Madonna House

Identifying with the Poor

by Catherine Doherty

I have often spoken of identification with the poor. This is an identification that only love can achieve by complete forgetfulness of self and total concern for the other person.

It is an identification so deep, so complete, that it becomes part of oneself—like breathing. It is a way of love that is willing, nay, eager to be a Simon of Cyrene to the passion of Christ in men.

Not reluctantly, but eagerly and joyfully, this love picks up the cross carried by the neighbor—the heavy cross of pain, sorrow, and fear—and shares the weight of it as far as is humanly possible, and a little beyond.

This identification is a love that incarnates the abstract words we use so glibly every day—”sympathy,” “empathy,” “understanding.” It makes them come alive under its touch. It is a personalized love that never counts the cost of giving.

This type of identification also entails a change of lifestyle: One must live like those with whom one wishes to identify.

In Friendship House Harlem,* it would have been impossible to identify ourselves with the African-Americans if we had not lived in Harlem.

We had to be poor as they were poor. We had to experience the way of life they experienced. We had to experience the crowded apartments with their poor ventilation: unbearably hot in the summer and unbearably cold in the winter. We had to experience the poor plumbing which, at times, could threaten our very lives.

I remember taking a bath once in Friendship House flat where the cold water tank was an old-fashioned contraption over a bathtub.

Fortunately, I was standing up and soaping myself when this contraption broke loose and fell with a tremendous clamor, damaging both the tub and the floor. Had I been sitting in the tub, it would have hit me on the head and killed me for sure.

One had to accept all these things—the bedbugs, the cockroaches, the noisy streets, the blaring radios that vied with one another day and night in making hideous noises.

Because we identified in these ways, those who received things from us did not hate us. They began to love us. The law of love, the law of Christ, began to work in Harlem in a tangible way. This was the cement of the whole structure of love, of the whole apostolate. Such cement is not easy to make.

Its source is God, and prayer was the channel through which it came to us from him.

Every day at 7 a.m., we [the staff and myself] assisted at Mass together. This was followed by breakfast and then Prime**. Only then did we begin the work of the day.

After our noon meal, we stopped for spiritual reading. This might be done either privately or together, depending on the calls of charity that day. Then we made a visit to the Blessed Sacrament and recited the rosary.

After supper, together with our volunteers (usually quite a few), we recited Compline**. In those days, we made our meditations in the privacy of our own rooms, and each one had his or her private prayers as well.

Every year we made a three-day retreat. Every month we tried to have a day of recollection.

We didn’t always succeed in this, but we tried never to let it go beyond six weeks.

After we realized the tremendous pressures that a 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. day could place upon our weary human shoulders, we arranged the schedule of the staff so that every six or seven weeks each person had a weekend in a monastery or convent. This was at the suggestion of our chaplain and our spiritual director.

Excerpted from Fragments of My Life, (2007), pp. 155-156, available from MH Publications