Posted June 07, 2011:
The Air She Breathed

by Fr. Denis Lemieux.

About Mary the Mother of God, Catherine Doherty once wrote: "Before I could speak any language properly … I knew Mary. Her icon—ancient and dark with time but sparkling with family gems—hung in the bedroom of my parents.

"Svitaia Bogoroditza… Maria… Blagodatnaia…" These were the names given to her by my parents… "Holy, She who gave birth to God… Maria filled with the fullness of grace," would be the literal translation of these strange words.

"Yet to my early days she was just Maria, our Mother. How could it be otherwise? For my parents… in the evening would bring me, all warm and cozy and half asleep after my evening bath, to her icon and pray that she might take care of the house and me…"

Throughout Catherine’s many-facetted and tumultuous life, the Mother of God held a central place in her heart. Mary met her at every juncture, accompanied her down every road. Mary was at her side in her darkest moments and sustained her through times of suicidal despair, humiliating failure, and long days of hard labor.

Mary guided Catherine into harbors of light and peace, into the depths of prayer and God, into the heights of love and joy.

Mary walked with Catherine through long years of struggle and darkness regarding her vocation from God, through false starts and missteps and rejection, and was her constant guide and teacher as this call came to fruition in the founding of Madonna House.

Because of this, because Mary came to Catherine with such depth, in the real circumstances of her messy life, she knew Mary. She knew her as one woman knows another, or better, as a child knows the face and voice of her mother.

She knew her as we know a close friend with whom we have been intimate from our earliest childhood, as we know someone with whom we passed through great suffering and travail. She knew her the way we know the person who saved our life, who stood by us in an hour of total collapse and degradation.

She knew her the way we know a person when we are certain, truly certain, that they really love us, when they have shown us this love in every possible circumstance, have been unfailingly loving and compassionate and simply there for us through every twist of the road, every turn of the weather and of fate.

And because she knew her at this deep and intimate level, she was never comfortable speaking of merely having a "devotion" to Mary. It wasn’t quite what she herself experienced. The word was inadequate somehow.

Moreover, the word "devotion" had overtones for her of sentimentality. It implied a sweetly cloying approach to Mary or Jesus. And all too often such devotion had the effect of insulating both Mary and Jesus from anything resembling life in the real world of the 20th century.

Catherine knew Mary as her mother, teacher, and friend precisely in the concrete events of her very real, very 20th century life, and so her relationship never had a trace of sentimental unreality to it.

For Catherine, Mary was simply a reality: "You don’t have devotion to reality," she said, "You embrace it."

And the reality of Mary for Catherine went deeper than her own subjective experience. More fundamental to her was the objective and awesome fact of Mary’s role in salvation.

"I have an unshakable faith that she is the Mother of God, and hence the mother of men. I believe that she fashioned the body that has become to me the Body of her Son in the Eucharistic Sacrifice…

Mary once said one little word: fiat. She said it in faith, in God. She asked one or two questions, but immediately she accepted the will of God. She accepted without understanding…."

This is the heart of Marian reality according to Catherine: Mary gave her flesh to Jesus, and this Flesh is truly the salvation of the world. She did this by saying fiat—let it be done to me according to thy will. She did not understand, at least not fully, what she was saying yes to.

This basic Marian fact, which is a simple fact of Scripture available to anyone who believes in Jesus, is utterly central to the life of the Christian disciple. For we too are to give our flesh to God. Christ wills to be born in our souls by faith and come to maturity there through hope and love, the work of his Spirit in us.

Our fiat is essential to this giving over of our flesh to en-flesh the Word in the world today.

And we too do not understand much at all what our choice of saying yes (or no) will mean for us, what it will cost us, and what the stakes are for ourselves and for others.

Mary did what we are to do. Certainly she did it in a unique way and with a perfection and beauty that we can only admire, but nonetheless, Mary’s life and mission is precisely that of the Christian in the world.

For Catherine, Mary stands as the shining icon of the Christian, the clearest and best picture of what it means to be a follower of Christ. The awesome dignity of it, the mysterious depths of it, the frightening totality of it, the beautiful fruit of it—Mary is the figure who reveals all of this.

But she does not reveal it simply as an exemplar. Mary is not just a symbol or pattern of Christian discipleship. She is not merely the sum total of some list of qualities that we are to memorize and imitate. She is not only a beautiful picture that we can admire.

Mary comes to each of us personally. Mary "takes us on" individually, teaching us and helping us. Mary is really the spiritual director of the whole human race. She gives us courage when the way is dark, guidance when the way is twisted and confusing, joy when the way is sorrowful.

She whispers in our ears, constantly, the word of hope and consolation that we need if we are to persevere in our own fiat. She can do this because she walked every step of this way, knows every inch of it, and knows the glory to which it leads.


Catherine Doherty was speaking with passion about falling in love with God. She spoke and spoke exhorting her enthralled listeners. At the end of her talk, she paused for breath, throwing the floor open for questions.

Fr. Gene Cullinane, her close friend and associate of many years, said, "Catherine, you haven’t mentioned Our Lady. Where does she fit into all of this?"

"What can I say about the air I breathe?" she said without hesitation.

This image of Our Lady—the air we breathe—is at the heart of Catherine’s Mariology. For her Mary was as self-evident, omnipresent, intimate, and necessary as air.


Excerpted and adapted, with permission, from The Air We Breathe: The Mariology of Catherine de Hueck Doherty, (2011), pp.11-22 from the Academy of the Immaculate, New Bedford, MA. Available from them or from Madonna House Publications.


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