Posted December 17, 2010 in My Story:
Catherine, Merton, and Me

by Fr. Bob Wild.

Not too long ago, I had the good fortune of getting a book published: Compassionate Fire, a book containing the correspondence between Catherine Doherty and Thomas Merton.

It was when I began editing this correspondence that I realized that these two people were responsible for inspiring two of the most important decisions in my life.

In 1955, I was in a Franciscan seminary, beginning my vocation journey in earnest. One night I overheard a conversation between two seminarians. One of them had just read a book called The Seven Story Mountain, and he said that the book "just breathed holiness."

The next day I started reading it, and in this autobiography of Thomas Merton, I discovered the Trappists. I saw it as a vocation that demanded everything. That’s what attracted Merton, (as he said in one of his letters to Catherine) and that’s what I wanted as well.

A few months later, I was a novice in the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of the Genesee in Piffard, N.Y., and two years after that, I entered a Carthusian monastery in England.

What I want to emphasize here is that it was Merton’s story, his life—not so much his spiritual insights—that started me on the monastic pilgrimage that radically changed my life. This is what attracted me about Catherine Doherty as well—her life. And she changed my life even more radically than Merton did.

Like so many others of my generation, I first heard about Catherine in that same autobiography of Merton, but at that time in my journey she was only of passing interest. Then, after a long journey through monastic life, parish life as a priest, and movements such as Cursillo and the Charismatic Renewal, I came across her once again.

One evening in 1969, after a prayer meeting in Buffalo, New York, where I was a parish priest, someone handed me a copy of Restoration.

It contained a very positive article on the Charismatic Renewal by Fr. Jim Duffy. What struck me was the fact that, at this early stage of the Renewal, when few in the Catholic Church were open to it, this community was. I thought, "They must be very open to the Holy Spirit," and I wanted to experience this openness.

So I came to Madonna House. I found it to be the most profound and spiritually diverse community I had yet encountered—a community truly open to many currents of the Holy Spirit. Let me explain.

My monastic experience had been very deep, but Madonna House contained the richness of many other dimensions which were lacking in the monastery: men and women, priests and laity, the Eastern dimension from Catherine’s Russian background, outreach to the poor, art, the presence of guests as part of the community life, and other elements too numerous to list.

It wasn’t long before an intuition came to me: only an extraordinary religious genius could have been the graced vehicle for such a community.

I was not mistaken. This graced channel was Catherine Doherty. As I began to read her writings, listen to her speak, and watch her guiding the community, I was gradually getting to know her personally.

It was in this way that I was gradually introduced to a teaching that was as profound as anything I had encountered in the monastery, and equal to any gospel depth I had up to that time encountered in the tradition of the Church.

I think it was my monastic experience that gave me the eyes to see the depth of Catherine’s teaching, but it was my experience of her community and of her personality that were, initially, what attracted me.

But her teaching was also unique. I had received different parts of the Gospel, and of ascetical teaching, in my pilgrimage—contemplation, penance, doing God’s will, study, work, prayer.

But Catherine was a kind of total person, and through her comprehensive life experience she was able to weave all these elements into a harmonious vision that penetrated the whole of life.

In 1971, I went to Madonna House for a time of discernment. I ended up joining the community and in 1974 was allowed to begin living the poustinik way of life—living in prayer and solitude for three days a week and serving the community the other four.

From 1971 until 1985, when Catherine died, she was a very significant guide for my life. She changed my understanding of holiness, and I came to believe that her vision is one of the great treasures of the Church’s tradition.

Very early in my time at Madonna House, therefore, I believed that her writings should be better known.

So, beginning with the book Poustinia, which was published in 1974, I was able to put together a number of books of Catherine’s writings.

Then in 1990, I became the postulator for her cause for canonization. As such, I have delved very deeply into her heart and mind, and I’ve discovered a kind of holiness that I never knew before.

For most of my early life, and certainly during my monastic years, I had a kind of platonic concept of holiness: perfect patience, no distractions in prayer, detachment from everything earthly, a love of God that didn’t put too much emphasis on love of neighbor, and so on.

What I found in Catherine’s life and teaching, first of all, was a unity of all these disparate elements. She taught me that the spiritual life is a whole, that the Gospel must penetrate everything we do without exception. I probably knew this in an abstract theological way, but didn’t really believe it in practice or understand it.

Secondly, she forcefully taught that love is at the heart of holiness and that often faults and failings can and do coexist with deep love for God and others. I found this paradox most dramatically in her own life. She probably carried some faults and failings to her grave.

Catherine spoke and taught out of her life with the Lord, which was a very human life of astounding scope and intensity. As she spoke to us, it was as if she was talking to God and letting us in on the conversation.

It’s this kind of spirituality that comes out of life that we need these days. We are tired of words, and great ideas and systems of morality no longer interest and inspire us.

Great and holy lives are what do that: the Wilberforces, the Gandhis, the Mandelas, the Mother Teresas, the John Paul IIs. Maybe it has always been so.

It was Merton’s life that inspired me, and it is Catherine’s life, most of all, that I wish to make known to the world.


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