterly to her Son. Because she will show us how.

Catherine Doherty was the foundress of the Madonna House Apostolate, a family of Christian lay men, women, and priests striving to incarnate the teachings of Jesus Christ by forming a community of love. The community has its main house in Combermere, Ontario, Canada and also operates a number of missionary field houses throughout the world. Doherty authored a number of books on Russian spirituality, of which Poustinia: Christian Spirituality of the East for Western Man is best known.

Keep reading and learn more about the mission of FOCUS and the New Evangelization!