Category Archives: Catherine Doherty

Sophia and the Rhythm of Your Heart

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.”

Sunset over Glastonbury Tor

I’ll close these thoughts with words of John O’Donohue that might have been written for us today:


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.

Sophia: an Embodied Presence

As I continue to experience and reflect upon the ways the Sophia Presence reveals herself to us, I am coming to understand that hers is an embodied presence. As Maiden, as Mother, as Crone, within mystics of the past or women present in our lives, she shows herself in moments of light or deep need.

 I met the Sacred Feminine Presence through someone I would call a true Baba Yaga. Many years ago, I interviewed a woman renowned for her wisdom and holiness. She lived in the deep woods by the Madawaska River in the Ottawa Valley. Her name was Catherine de Hueck Doherty. Like the Baba Yaga, she was Russian.  Catherine, from an aristocratic family, had escaped from the Revolution barely alive after almost starving at the hands of the Red Guard. Arriving in Canada in 1921, she vowed her life to God, working for a time in Toronto, then in Harlem operating Friendship Houses for the poor. In 1947, she and her husband, Eddie Doherty, settled in the Madawaska Valley, creating Madonna House, a community of love and world-wide service that flourishes today, more than twenty- five years after her death.


Catherine Doherty

On that October day in 1979, when I travelled from Ottawa to interview her, Catherine was 84 years old. I had prepared my questions carefully, rehearsing them on the three-hour drive. Armed with camera, notebook and tape recorder, I was eager for the encounter, already anticipating the wonderful article I would write for the Catholic newspaper I edited.


When I arrived at Madonna House, I was welcomed and invited into the dining room where some one hundred people were gathered around wooden tables, laid with platters heaped with an abundance of vegetables and meats from their farm and gardens. After lunch, everyone remained seated while Catherine gave her daily teaching, a mixture of red pepper and honey, sweet fire for the spirit.

Afterwards, I followed Catherine and her secretary to a small library for the interview.

 What is your message for the People of God today? I asked, opening with Question One.

You just heard it, Catherine responded dismissively. Seeing my blank expression, she added, my talk after lunch. You just heard it.

Whooops. I hadn’t been taking notes nor had I thought to turn on my tape recorder. Intent on the interview that would follow, I had scarcely heard a word Catherine had spoken. Now I remembered nothing.

Hastily, I pulled up Question Two: How can we make the Gospel more relevant to people today?

You won’t get far as a journalist asking questions like that, sweetheart, the Baroness said, managing to drain from the last word any trace of warmth or affection. She went on to say that the message of the Gospel is clear, simple and unchanging. Go, give what you have to the poor, then come follow me.

But I was a modern woman, a Post-Vatican Two woman, perhaps even Postmodernist, though I did not at that time know the term. I persisted. Many people today find it hard to know how to live the Gospel in this time. Will you offer some guidance in their confusion? I want to be able to quote your words in the article l am writing for our Diocesan paper. Catherine, who is Jesus for us now?

You, a nun, ask me that? You should know the answer yourself. And if you are a nun, why aren’t you wearing a habit?


Rattled, I spoke about my community, about our prayer-filled discernments, our communal decisions and choices, all the ways in which we had sought to adapt to the modern world.

Catherine would have none of it. Nor would she answer any further questions I put to her.

 I understand you knew Thomas Merton? I asked.

I don’t talk about my friends.

I was outraged.  No one I had interviewed before had ever treated me like this.  I struggled on until Catherine herself ended the interview, saying to me: I’d like to interview you. Not now. Later. You are living in your head. One day it will fall into your heart and the walls will come tumbling down. Then I’d like to interview you.

It was four months before I had cooled down sufficiently to write the article. In those months, inklings of insight had been making their way through me. I began dimly to understand what Catherine had tried to do. I had been speaking with a mystic, a woman who, as I learned later, had fallen in love with God at the age of six. I didn’t ask her about the great love that was the ruling passion in her life. Nor about the price she had paid in suffering and misunderstanding as she followed that love’s promptings. I sat with her, dressed in my late-twentieth-century outfit, asking about adapting the Gospel, altering it to suit the times, as though it were an outdated garment.


Unlike Vasilisa, I hadn’t the wisdom to ask her for what I really needed – fire.


Catherine had wanted to speak of fire, and I wasn’t prepared for that. She tried to cut through my careful persona, find the woman under the journalist.  It would be many years before I could appreciate fully what she had been offering me. She wanted to light a fire in me, give me a skull that was aflame with passionate love. I wasn’t ready for her gift.


But Catherine’s role in my life didn’t end with that encounter. Though we would not meet again in her lifetime, I have come in recent years to know her words, her life, her heart, through presenting a one-woman play about her, written by Cynthia Donnelly.

It’s called A Woman in Love.