The Woman Who Bended

by Emily Huston

“O … Wa … Ta … Goo … Si … Am” Thus began a game that was a source of giggles in my rather Godless childhood.

One kid would demonstrate. He would, for example, stand with arms raised, then bend, inviting us to imitate. He would kneel and bow to the floor, all the while uttering this foreign-sounding phrase, with long pauses between the syllables.

With serious intent we would repeat it again and again. Quite a sight this was, until the fact would dawn on us how ridiculous our postures and chorus were.

Then we’d giggle. “Oh, what fools we are!” A distaste lingered about the folly of bowing and kneeling.

Fast forward to 1961. I am enjoying a much longed-for cross-country adventure. To see the U.S., I drove from the Pacific to the Atlantic, planning the return to my home in Oregon via Canada.

I’d heard of a novel community somewhere in Ontario, so I side-tripped to a tiny village called Combermere for a brief visit to Madonna House.

Did I meet Catherine Doherty? Yes! She certainly turned my travel plans upside-down. My passing contact caused, inadvertently, a long-term, inside-out change. A whisper-like call from God punctured my innards, knifing a heart muffled by extensive plans replete with self-serving goals.

A few words from Catherine did this trick. “Look inside yourselves,” she urged her listeners. “Are you being honest with God?”

No! I admitted in myself. Consulting Catherine about this unforeseen challenge, I proposed my going home to digest it and said that maybe I’d return to Madonna House in a year or so.

“No” she replied. “Stay here.  Now! Cancel your Oregon teaching contract.”

Do I know our Madonna House foundress? What indeed is “knowing”? Back then it was minimal.

I soon learned, however, that she was a mistress of the succinct. Catherine could target one’s soul in only a few words. I experienced her as the queen of brevity.

From the wellsprings of her love of God she would seek and serve his best for us—our spiritual growth. Whatever the occasion, whether with a multitude of words or a mere one or two, Catherine’s voice came out of her own deep relationship with our Living God.

Back in 1961 how little did I realize the casting self aside I’d need to do to even personally “know” her and approach such a relationship. Moreover, little did I understand Catherine’s interior bowing as she bent daily to do the Lord’s will, not hers.

She could be succinct with a tender gentleness or be tough, almost harsh. Hers was a skilled mastery of the appropriate, both in listening inwardly to God and outwardly to the need of the person(s) with whom she engaged. Little did I realize this; for a long spell I hovered at a distance, quivering with fear of my unknown future.

After I cancelled my Oregon contract I was scared, inchoate with confusion. Struggling with a loss of sense of self I asked Catherine who I could become. Tenderly she took me to a rose bush, picked a bud, and gently presenting it to me said: “Like this you will bloom.”

Later, as an applicant in training, I found learning a multitude of strange, unfamiliar details plus the long hours of physical labor very taxing. Feeling unfairly overworked and fighting a flu, I visibly moped. Catherine spotted this and hustled me to our chapel. There she said, in short: “Do not pamper yourself.”

Years passed. As a member missioned to more than one of our mission houses, I felt overwhelmed by the rigors of our daily work-pace. So I posted a long letter to Catherine, in effect saying I can’t take this any longer. I want to resign.

Her letter in reply simply quoted John’s Gospel (6:67-69). Therein Jesus responds to his disciples: Do you also wish to go away? They answer: Lord, to whom can we go?

My sensing of Catherine’s interior posture before God came slowly. Yes, I did plan, trying not to count the cost, to persevere in living our vocation, but on occasions I squirmed mightily.

And I could be stalled by her blunt brevity. At one mission, fellowship with another member seemed impossible. The exigencies, daily unavoidable, became so wearying I phoned Catherine to complain. Hearing the details of this impasse our queen of brevity counseled me with just four words: “Hang on the Cross.”

Lest these citations wrongly attribute a callousness to her, I again affirm: how little did I “know” Catherine! I continued to learn. Musings on her counsel revealed what I earlier had overlooked. Her interior posture, absorbed and hidden in God’s guiding Presence included constant kneeling.

This recourse of bowing to seek his will not hers enflamed her teaching. Moreover, she seemed to freely imbibe her Lord’s divine bending. Was God’s taste for folly in play?

Learning to “know” this about Catherine challenged me to the core. Could I learn to accept a similar posture? Embody such folly?

Reviewing the decades of Catherine’s mentoring I have come to value this inner source of her words, even treasure mystery which I may never comprehend.

I recall a Madonna House dormitory setting. Our gathering with Catherine was informal, everyone sharing. She began to identify each of us alternately with an apt passage drawn from Sacred Scripture.

At my turn she quoted Acts 2: 17: …Your young men shall see visions; your old shall dream dreams. Was she addressing me or herself or all of us? I puzzle. This passage I have yet to comprehend.

To conclude, I cite the last words Catherine spoke to me. Precisely two. A perfect summation in three syllables, delivered directly and urgently, per custom. It was a poignant encounter—my last with her in person since I was being transferred to a far mission. Soon she would be hospitalized and commence her final illness.

Several of us joyfully accompanied her on a walk to her cabin. We all chatted. Outwardly she was ailing.  Inwardly she thrived. Catherine’s living relationship with our Living God glowed forth.

Suddenly I was prompted to ask: “Would you tell us what your most valued experience with Christ is?” She replied: “He bended!”