Among all types and descriptions of people, there is always one small group that continually defies analysis or sociological definition: those individuals we call “saints”. In their company we come to realise, if we have not done so already, that we are in the presence of an alternative reality — that of holiness.
Even those outside Christianity can sense this undefinable quality, as those who ever met Mother Teresa of Kolkata will testify. Saints have their unique personalities, gifts, historical context, but they share one thing in common: a total absorption in the mission they are given by God.
Catherine De Hueck Doherty (1896-1985) was one such individual: a member of the minor Russian nobility, forced to flee Russia in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, struggling with poverty and exile, an unhappy first marriage which ended in annulment, her attempts to start small Christian communities — Houses of Friendship — that met with incomprehension, opposition and failure, her whole life was a constant uphill struggle to fulfil the will of God as she slowly discerned it.
These Diaries, with their tension between the “desert” of spiritual loneliness and the “mountain” of self-sacrifice, reveal this extraordinary woman at her most intimate and vulnerable, lamenting her own inadequacies and yearning for closer union with Christ.
Written in intermittent entries between 1960-1981, after the Madonna House apostolate had been newly established in Ontario, they were recorded in poustinia — small, simple hermitages for private retreat and prayer that Catherine had introduced to Canada from the spirituality of her Russian Orthodox past.
The Madonna House communities themselves, of which she was the founder and first director-general, where laymen and women made life-long promises of poverty, chastity and obedience, who lived alongside the priests who joined them and who placed themselves at the service of the wider community, especially the poor, required enormous energy, time and involvement (as anyone who has ever tried to set up a community will know).
Without the grace given to her to open herself to the sufferings of humanity, despite her own traumatic past experiences of rejection — by her homeland, her husband, members of the Catholic hierarchy and critics within her apostolate — Catherine could never have achieved what she accomplished.
What the reader of these Diaries will discover are the very human confessions of this modern and improbable holy woman. On October 28, 1960, the first time of fasting and prayer in her poustinia, Catherine writes, “Slowly I was coming to the conclusion that I did not have all the answers” and “I have such tremendous need to atone for my sins!”
On 4 November that year she lists her failings: “loud voice”, “dominating personality”, “bad manners, dictatorial ways, abruptness, being always right (or thinking I am). Putting my nose in and expressing an opinion when I should not.” “Talking too much.”
This is very endearing. One cannot read such a list without being attracted towards someone of such insight, honesty and human frailty. In Catherine, we can recognise ourselves.
Later, she comes to see that “The longer I live, the more I see that charity alone sums up all of Christ’s teaching. He is love and Love is a person and Love is God.” Catherine also sensed that God was asking her to be a “victim soul” — someone who atones by their prayers and sacrifices for the sins of others or, as she discerned it, “to help heal the emotionally sick priests and religious?”
Difficulties among the members of Madonna House and the delicate role she had to play as director-general, knowing she was not popular with some of them, was a regular cross Catherine carried, revealing in a Diary entry of 15 November 1963 that she was “afraid these days of facing the mainland — Madonna House” (her poustinia was on a small island connected to the mainland by a bridge).
Rejection always wounded her deeply; she never reconciled herself to it, though she tried. Alongside these domestic troubles was her growing understanding that God wanted Madonna House “to be that little candle in that terrible darkness that is here, that will intensify in the days and years to come.” This prophetic awareness brought its own suffering, the realisation that she was alone and that others did not yet share her inner vision.
Poustinia was not always a place of peaceful retreat. As Catherine would have testified, prayer could be like a marathon, in which she sought God, found Him, was consoled by Him, then lost Him again and had to endure “the silence of God.”
There were also regular temptations to give in, to surrender the battle for souls, the survival of her community and for self-mastery of her own unruly temperament. On January 6, 1966 she wrote, “The loneliness was laughing, whispering ‘You cannot get away from me — you are a stranger, you are still outside looking in — as you have been since [aged] 15!” (when she first married).
On January 1, 1970, Catherine resigned as director-general of Madonna House, but was hurt by the staff workers accepting her resignation without protest or fuss. She confesses, “I must throw this temptation out — it is self-pity — yet, damn it all, it hurts!” The following month she notes, “Feel rotten, depressed and lonely. The devils of the poustinia are commencing their dance!”
Alongside this honesty, the Diaries include a long description of a “vision” Catherine had on the “mountain”, concerning the divisions in the Church as a result of Vatican II, and the role Madonna House was meant to play in healing them. There are also poems and meditations, as well as unabashed statements of spiritual passion: on August 13 1977, she noted,
“It is difficult to contain so much love in my heart for I do love and that, passionately! … Lord, I love You. Like a fire, constant, never ceasing love of You fills me more and more every day. I love You, Lord my God!”
A footnote on page 172 provides a poignantly characteristic glimpse of Catherine’s prayer-life; bedridden before her death, she grabbed the jacket of a visiting priest and told him, “This is how I pray. I hold on tight and I never let go.”
She died in her 90th year, on December 14, 1985, the Feast of St John of the Cross, a saint she had loved and whose words she had often quoted: “In the evening of our lives we will be judged on love.”
A prolific author — she was a born communicator — Catherine left 43 books, 6 volumes of staff letters, 8-9000 articles, 6000 hours of recorded talks, over 1000 pages of poetry and over 50,000 letters. Her Diaries run to some 4,500 pages. Only a fraction of this output has been published, of which the Poustinia Diaries give readers privileged insight into the inner life of an unforgettable woman.