by Catherine Doherty.
In the last month of this year during which we celebrated the 60th anniversary of MH Combermere, we share with you a homey story from our early days.
Truly all life speaks of the Lord. People, things, events are dialogues of men with God, through which God makes his will known and teaches his lessons, which the Holy Spirit makes understandable, provided the heart is open. A story from my Russian days comes to my mind, which illustrates what is in my heart.
There was Daryushka, a simple old village woman, who had fulfilled all her family obligations and had dedicated herself to a life of prayer, charity, and pilgrimage.
She described the joy she felt on her first departure from her home: "the delights of this journey on foot in springtime across the infinite expanse of fields, prairies, and forests, surrounded by a nature restored to life." Her description is that of a person penetrated by religious feeling.
"When we left our village and looked about us—Lord, it seemed to us that God’s world had no end or limit. What divine grace shines on high in heavenly places!
"Down here underfoot is the green grass and the golden corn, and over there is the forest, almost too thick, you’d think, to pass through. When you walk in silence or rest on the ground, you think you are hearing a constant chanting full of gentleness.
"Everything is humming, gurgling, dripping, and murmuring around you, as if the Lord himself were speaking to you through the mouth of all creation."
One such experience happened to me. It was connected with a very simple thing. A pump.
We had recently arrived in Combermere, the three of us; Grace Flewwelling, one of the early pioneers of our foundation in 1930 in Toronto; my husband Eddie Doherty; and myself.
Madonna House then consisted of an unfinished building of six rooms and a little lean-to that could be called a porch or a veranda. It was situated between the great beauty of unspoiled nature and a river, which was forty feet from the house or maybe a little more.
The only problem was the water, or perhaps I should say, the plumbing. In those days, there was a funny pump in the basement. It took two people to work it, unless you were a big strong man. And you had to pump it a thousand times before the tank, also located in the basement, was filled.
Even on the coldest days, we were sweating after that thousand times pumping deal. So most of the time we used to go to the river with pails and boil the water. I washed the laundry in the river, too. It simplified things.
However there was the question of the winter, when it was impossible to get to the water in the river. We used snow, which we brought also in pails, tightly packed. But it didn’t always snow, and so we were dreaming of a pump.
A nice pump, close to the house. A hand pump, the kind we saw in all the farmhouses here. A pump that would give cold, clear water from the depths of the earth. That was what we needed to supplement the thousand times pump we were only able to use once a day.
But there was the question of money. We had very little. We arrived in Combermere with a car donated to us by Bishop Sheil of Chicago and with $250 in our pockets.
Being Russian and used to rural living, I knew that the first thing we had to do was to get ourselves wood for the winter, for our house was heated by a wood stove in the kitchen and a wood furnace in the basement. It took $150 to buy that wood. The rest of the money had to go for food and the daily living expenses.
True, I wrote a begging letter, but with the change of address in New York and Chicago, and because of one thing or another, money came slowly. So the question of cash interfered with our dreams of a pump, the beautiful hand pump that needed to have a spot in the earth and be set up.
Finally one blessed day, we managed to buy the pump. It arrived and even before the man who was to install it came, we surrounded it with great joy, thanking God and our benefactors.
It was a bright green, but I felt it should be painted red. We talked it over, and we agreed that red would look nice against the white of the snow and the green of the trees and the garden.
For me it wasn’t a question of artistic colors. It was something much deeper.
When the pump was installed and painted red, I sat before it one evening and meditated on its simple lines and its beauty. Slowly it came to me that the pump was really what Daryushka was saying.
For here I was resting on the ground, and from the pump came a sort of chanting, also full of gentleness, and a murmuring as if the Lord himself were speaking to me through my red pump.
Red, too, reminded me that the Holy Spirit, the Consoler, the Advocate of the poor, was always close by. The Russians call him the Crimson Dove, the God of love. And wasn’t I poor indeed and in need of consolation?
Yes, red for the Holy Spirit who is also a Flame, a Fire. Every time I passed by our red pump, I knew. I remembered that this Fire was in me and that I had to use it to light the paths of my neighbors’ feet.
The sun was setting, and the colors of the sky were beautiful, but I kept looking and listening to our pump, our red pump. Red for courage.
Yes, I needed something to remind me about courage. The Lord knew it well, for I had traveled a long, long way to Combermere, a way of joy, yet also of much pain. At the time of my arrival, I was quite weary. It was not easy to get used to what seemed to be a dead-end street.
Beautiful as the countryside was, wonderful as the people were, nevertheless we seemed to have reached a sort of impasse. There were no buses. There was just one train from Ottawa to Barry’s Bay, a town 14 km. away. The roads were very poor. Who would ever come to this place from the "outside"? It did indeed seem an apostolic dead-end.
So the red pump stood there like a badge or a plume of courage. My faith was renewed each time I passed it or used it.
Not only did the red pump become the Lord himself speaking, but the water that came out from it seemed tinted with silver against the red of its mouth. It spoke to me every time I pumped it out. It was so cool, so very clear, so very pure, that it seemed to me as if I heard Our Lord sitting at the well talking.
Red for the Spirit. Red for courage to come to Combermere, and red for courage to stay. I think the red pump and its cool, cleansing water were things that God used to bring to us the ability to begin the apostolate and to continue standing still, waiting on his will.
Yes, I really think that the Lord spoke to me through the red pump and its clear, cool waters, giving me and all of us a renewed strength of faith, courage, and love.
Years went by, and one day, passing the place where the pump had been, I noticed it wasn’t there.
It wasn’t standing up at all. It had been dismantled. It was lying on the earth evidently ready to be discarded.
Something strange happened to me. I was afraid. I began to inquire. Someone told me that it had been decided to take the pump out, since it was now useless.
The house was filled with all kinds of electrical pumps that worked noiselessly and efficiently without man’s help. I came back that evening to where the pump was lying on the earth. Again I was afraid.
It seemed to me that I heard a distant roaring as of a lion, not an earthly lion but the one who seeks to devour all he comes across.
How thoughtless this dismantling was, with no regard to continuity, to even the slightest relation to or memory of the pioneers who used it! For a sort of kowtowing to progress, which was really a regression, spiritually speaking. Irreverent too, because there was no concept of the possibility that God may speak not only through people and events, but also through things.
Perhaps no one had read Teilhard de Chardin. But then, neither had Daryushka. The evening was fast falling; the sky was dark. I prayed to the Lord for forgiveness.
The pump was restored to its original place. It was repainted red, but it wasn’t used as it could have been. Still, it was there, and I had a chance to sit by it and to meditate on many occasions. I missed the water, the clear, cool water.
The great thing was that the red pump was there continuing to give me the faith and the courage to go on living the apostolic life the Lord had given me to live.
More years passed, and the field over which the pump presided and the gardens against which its red stood out were torn apart to redo septic tanks and drainage. Eventually it was put back again, but this time it had a broken handle, which no one bothered to replace. Often when I pass by, I think of the Crimson Dove, the God of Love. The Holy Spirit with a broken wing.
Yes, I think the deep understanding that Daryushka had and the Russian people had is right and true. All things speak of God, and God speaks through all those things to men. If man opens his heart and listens…
Every time I pass the red pump, I ask God to let me continue to grow in faith, in peace, in love, even though I too have a broken wing. But I know that God can mend all broken things, even my wing.
— An unpublished, undated story
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