07 May A Letter from a Far Land
by Polina Rukosueva, friend of MH Russia, translator of Catherine’s works
An old woman with enormous earrings, with eyes full of life and inner vigor. A beautiful young woman who catches your eye right away—probably not even because of her beauty but because of the strength and vividness one can feel coming from her. Catherine Kolyschkine, Catherine de Hueck Doherty.
When I watch her speaking on old videos, I so much enjoy her strong Russian accent—something that shows her identity, something that reminds me that she came from the same vast and strange country as I do, that she belonged to the people who value genuine relationship and do not like excessive politeness that veils what one truly thinks.
Can politeness be excessive? And who is to judge when it becomes excessive? Ask Russians, and they will tell you right away!
My first meeting with Catherine happened through her book Poustinia. It was in 2001. I was 14 years old and had just been received into the Catholic Church.
Before becoming Catholic, my faith had been formed by the Orthodox tradition since I received the sacraments there. That is one of things I found so compelling in Catherine.
I knew that she was formed by two traditions. I love the Catholic Church but I know that part of my heart will always remain Orthodox.
I still—after 18 years—can’t get used to the fact that I don’t have to go to confession each time I receive Holy Communion, that the three-day fast before Communion is optional, and other things; but deep in my heart I feel that this bond, this inner connection with the Orthodox tradition will never cease to exist within me. I believe that Catherine felt the same way.
And so, we met through her book. An American nun who served at our parish gave me Catherine’s book Poustinia as a gift. It was in English. It was so strange to see a Russian word written with Latin letters.
I knew about poustinia and poustinniks from the Orthodox tradition. I remembered my mom travelling to a small Siberian village to meet with one. But I was overwhelmed by the spiritual vastness of this book. I couldn’t encompass, embrace it. I still can’t.
As the years went by, my relationship with Catherine grew closer and stronger. Of all the towns of my vast homeland (17,126,191 square km, 1,117 towns) Madonna House was opened in Krasnoyarsk—a Siberian town where I was born and where I live!
This local Madonna House has become a family to me and my husband. They share our joys and difficulties; they nourish us spiritually; their love is genuine.
And the Russians are extremely sensitive to any insincerity in relationships. A person can be friendly and polite, but if there is no love behind it, we can tell that right away. And since relationships matter so much to us, we will never waste time on something with this level of communication.
But Madonna House is genuine. Not only this particular Madonna House. We experienced the same sincerity at Madonna House in Resteigne, Belgium, and at Madonna House Washington. Not to mention the few people from Combermere who came to Krasnoyarsk for a visit and who are so dear to us now.
The Lord always has to be very inventive with me—as I believe he is with every one of us. He truly has the ingenuity of love. He knows that I need constant spiritual nourishment.
The preaching of this world is too loud; it deafens me to the Lord’s voice and affects my heart. I need constant nourishment from the hands of the Lord.
But he also knows that I am too stubborn and immature to willingly come to him for this food day after day, each day of my life. And so, he has found a way to help me.
This nourishment has become my responsibility which I simply can’t put aside. Since I translate Catherine’s works, I have to read her daily. And her preaching can definitely compete with the preaching of this world!
Her gentle but strong hands take your hand and lead you to the depth of your heart where the Most Holy Trinity always awaits you. She knows the way. She travelled it a million times herself.
She knows the struggle and reluctance. She went through it a million times. She knows the taste of pain and suffering too well. But they never stopped her. On the contrary, they hastened her.
Our spiritual journey includes funny and challenging moments, misunderstandings on my part and inspiration from her—just like any relationship. I will give one example.
Lately I translated one of Catherine’s letters called Devotion to the Sacred Heart from her book Dearly Beloved into Russian. I only read the title of this letter and something in me protested right away.
I was brought up in a different culture, so, to tell you the truth, special devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus seems as something very foreign and incomprehensible to me.
I can’t understand why there is a need to be devoted to the Heart of Christ when you can just be devoted to Christ himself. I deeply respect this tradition, but I don’t quite understand it. And so, I was kind of disappointed to see that Catherine wrote a whole letter about it.
I opened the letter. And what do you think I read there right at the beginning? I will quote: “I have been thinking lately about the Sacred Heart. I have never been able to develop the kind of devotion to It which many Catholics have.
“That devotion, though warm and human, seems to me a little sentimental. Each person worships according to his own background and culture, and my own devotion to the Heart of Christ is inextricably woven into the Mass.”.
And she ends her letter with the following words: “To me, a true devotion to the Sacred Heart of Christ consists of simply loving him back, and offering that love in atonement for our sins and the sins of our neighbor.”
Should I tell you how my heart rejoiced when I read Catherine’s words, when I saw that she too had some difficulty with developing a devotion to the Sacred Heart of Christ in the way most people understand it?
She understood this devotion a little bit differently, and her way of understanding it is so clear and much more comprehensible to me.
Or another story—now connected with Madonna House. Four years ago, my husband and I and another family from Krasnoyarsk went to Washington DC to spend ten days with the local Madonna House.
Fr. David May and Fr. David Linder travelled all the way from Combermere to give us all a retreat on the Little Mandate.* This time was so blessed; I can’t put into words how grateful we are to Cynthia Donnelly, Beth Holmes, and Victoria Fausto, the Madonna House staff there, who accepted us so warmly not only into their home but also into their hearts.
One day we were visiting Fr. David May’s home in the beautiful state of Maryland. We were walking with him along a board walk when we saw a woman who was pushing a stroller with a dog sitting in it.
I couldn’t believe my eyes—you would never see such a thing in Russia. I was sure that Fr. David was as astounded by it as I was. I was sure he would say something about this world going crazy.
He looked attentively at the stroller and then at the woman. And gently said, “she must be very lonely.”
Something turned over in my heart at that moment. I felt as if I was invited into a different reality that sees far beyond the usual sight, that sees with the eyes of Christ. It’s needless to say that these words have become a parable to me, that I carry them in my heart and they are applicable to so many situations in life!
There are so many stories like that connected with Catherine and Madonna House: Katia Lesage showing me how to dust a stool with love (something that will remain in my heart); Aliz Trombitas telling me how when she can’t sleep at night she prays for women who also don’t sleep because they are feeding their babies.
Fr. David Linder kneeling before a dying woman at a hospice in Krasnoyarsk; she was crying because she was experiencing enormous pain and there was no anesthetic to give her. Numerous stories that stay in the depth of my heart forever.
Catherine died 35 years ago, but the fruits of her life are not only vivid and obvious; they blossom, nourishing those who touch them.
I guess that’s how grace works. That’s how God rewards those who try to follow his holy will. Their lives continue not only in his Kingdom but also on this earth through their numerous glorious fruits.
*Little Mandate: a short expression of the essence of Madonna House spirituality