Leaping into the Unknown

by Cheryl Ann Smith


We’ve heard the story of Abraham so many times that we don’t stop to appreciate how radical this call was—a call to an old man to leave his homeland and journey to an unknown destination. This command was given to countless prophets throughout the millennia.

Catherine Doherty the founder of Madonna House, was considerably younger when she heard it, but she had already left her family and her homeland through marriage and civil war.

She had fought her way through grinding poverty and an abusive marriage and had just begun to find her own life and comfort. And now, to be uprooted from her new-found security and called forth into the unknown?!

But so powerful was her attraction to her Beloved One, that Catherine, like Abraham, leapt into the unknown. After making provision for her son’s future, she moved into the slums of Toronto with nothing but God’s command and her fiat, her surrender to him.

In these 75 years of Madonna House history, there have been fun, fascinating, and frightening stories of how God called and drew his people to this new and strange community. Here are a couple of examples:

Bill Jakali was on a fishing holiday with a friend in the late 1950s. Needing to attend Sunday Mass, they saw a sign for Madonna House and pulled in. After Mass, his friend left, but Bill stayed.

A woman journeyed from Germany to North America as part of a New Age group. In the middle of the night three years later, she heard the Father call her name, and she knew her life had changed.

Leaving that group, she came across Christians who began to form her, and eventually she found Madonna House. Leaving her country, culture and language for good, she trusted, leapt into the arms of the Father, and joined Madonna House.

I could go on and on. God handpicks each person he chooses for Madonna House, and it doesn’t seem to matter what their culture, country or language. Even faith he will provide. He will make known his loving will. And that personal calling is true for every person on earth.

God’s word is never static. Catherine had to arise and go many times—leaving her Canadian Friendship Houses and her beloved poor and later being forced out of her American houses and her labors for interracial justice.

Still later, leaving the comforts of married life, she and her husband Eddie Doherty were asked to embrace celibacy with the rest of the community.

Arise—go doesn’t end for any of us until we’re called to arise and join our Beloved in heaven.

As with any word from God, Arise—go is infinitely deep, and it does not just refer to changing locations. When she moved into the slums of Toronto to begin this new life with God, Catherine saw herself as a lone apostle, a poustinik (a specific type of contemplative) in the marketplace. But God’s plan was bigger: she was to be a foundress.

When she and Eddie moved to Combermere to “retire,” God must have laughed. Her two “failed” apostolates were foundation stones, and her work—hidden from her eyes—to form a new community, Madonna House, was just beginning.

When Catherine fled her homeland during the Russian Revolution, she thought she had to lay aside her Eastern spirituality and adopt the Western ways of her new homeland.

But again, God desired something stunning in its scope: he wanted her to be a bridge between the two, to form a community that would breathe with the lungs of both East and West.

The call to leave the old and follow God’s voice happens in myriad ways. One day, I may see how selfish I have been and realize that God is beckoning me to sacrifice. Or that I have clung to resentment, and he is asking me to let go and forgive.

Or I suddenly sense a way out of my doubt and scepticism as he calls me to cast into the waters of faith.

This movement reaches to the depths of our spirit as we are periodically called to enter the mysterious, dark, unknown interior reaches of God’s heart.

We can become comfortable in certain ways of praying, but suddenly God seems absent. Panic can set in, along with an iron wilful insistence on old ways of praying. The interior life seems dark, inscrutable, even frightening.

Only in time can we look back and see that God was leading us deeper into his heart and drawing us into other ways of praying—less reliant on our control and discipline, more reliant on faith and grace.

We each have our gifts and strengths, and we hope to live from them in our vocation. But sometimes God asks us to set them aside and seemingly flounder in our insecurities and failures. By trusting him, our hearts can be expanded and opened to vistas never conceived of.

For example, if I had been given a choice of where I would live in Madonna House, I would always have opted for a prayer house. Instead, I was consistently called into the marketplace, carrying much responsibility with little time and space for prayer.

I can only thank God, for I learned to see and love him in the poor, and I had to constantly cry out for grace and strength to persevere. I had to learn how to “pray always,” so that I didn’t rely only on times of retreat and silence. God knows what he’s doing. Our part is to trust and follow.

So you see that the command to arise—go is constant. Will we listen? Will we follow? Will we allow our comfort, our plans, our dreams and assumptions about how our life should unfold to be shattered? Great blessings await us if we do.

I have wept with people who felt rejected by God because he had not called them into marriage or a religious community.

They agonized wondering if they had missed the call or were not good enough. But perhaps (and probably), God actually invited them to arise and go into the marketplace, hidden in the ordinary, to be Light to his people in a way that’s gentle and not threatening.

Perhaps (and probably), God is asking these special people to be his beloved in a hidden and exclusive way. It’s a hard vocation, to live this dedication without the support of a community or without an identity as consecrated virgin to “prove” validity and worth.

It’s a deep call to faith and trust. But intimacy with the Beloved is the gift that is offered.

I have met many whose every moment is taken up with the needs of children and household, who have felt gypped of a call from God. But perhaps (and probably), God has called them to live in Nazareth with the Holy Family, content in the knowledge that they live this ordinary life with Mary and Joseph, with Jesus at the center.

Many of us feel we have no great gifts and seem to just plod along in ho-hum work. Perhaps we can hear God’s call to arise and hide in his quiver, constantly available to him, ready to be used in any way at any time, whether or not we are aware of the how. His call is in every moment, if we but have ears to hear and a heart to receive.

*These are the first words of the Little Mandate, which is comprised of words God gave to our foundress, Catherine Doherty. Taken together, the Little Mandate gives the essence of Madonna House spirituality.