Encounter With Catherine Doherty

by Sister Anne McLaughlin

There is nothing as maddening as receiving a simple answer to a complicated question—especially to a question that has been carefully thought out with full awareness of the complexities of the reality from which it arises.

Frustration is increased when a series of such questions is met by the cement wall of simplicity time and time again, like a multi-sprayed wave splashing against a smooth, intractable barrier which receives each onslaught in the same way.

I use these metaphors to explain to myself as well as to you the feelings of anger, helplessness and frustration I knew during the hour I spent interviewing Catherine Doherty of Combermere.


The late October day had been magnificent as I drove the 80 miles or so to Combermere. The last curtain call of autumn!

Promise. Peace. Richness. And the excitement of knowing this would be a lead article for Presence, the newspaper I was writing for.

I was going to talk to a woman who had found a way to live the gospel authentically in today’s world. A woman who, recently I’d been told, was making some powerful statements about the approach of “the time” spoken of in Scriptures.

Welcome Pilgrim

As I drove into the parking lot at Madonna House, a small wooden road sign caught my eye: “Welcome Pilgrim.” I felt welcome and very much a pilgrim seeking truth. I rehearsed once more my carefully prepared questions for the interview:

“Has your vision of what the Gospel demands altered during the years or has it remained basically the same?”

“What has been your own response to the Lord—your faith-history—over the years?”

“What new insights have you gained about living the Gospel?”

“Where do you see the Church going in the ‘80s?”

A woman of the Combermere community, with a gentle expression, took me inside. Jean would give me a tour of the grounds before lunch.

What I saw with Jean told me much about this woman, Catherine Doherty, whom I had met only once, 15 years earlier.

Her dream had material shape now—a magnificent wood-hewn Russian temple rising out of the silent forest. A museum of the old Church containing treasures of pre-Vatican Council days.

The tiny poustinias where persons seeking solitude for an encounter with the Lord can live for days on meagre rations. The only furniture is a table, a simple bed, a potbellied stove, and one large, empty cross. Starkness. Simplicity. It spoke to me of the Lord. There was space for his presence.

Jean had felt that presence on her first visit there in the early ‘60s. She knew then that she was experiencing a genuine response to the Gospel being lived in Combermere. She stayed.

The life is austere; the community living intense; the physical labor strenuous.

It was time for lunch. As we passed by a poustinia partially hidden by trees, we rounded the path that leads back from the island and forest chapel.

Jean had told me much about the woman I had come to interview.

What I heard in no way prepared me for the real person.

First Encounter

As we approached the main building, I saw a woman waiting by the door. She looked strong and self-assured for her nearly 80 years. And her voice! She called out in commanding tones: “Jean! Come here! I want you!”

Jean walked toward her and I followed. After they spoke briefly, I was called forth and introduced. The powerful expression I had remembered. A warm handclasp for me, but my reason for coming?

“An interview?” Catherine expressed disdain by a backward, palm-down wave of her hand. “I have had hundreds of them. What more is there to say?”

We went in for lunch. I was invited to her table. Our meeting was arranged to follow lunch, but in the midst of the meal Catherine suddenly turned her full attention on me.

“Well? Start. What do you want to ask me?”

I swallowed both the fish I was eating and my surprise and quickly resurrected Magnificent Question No. 1.

“I was wondering whether your basic response to what the Gospel demands had changed over the years?’’

“What do you think I am? Of course it changes. The Gospel is new every day! Sweetheart, you won’t get far interviewing asking questions like that! Now, what else do you want to know?”

Magnificent Question No. 2 was beginning to look wilted.

“Well, what has been your own faith-history? How have you grown in the Lord over the years?”

“Sweetheart, I fell in love with God at the age of seven; you want me to go through my whole life?”

Once more the dismissing gesture signal with her hand. She turned her attention to another dinner guest, a minister.

“Yes,” she was telling him, “priests come here to be converted so they can be better priests.”

He looked a bit shocked. “It’s a Russian joke,” she told him. She reached into the bookcase behind her and pulled out a beautifully printed sign that read, RUSSIAN JOKE.

She held the sign under her chin, turned back to the minister and repeated: “Priests come here so they will be converted and be better priests.”

He was not amused. He looked uncomfortable. He clearly had expected a serious conversation. Now he was at a loss for words.

When most of the sixty some persons in the dining room had finished lunch, Catherine began her daily after-dinner talk. Today’s theme was forgiveness.

She spoke with the strength and sureness of one who knows just what the Lord is about. Forgiveness. Mercy. God is greater than our sinfulness. The foolish pride of those who cling to their sins, thinking them too great to be forgiven. “What’s greater? Your sin or God’s mercy? So live as one forgiven. In peace.”

I was circling the room trying to take pictures. Unusual angles— “through the listener” shots. But I kept forgetting the pictures. I was thinking of her words. I was feeling forgiven.

Twenty minutes later the interview begins. Tape recorder plugged in, microphone at a good spot between us. We are at a large table in a sitting room overlooking the river.

By now it is darkly overcast and rain pelts the windows on two sides of the room.

“Don’t Seek Any More”

I begin again. But she evades my questions. She throws me back at me.

I ask her about living the Gospel in today’s complex world. She asks me why I can’t answer that question myself. Am I not a Catholic nun? Why ask her?

She refuses to believe it is a complex issue. The Gospel is straightforward. She says: “I speak only Jesus. Jesus. Jesus is very hard.”

I tell her that many people are searching, unsure, confused by what the Gospel demands today.

She denies it. “They know it. And you know it. Don’t seek anymore. You know. “

Her words are hurting me. She is tearing down a carefully constructed web of difficulties.

She is coming too close. I try to say I ‘m not asking for myself but for others.

I have never cried during an interview. I won’t do it now!

I stand and tell her, “Thank you. Those are all the questions I had.”

She tells me: “I think you are a very clever woman who lives from her head. One day it will fall into the heart. Then the walls will come tumbling down. Then I’d like to interview you. “

She takes my hand. She holds it very close to her cheek for a while. I think she is praying. She kisses my hand gently. She goes.

And I go too. Into a rainstorm. I drive back hurt, angry, defenceless. “What does she know of me? How dare she say I live ‘from the head’! How will I ever get an article out of this experience?”

Something Happens

I remember that she had said that prayer happens wherever you are—a car can be a poustinia for two hours. I speak to the Lord about her. I am still very angry and humiliated.

And in the days that follow her words stay with me. Slowly, I come to understand some of what she said. She was referring to my questions. They come from the head, those ideas about living the Gospel in today’s world. Her answers were of the heart. When you are in love with the Lord you simply do what he asks.

I had met a woman who is in love. And she responded in much the same way as any lover would to intellectual questions about the why of her life.

“Lovers come. Lovers go.

And all that there is to know,

Lovers know. Only lovers

know” (Song from the movie, Kismet).

The pain, the anger, the humiliation have subsided. Something has stayed. Something has re-awakened in my own heart, in my own prayer, in my relationship with the Lord. Something that had been sleeping for a long, long time.

I look again at the book she gave me before I left. It is inscribed, “To Anne, who seeks. Catherine.” I want to reply: “To Catherine, who has found. Thank you.”

From a 1980 issue of Presence, a past newsletter of the Archdiocese of Ottawa. It originally appeared in Restoration in the February-March 1986 issue. Used with permission.