Statue of the Madonna of Combermere
In conversation with friends, in listening to commentary from radio hosts, in online messages from a few wise teachers, I notice a recurring theme in these February days: fatigue. Not the welcome weariness that follows a time of satisfying work; this is something deeper, more subtle, more pervasive: a weariness of heart.
No need to seek its causes. These are evident in our daily news broadcasts: we are weary of COVID, weary of our valiant efforts to contain it, weary of the angry voices, the blaring horns, the disruptive actions of those who refuse to wait for the right time to lift mandates meant to hasten the end of the pandemic.
Where might we find ways to counter this soul-deep weariness?
Yesterday, driving to the nearby town of Arnprior, I crossed a bridge that spans a wide expanse of the Madawaska River just before it joins the Ottawa River. All at once, inexplicably, I felt a sense of joy rise in my heart. I had been thinking, as I often do, of a woman I met only once several decades ago on the shores of this same river some sixty kilometres upstream. My brief meeting with Catherine Doherty had a profound effect on my life.
Catherine Doherty, Founder of Madonna House
A White Russian, a Baroness, who escaped the Russian Revolution, Catherine came to Canada, travelled to the US to work for a time with Dorothy Day in Harlem before returning to Canada with her second husband, an Irish-American journalist named Eddie Doherty. They obtained a piece of wooded land on the Madawaska River where they formed a lay community of vowed men and women, the first of its kind, at the request of, with the blessing of Pope Pius XII. Catherine and Eddy dedicated their lives to the Madonna, naming their Community in Her honour.
As a young journalist I drove the two hour journey from Ottawa to Madonna House to interview Catherine for the newspaper of the Ottawa Archdiocese. Catherine was a widow by then, still grieving the loss of her great love, Eddie, and nearing the end of her life. Confident that I’d prepared carefully for the interview with three intelligent (in my own estimation!) questions about living the Gospel “in changing times”, I was not prepared for the fire of her presence.
Catherine barked: “The Gospel doesn’t change. ‘Go sell what you have and give the money to the poor and come follow Me’” After that she refused to answer any other questions. As I was leaving, Catherine looked at me steadily: “You’re living in your head. One day it will fall into your heart, and then the walls will come tumbling down! Then I’d like to interview you !”
One day it happened, just as Catherine had predicted, though by then it was too late to return to Madonna House to be interviewed by her.
Today I still feel the lifting of the heart from that moment yesterday. Was it the memory or was it the River itself connecting me with Catherine’s spirit. I’ve come to know her through the experience of portraying her in A Woman in Love with a script written by Cynthia Donnelly a member of the Madonna House Community.
At sunset I was driving home with the Madawaska River flowing by on the left side of highway. Where the river expands to form Calabogie Lake I glanced at the sky to see the tenderest shades of pink filling the clouds that hovered above the frozen snow-covered water. For the second time that day I felt joy filling me like wind in my sails.
In James Janda’s play Julian, that great fourteenth century mystic, Julian of Norwich, speaks these words: “We have suffered in the midst of beauty.”
I’ll close these thoughts with words of John O’Donohue that might have been written for us today:
FOR ONE WHO IS EXHAUSTED, A BLESSING
When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight.
The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laboursome events of will.
Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.
The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.
You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken in the race of days.
At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.
You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.
Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.
Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.
Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.
Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.
Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.
Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time
Catherine, Julian and John. Three mystics and three sources of beauty: river, sky, snowclad earth. That may be all we need to see us through to the other side of the pandemic.