The Little Mandate

The Little Mandate is composed of words that Catherine Doherty believed she received from Jesus Christ over the course of her apostolic life. This “distillation of the Gospel” is the heart of Madonna House spirituality:

Arise – go! Sell all you possess.
Give it directly, personally to the poor.
Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me,
going to the poor, being poor,
being one with them, one with Me.

Little – be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.

Preach the Gospel with your life – without compromise!
Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.

Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.

Love…love…love, never counting the cost.

Go into the marketplace and stay with Me.
Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.

Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour’s feet.
Go without fears into the depths of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.

Pray always. I will be your rest.


Catherine once said:


Where did the spirit of Madonna House have its birth? In the cradle of the steaming laundry where I worked as a refugee? On the battlefields of Russia? In a factory of New York? In a pleasant apartment in that city? I do not know. All I know is that somewhere in the 1920s I began to be ‘mightily bothered,’ if that can describe it, by the Holy Spirit.


Eventually I knew that God was calling me to live what I term his ‘Little Mandate.’ I fought this call for several years but finally succumbed to it. Or perhaps I should say that, like so many sinners before me, I finally said ‘yes’ to God.


Thus was born the Apostolate of Friendship House, which eventually flowed into the Apostolate of Madonna House. The spirit of both is this Little Mandate which God gave me. I marvel that he chose me to found them. Together with my spiritual children I share with all our friends, known and unknown, our way of life, of living the mysteries that God has revealed to us.

Our Way Of Life & The Spirit Of The Apostolate

I would like now to talk about God’s Mandate, as I call it, those little half pages I wrote when I began the apostolate of Friendship House and Madonna House. I have laid down my life for that Mandate. It is our way of life and the spirit of the apostolate. This is how I see the mandate in my heart and soul.


Arise — go!


Have we arisen? Or are we just sitting or lying down or leaning against the wall? Simply staying where we are, without moving? This ‘arise and go’ is constant, challenging, profound; it is both heavy and light. It is the voice of God calling to us. We can plug our ears. We can plead sickness. We can plead ignorance. We can plead sinfulness, anything. Unlike Abraham, we’re unconsciously afraid to arise and go without knowing where we’re going. God doesn’t say where to go, only “to the poor, “ but for that he might as well name the whole of the earth.


It demands of us a constant growth in faith, day by day, hour by hour. Once I have arisen and gone, following this voice that echoes in my heart, I can’t stop and sit down. I may be tempted to, by any situation that is painful and difficult, in which I feel a failure or cannot face. But all the time God says, “Arise and go.”


Sell all you possess.
Give it directly, personally to the poor.


What does that mean to us? It is deeply spiritual, though it has physical incarnations. Sell your desires that possess you, or that you possess: desire for comfort, privacy. that glass of beer, that better mattress. I’m speaking of the little things. That desire that your house always be in order, in the sense of having staff that are congenial to you, with whom you can relate, that make life easy for you.


All these desires must be sold in some kind of unknown market place, or perhaps just dropped, given up as a gift for someone. A desire is a precious thing to give away. It turns into a gem that you can give to God to put in a crown for somebody, somewhere.


The Mandate says “give personally,” so it must be done with great love. Our heart becomes a cup or chalice lifted and given to the poor and to each other. Strangely enough, as we give to each other we give to the whole world. Our heart is like two open hands in which are all our desires. When we give away those which are not in tune with God’s desires, we give wealth to others.


Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me.


My cross is the people I live with and I am their cross. I also have the broad work of taking up the cross of my brother, whoever he is. We all have our own cross, we are cross bearers. But especially in our context of today we must take up the cross of others.


We say to ourselves, “My own cross is heavy, why should I take Kathy’s or Bob’s cross? I’ve got enough of my own to carry.” But until we take up each other’s cross, the turbulence in our family or community will increase. For besides our natural turbulence of emotion, human weakness and sinfulness, there will enter another: that of the evil one who is always turbulent. Then we really lose our way.


Going to the poor…


That’s simple. Our calling is to the poor, both those materially poor and the poor rich, but the first poor that we should go to is one another in our own family. It’s the poor serving the poor, in regard to ourselves.


Then comes the phrase that haunted me for years and still does. Intellectually I understand it, but spiritually it has always been a very difficult thing.


…being one with them, one with Me.


These two parts of one sentence are so big that I don’t think ten lifetimes can probe them, for they have a million aspects. There is, for instance, the aspect of being physically poor like we are in some of our missions or were when we started: identifying physically with the poor among whom we live.


The poverty in other places is different: people may have running water and so forth. Yet there’s a depth to our identifying with them, too. We must come to a total lack of fear of the other and to a total surrender to the other’s way of doing things.


At first this nearly kills many people emotionally: eating a different kind of food, all the physical identification. How difficult it is for some, right in our midst, to identify with the other, in deep charity. At moments it’s still difficult for me, 52 years later, to identify with the American and Canadian.


Identification is difficult but precious. It involves doing violence to yourself. Yet Scripture says that “heaven is taken by violence” to oneself. To identify oneself with the other is to love him beyond words, a total giving of oneself in truth.


I think it is in this total giving of self that our priesthood of the laity is confirmed. We are a priestly people, we lay people. This is where Christ lays his hands on us or anoints us with the oil of his love. In his extraordinary, mysterious way, he enters into us, the laity.


Once we have identified with each other through love and through emptying ourselves, then we can begin to say, “I live not, Christ lives in me.” Then the priesthood of the laity is confirmed. For when he lives in us in this manner, it is the High Priest who makes us priests. It is not symbolic, it is reality, a reality of faith.


But in order to do this identification, one must prepare. it’s almost like a sacrament; and one prepares himself for the priesthood, or marriage, or even confession, the sacrament of the sick or baptism. There is always a time of preparation. To bring the priesthood of the laity to fruition, there is a novitiate of love that really empties us so that we can become one with Christ.


Little — be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.


When I apply these words to our present situation, I find something that I cannot explain to myself, except of course in the eternal answer of our own inner poverty.


It is when we cease to be little that a given community or family ‘blows up.’ A little child, when something happens that frightens him, simply runs to his father or mother and holds their hand, and all is well. The bogey man disappears. The big dog, which is really about the size of a tiny Pekingese but frightens the child, ceases to frighten him.


I get irritated and miserable when I don’t run to my Father nor remember that I’m little. It happens when I don’t say Abba, Father God, but rather, “Now Katie, you are a pretty brilliant dame. You’ve known this Apostolate for 39 years. You can solve this problem by yourself.”


However if I run to my Father and take his hand and cry “Abba” and become very small, realizing that I can solve nothing, let alone the problem of a house or a person, then the big dog, the size of mountains in Switzerland, suddenly becomes the size of a Pekingese.


My Father solved the problem because I approached it with childlikeness instead of in the pride of my intellect, my knowledge of a given situation. People say, “You’re an expert on community, on the lay apostolate. “ Am I? Or is God the Expert in me?


Being little, poor, childlike, will solve every problem. So you have a terrible problem in your house: remember you’re poor. Don’t be ashamed to be a failure. If the Son of God saved us by ‘a failure,’ can’t we save our little worlds, yours and mine, by a failure too? I’ve been a failure so many times! I thank God for showing me that I am poor, as his Little Mandate tells us to be.


By permitting me to be irritated or whatever, God in his kindness has once more reminded me, “Now Katie, don’t think you have all the answers, see how poor you are. Be childlike.” It’s so simple. If we approached each other this way, our problems would be fewer and smaller.


Preach the Gospel with your life — without compromise!
Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.


“Preach the Gospel” doesn’t mean that we be great preachers of Sacred Scripture, or scholars. It simply means that we live it. Here is our greatest difficulty. I speak for myself. Christ said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who hurt you.”


There is absolutely nothing in this world that Christ has not touched simply by saying, “Love God, love your neighbour and each other.” Everything is subject to the immense Gospel of the love of God, who became one of us. Love did that. Out of the little country of Palestine, most of it arid and desert, came light and a solution to every problem from now until the parousia.


But we close our ears to the Gospel. Because, indeed, it calls us to empty ourselves until there is nothing left of ourselves. For us to walk around in the world for awhile feeling empty is devastating emotionally! It’s only after a little while that we perceive that Christ is filling us. It’s a sort of death. Those of us who in God’s grace have experienced that for a moment, know that the price of preaching the Gospel is terribly high, intensely high.


Yet into these difficulties comes joy. They seem hard and they are. The cross of Christ was hard and so is our life. Yet suddenly, through the goodness of our Father, we’re given the Spirit. He enters into our family with a song, with the words of the Father which come to us through his Son. The Holy Spirit has the capacity to crack those words open and to make pleasurable what seemed intolerable.


Suddenly the painful process of growing in faith, emptying oneself, carrying each other’s crosses and identifying with the other is lifted up like a song. Into the ears of our soul come words of the Holy Spirit, that Word of Fire who illuminates and warms. The words of that Wind pick us up and bring us right to the mountaintop without touching the ground. Instead of angels, he himself carries us lest we fall or hurt our feet.


If we listen to the Spirit, then all things mentioned up to this point become an adventure and full of light. Strength is given us beyond our imagination, provided we are open to the Wind and the Fire.


Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.


In the reality of daily living we do little things constantly. But how about the little things of the Spirit: that one step farther, that true smile that comes from the depth of your heart and not only from your lips? When you are numb with tiredness and your body wants only to sit, and suddenly in the crowd you see a sad person, how about that one little touch?


The inner power of the Spirit makes you get up and extend your hand to that person and say, “Good night, sleep well, I will really pray for you. I know without ‘knowing,’ that you are sad.” Suddenly the face of that other person lights up. Then when you get home, don’t forget to “do little things well for love of Me.” Don’t forget to pray, if only a little: “Lord, I don’t know her name, but you know her name. Cheer her.” Then you can go to sleep.


That’s very little, but it too has to be done well. This Mandate is not only physical; that is to say it’s not only that I must arise. It’s deeply spiritual, regarding the hidden life of the Spirit.


The Little Mandate is like a misty horizon that under the sun or the fire of the Spirit, extends in depth. Each one of those words calls you until the end of your life. Only when you are laid into the grave will you know the dimension of the road and the country you have traveled. It’s much bigger than the distance between earth and moon, in fact it’s infinite.


Love… love… love, never counting the cost.


I barely dare to touch that because, speaking for myself, I have counted the cost very often. As God knows, I have cried out, “Lord, that is impossible!” To love means to surrender to every situation, no matter how horrible and impossible. To love means to surrender to every person, no matter how terrible or obnoxious. It means to stand naked with the naked crucified Christ in the market place where people may spit at you or push you.


But doing this has the power to make the other surrender to God. Our love, when it is without counting the cost, leads the other toward God. Our love makes straight the paths of the Lord. I wouldn’t think of it as a bulldozer because I don’t like machines and I don’t think it is as easy as manning a bulldozer!


It’s making straight the paths of the Lord with our bare hands and bare feet, sometimes through brambles. Torn and broken, we still keep moving so that other people can follow this little path without being scratched. No matter what the price, we make a road to Christ for the other. It’s life in the Spirit.


There can be no self-pity in the person who makes straight the way of the Lord. No matter how hard it is to love and love and love again, always the Fire and the Wind are there, so you resolutely enter the brambles. Then after you’ve made about six steps, or perhaps only three, a tremendous Wind comes like a tornado and — whoosh! there are no brambles, for they are torn from the path. All God asks is an act of faith made with love and he will do the rest.


When our heart is open to that Gospel we must preach, a shadow falls over us: Someone Else is walking beside us. Faith brings Christ right next to us. As we surrender to “Love without counting the cost,” immediately we see Golgotha. We hear, “I thirst!” and we understand what love is. Dimly, that is, for who can understand God?


Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast.


What is the marketplace? Is it the secular city? Is it the factual market place, that is to say the urban inner city? Is it suburbia where all the supermarkets are? No. The marketplace is simply the soul of man. It is the place where man trades his soul either to God or to the devil or to the ‘in between,’ with indifference, tepidity and complacency.


We must deal with the tepid in that supermarket of the spiritual world. We might be called to trade with offal, with leftovers from big restaurants of the devil, with any kind of refuse in that market place of souls. Perhaps I exaggerate, perhaps my Russian symbolism gets the best of me!


But when you get into the mire of this terrible tepidity, which is really like liquid refuse around you, you clean it up and, believe it or not, you can trade it in to the factory that makes fertilizer. It takes a little doing to carry such wastes from some place to the factory! That’s the moment when you want to turn away, spiritually, psychologically and physically. You say, “Lord, this is impossible.”


He replies, “Now is the moment when you have to pray and fast.” For this calls for a revolution. It is truly impossible unless we are armed with the strength of the Lord which comes through prayer and fasting. I have no other remedy for tepidity, indifference, what we used to call the Sunday Catholic. Little ‘nitty-gritty’ sins and the absence of any kind of love or understanding, is what I call the offal.


Praying and fasting will help you to clear the refuse from the tepid, to wash their face and body, which of course in the country of the soul is never a body. Here is where Our Lady comes in. She helps in everything, but at this point she’s the one to go to.


Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour’s feet.


How can you be hidden when you are a light to your neighbour’s feet? That’s very simple. A lantern carried along a path in the night is taken for granted. There is a photo from my days of rural nursing that I cherish very much. A little boy carried the lantern, Father carried the Blessed Sacrament, and I trudged behind them, for one of my patients was dying.


Nobody paid any attention to that little light. It was so commonplace to carry a lantern from the house to the barn to milk the cows in early morning, and so on, that in a sense the lantern was hidden. It was that ‘invisible’ thing that everybody takes for granted, like one’s fork and knife and plate at meals.


I myself have experienced that one can be hidden while being a light. You may be a celebrity but still hidden, because of your desire to be hidden. That’s deep.


Go without fear into the depth of men’s hearts.


In the land of souls, we are afraid to confront each other We’re afraid to be a path for the other lest his feet wear shoes with nails. In the last part of his Little Mandate, God realizes that we will still have fears. Fears: notwithstanding the Wind, the Fire, and the presence, half seen, of Christ.


He says to us, “Go without fear into the depth of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.” Suddenly this dimly-seen Figure becomes luminously clear and envelops us in his embrace. No matter what state we may be in, if we abandon ourselves we shall rest in the hollow of his neck as in the “Song of Songs.” That’s where he adds, “I will be your rest.”


Now this is real joy! He will be our rest at all times if only we follow his words. Let us be little, and not too literal. In his infinite mercy, God doesn’t wait until we become perfect in every letter of his Little Mandate. As we put ourselves into what appears to us as the “cold water” of this mandate, he is already our rest, and that also means our strength.


Resting in the arms of God is supreme prayer. Resting in the arms of God is having one’s ears opened by God, and once this happens, our point of view falls apart like a house built on sand. Then we become another house, built on the rock of his love. All this doesn’t happen in a day!


Like him, we must walk in the heat of a Palestinian day. We have to go through everything he did. But we know something that nobody knew in his day. We know that we live in his resurrection, and that he will temper this heat and quiet the wind of our emotional storms and help us in everything, if we let him.


Whenever I finish reading the Little Mandate, which I do quite often, I pray for faith because then I will grow in love. I pray to the Holy Spirit; he is the power to call upon. Abba, God the Father, has told us through his Son that when he goes away, the Holy Spirit will explain all things to us. That is how I see the Little Mandate.