Isn’t That Worth Dying For?

by Eddie Doherty, deceased husband of our foundress Catherine

In this brief story from his writings, Eddie shares with us his journey through grief and bitterness to a deep peace and acceptance of God’s will. It all started with a pandemic that was worse than ours: the Spanish influenza of 1918, which struck his first wife.

***

The doctor felt certain that my wife Marie would recuperate, when a mysterious, unexplainable incident took place.

Someone came hurriedly up the street, dry leaves cracking under his feet. As he came near, I saw that he carried a small black bag, and that he wore a Roman collar. A priest rushing to some death-bed. He stopped in front of my house.

“Where’s the sick girl?” he asked me.

“Upstairs, Father.” He strode by me, went in through the open door of the house.

Mrs. Ryan sent for him, I thought. She was a nurse. She knew. She knew Marie was dying. And she hadn’t told me.

1 was standing between the mulberry trees, unable to move, when Mrs. Ryan came out to me.

“Did you send for that priest?” she asked.

“No. Did you?”

“Of course, I didn’t.”

We asked the nurse taking care of Marie.

“No,” she said. “I didn’t call him. He asked me to leave the room. He’s hearing her confession.”

“Who is he?” Mrs. Ryan asked. “Where’s he from?”

“From St. Viator’s, I suppose,

I said, “but I don’t know. I never saw him before.”

Dusk had come when we were permitted to go upstairs. The priest had lighted two wax candles and placed them on a table near the alcove. Mrs. Ryan and I knelt by the bed.

The nurse went into the baby’s room. And when the priest paused now and then, we heard her crooning a lullaby, heard the rocking of her chair.

Marie was conscious when the priest left.

“We didn’t send for him,” I told her. “He came by mistake. You’re in no danger, dear.”

“I’m so glad he came,” she said. “So very glad. I needed him I think. He’s made me feel so very near to God.”

She went on smiling into sleep, her hand in mine, and in her sleep, she died, her hand still fast in mine.

***

Was there a God? And had he planned all this? Was it his will that millions of youths should die in a war and that millions of others should die of a hideous disease? Were we all born only to die?

Was life only a certificate of death? A crazy, senseless, unmapped, unplanned path to a graveyard?

What was life? What was death? There was life in death, the theologians said. There was no death, they maintained. A mortal died but to live forever, in heaven or in hell.

Marie died every time I opened my eyes, and lived every time I closed them. It was sweet to close my eyes, to sleep and dream. But to wake …

“Suffering is good for a man,” the monks had told me. “Suffering builds character. Suffering ennobles one. Great men grow greater from the food of grief.”

Hour after hour I sat in my chair, night after night, looking at the pictures of Marie, looking at the bed in which she died.

But I was not ennobled. I was not softened. I was not made great by grief. I sat unstirring until I could endure no more—when I fled outside to drink, to carouse, to try to forget.

But I could not forget. Nor could I blunt my agony by reason, by excesses, or by prayer. I could not pray, for I could not resign myself to God’s will.

I said in my heart, “God has robbed me of Marie. I shall never forgive him; I shall hate him all the rest of my life.”

In my confused and crazy attempts to readjust myself, in my sleepless nights, in the liquor that did not, could not, make me drunk, I put myself on a par with the Almighty—I, who am nothing—and spoke to him as to an enemy who had stolen into my home at dead of night to do murder.

Yet, try as I might, I could not fully hate him. I remembered, even in my bitterest and most blasphemous moments, that he had sent his priest to her at the last, and had taken her to heaven.

***

[Many years later, long after returning to the Faith, Eddie experienced Marie’s presence in a dream while dozing on the porch of St. Susanna’s Church, in Rome.]

***

 [In my dream] her voice changed, and the morning sun poured its entire light around the dressing table.

“If you think I’m the most beautiful thing in the world,” she said, “wait till you see me in the dress Fr. Ryan brought for me!”

“Father Ryan?” But she didn’t have to tell me. The clutch of claws at my heart told me. The strange priest from St. Viator’s, quick-stepping up the long, long sidewalk.

“He didn’t have a dress with him,” I said. “Nothing but the pyx.”

“The dress was in the pyx,” she said. “He told me it was. He was hearing confessions when the housekeeper came running into the church, calling his name out loud, and frightening everybody.

There was a sick call, she said, and he must go right away. Immediately. It was urgent. Most urgent. The priest must come at once, the voice said. She didn’t know who called. She didn’t know the address of the one who needed him so desperately.

“He left the confessional, put a host in the pyx, let the Holy Ghost direct his steps. And he came straight to me! God was so good. But, Eddie, you were so hurt! And so angry! And so ungrateful!”

I nodded. I couldn’t say anything. I felt ashamed.

***

Then I remembered the dream I had had in the Multnomah Hotel in Portland, Oregon.

In that dream I had found Marie again! I didn’t know why we had parted. Maybe we’d been divorced. Maybe we had had a fight. What did it matter?

And at that moment of great joy, I woke, and realized that she was dead and in her lonesome grave, and I would never see her lovely face again.

Twice God had given me the bitterest gall to drink, gall as bitter as the drink offered to Christ hanging on his cross.

Christ refused it. I had to drink it. I had to drink it twice.

“God sometimes gives the worst gall to those he loves best,” Marie explained. “And he turns the bitterest food into the sweetest honey, if you let him.

“You wept for me. But you wept harder for yourself. You did not see me carried over the threshold into heaven, in my brand-new gown, and adorned with all the jewels Fr. Ryan brought me.

“I was like a queen, Eddie, going into heaven. I was like Christ himself on his first Easter! Nobody can imagine what special happiness there was in heaven, the day Christ came back in his own human body!

“My body was like His, Eddie; for it was filled with Him. I was dead, but He was living in me! Why do people think death is so horrible?”

I couldn’t answer her.

“You stole a Gideon Bible from a hotel in Santa Barbara,” she said.

“But that was after you died. How do you know?”

“I put you up to it, of course, dear Mr. Husband. And I made you read the book of Job. What do you remember best from that book?”

“For I know that my Redeemer lives,” I quoted, “and that in my own flesh, and not another’s, with my own eyes, I shall see God. Something like that. There are so many new translations.”

“To see God,” Marie said. “Isn’t that worth dying for, Big Eddie? And to see God, one has to die. So what is death but eternal joy, eternal triumph?”

I roused myself, meaning to thank her for this unexpected gift of honey; to discover I was not in my old bed in Chicago, but on a cold wet porch in Rome.

For the third time, God had taken her from me. But this time I understood, and I began to pray again: “Thy will be done, thy will be done, thy holy will, not mine, be done, O Lord. And thank you for the honey in the life and also the death of my beautiful Marie.”

From Restoration, Nov. 1994. The first part is excerpted from Gall and Honey, (1989), pp. 125, 126, 129, 130, MH Publications (in print), Originally published by Sheed and Ward in 1941.
The second part is from Eddie’s unpublished writings