Hilde when she was a guest at Madonna House - with the Our Lady of Combermere ststue

I Wanted to Flee

by Hilde Muller

The first time I visited Madonna House as a working guest, I was 19 years old. I immediately felt like the character in C.S. Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, who upon arriving on the outskirts of heaven, finds that the grass there is more substantial than he is, and consequently experiences it as painful to walk on the ground.

After my first week I seriously considered leaving—but where would I go? I had taken a leave of absence from college, and I no longer even had a bedroom at home. (A couple of my six younger siblings had moved into it.) And so, I remained.

My first work assignment was with beautiful Mary Davis in the wool room. I loved the quiet work of washing and carding the wool from the sheep and Mary’s steady company, but in other places and situations I squirmed uncomfortably at every turn.

I hated the constant “boots on, boots off,” whenever you went in or out of a building, and since there were no indoor toilets for daytime use, I quickly tired of trudging outdoors to use the jons.

While I found the grounds and the river beautiful, I found the human landscape very challenging. I longed for more time alone and for the familiarity of my friends at school.

I desperately wanted to flee, but Mama Mary had hold of my coat and wasn’t about to let me sneak out the back door.

I can’t say exactly when I stopped fantasizing about leaving, but I do remember my first experience there of tremendous peace.

I was working in the kitchen, and I’d been assigned the monotonous task of sorting beans. This involves pouring a large quantity of dry beans onto a sheet pan and then sorting through them for stones, twigs, and other small detritus.

It is a very slow process, and there is absolutely no glamour in it. The only satisfaction is in knowing that, in the end, the sorted beans are ready to be cooked for the community’s consumption. I was soon bored.

And yet, as I sat sorting beans, I traced back in my mind how I had come to be at Madonna House.

The year before, my mother had given me a copy of Fragments of My Life, the autobiography of Catherine Doherty. I was deeply moved by her story and by her cooperation with the leadings of the Holy Spirit.

Over a year later, while on a silent retreat, I went out for a stroll on one of the clearly-marked paths of the retreat center. As I walked, I distinctly heard the Spirit whisper, “Go now straight into the woods.”

I was a bit nervous about doing so, but I went anyway, and I found that thirty yards into the woods there was another path. The new path was a simple dirt trail, lovely, and completely hidden from view. As I made my way along this path, I somehow knew I was being invited to visit Madonna House.

I felt both excited and terrified. This choice would affect my studies and my graduation plans, and it would seem strange to many of my friends. But later, as I made all of the necessary arrangements to go, I’d felt at peace.

Now here I was, doing the duty of the moment: sorting beans. Yet as I traced back over the process which had brought me to that moment, I remembered that I’d felt the Spirit’s presence when I read Catherine’s book and that I had heard him clearly the day I stepped off the path into the woods.

With this awareness, a very subtle shift began to happen in me. I began to see that I was exactly where I needed to be; that in fact every yes I had uttered in cooperation with the Spirit had brought me to this moment in which God was sorting my beans from my inner rocks with utter gentleness.

This awareness was further deepened after I’d been at Madonna House about two months.

By then I was coming to appreciate the rhythm of each day with its round of prayer, meals, dishes, work, spiritual reading, tea-time, Mass, more dishes, and a few free minutes in the evening. As the Madonna House life was gently carrying me along, God was vigorously stirring my depths.

One particular day I was visiting with an older member of the community who had been a member of Madonna House for a long time—thirty years or more.

As this woman and I talked, I caught a glimpse of how long she had been there embracing each moment, day in and day out. It was longer than I had even been alive!

Suddenly I realized that my own salvation—my own surrender to God’s mercy and goodness—was inextricably linked with hers. It was as if her life at Madonna House and all of its little yeses had made a path for me to walk on, straight into the heart of God.

I saw, for the first time, that our yeses bear fruit for us and for everyone around us and even for those we may never meet in this life. We are not, as it were, being saved alone. We are all in this together: through, with, and in Him—through, with, and in it for one another.

It is twenty years since I first visited Madonna House. I am now married with four children and a lively bakery business that my husband and I run together. In all honesty, I must say that there are days it is very hard to say yes to the present moment and all that it can demand.

On those days, it is often a lifeline for me to recall the leadings of the Spirit that brought me here—a lifeline that holds me fast to the Spirit’s voice. Through it, I find strength to say yes to what is right in front of me.

Occasionally I even remember that when the Spirit leads us away from one clearly-marked path, it is because he has a more beautiful one for us to discover.

Of course there are times when my own yes falters, times when illusions of ease elsewhere tempt me to leave the path altogether.

When this happens, as it often does, I lean into the saints. I lean into Mama Mary and her yes and into the yes of Saint Joseph. I lean into the yeses of Catherine Doherty and Dorothy Day. I lean into the yeses of my Madonna House friends and countless others.

In the company of these saints and pilgrims, I find a wellspring of courage to continue—for my own sake, for the sake of all who walk near me, for the sake of those who will come after me—seeking God and abundant life.