Tabernacle of the Heart III: “You are like a lily growing in the valley”

“I’m overshadowed by his love,
growing in the valley!”
“Yes, you are my darling companion.
You stand out from all the rest.
For though the curse of sin surrounds you,
still you remain as pure as a lily,
even more than all the others.” (Song of Songs 2:1-2 TPT)

The valley, in this passage, is that dark and sorrowed place where the curse of sin has run rampant as weeds taking over a garden.

I have had valleys in my life.

Valleys of illness. Valleys of weakness and limitation. Valleys of disappointment. Valleys of sin.

The Lover whispers to his Beloved in the Song of Songs:

“For though the curse of sin surrounds you,
still you remain as pure as a lily…
growing in the valley.”

In the deepest valleys of our life we remain united to Jesus, tabernacles of God’s abiding on earth. Even in the valleys of our failure and our sorrow, we are beautiful to him. Lilies.

Lilies are white, symbols of purity.

I wondered for years how I could be a lily when I knew I was no longer perfectly clean as on the day of my Baptism. Jesus knows that we will journey into the valley where we will be scratched by thorns, confused, lost, manipulated. We’ll make detours. Mistake weeds for flowers. Be bitten by insects. Fall in the heat of the valley.

We all carry within us the virus of the Fall.

We begin immature and self-centered as any child, and any neophyte in the spiritual life. As lilies of the valley we are small flowers, often hidden in the midst of the weeds of the valley. But not hidden to our Lover.

He can see us. He overshadows us with his love.
He knows our hearts.
He knows every part of the journey we’ve been on, and everything to come.
He knows that we depend on his love. That we can’t achieve anything on our own.
He reaches into the thorns to find us, his lilies, his companions.

The cross is the symbol of the valley, his arms outstretched and nailed to the wood show us the extent he will go to find and save us and claim us for himself.

He arrays us in beauty: “Observe how the lilies of the field grow” (Mt. 6:28).

Catherine Doherty, the founder of Madonna House Apostolate, is an example of living as the lily in the valley of failure and deep rejection. Catherine Kolyschkine was born in Nizhny-Novgorod, Russia, on August 15, 1896 to wealthy and deeply Christian parents. Raised in a devout aristocratic family, she grew up knowing that Christ lives in the poor, and that ordinary life is meant to be holy. Her father’s work enabled the family to travel extensively in Catherine’s youth. At the age of 15, she married her cousin, Boris de Hueck. Soon, the turmoil of World War I sent them both to the Russian front: Boris as an engineer, Catherine as a nurse.

The Russian Revolution destroyed the world as they knew it. Catherine and Boris became refugees, fleeing first to England, and then in 1921, to Canada, where their son George was born. In the following years she experienced grinding poverty as she laboured to support her ailing husband and child. After years of painful struggle, her marriage to Boris fell apart; later her marriage was annulled by the Church.

Catherine’s talent as a speaker was discovered by an agent from a lecture bureau. She began travelling across North America, and became a successful lecturer. Once again she became wealthy—but she was not at peace. The words of Christ pursued her relentlessly: “Sell all you possess, and come, follow Me.” On October 15, 1930 Catherine renewed a promise she had made to God during her ordeal in the revolution, and gave her life to Him. She marked this as the day of the beginning of her Apostolate. With the blessing of Archbishop Neil McNeil of Toronto, Catherine sold all her possessions and provided for her son, George. In the early 1930’s she went to live a hidden life in the slums of Toronto, desiring to console her beloved Lord as a lay apostle by being one with his poor.

As she implemented this radical Gospel way of life, young men and women came to join her. They called themselves Friendship House, and lived the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi. In the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the members of Friendship House responded to the needs of the time.

Misunderstanding and calumny plagued Catherine all of her life. False but persistent rumours about her and the working of Friendship House forced its closing in 1936. Catherine left Toronto, feeling her work had failed. Through the seeming failure and great disappointments, she heard the voice of Christ beckoning her to share His suffering.

Soon after she left Toronto, Father John LaFarge, S.J., a well-known Civil Rights Movement leader in the U.S., invited Catherine to open a Friendship House in Harlem. In February, 1938, she accepted his request, and soon the Harlem Friendship House was bursting with activity. Catherine saw the beauty of the Black people and was horrified by the injustices being done to them. She travelled the country decrying racial discrimination against Blacks.

In the midst of widespread rejection and persecution, she found support from Cardinal Patrick Hayes and Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York. In Harlem, a small community formed around her, but again, her work ended in failure. Divisions developed among the staff of Friendship House and in January, 1947, they out-voted Catherine on points she considered essential to the apostolate. Seeing this as a rejection of her vision of Friendship House, she stepped down as Director General.

On May 17, 1947, Catherine came to Combermere, Ontario, Canada, with her second husband, American journalist Eddie Doherty, whom she had married in 1943. Catherine was shattered by the rejection of Friendship House and thought she had come to Ontario to retire. Instead, the most fruitful and lasting phase of her apostolic life was about to begin. As she was recovering from the trauma, Catherine began to serve those in need in the Combermere area, first as a nurse and then through neighbourly services. She and Eddie also established a newspaper, Restoration, and eventually began a training centre for the Catholic lay apostolate.

At a summer school of Catholic Action that Catherine organized in 1950, Fr. John Callahan came to teach. He was to become Catherine and Eddie’s spiritual director and the first priest member of Madonna House. Under his guidance, in February 1951, they made an act of consecration to Jesus through Mary, according to St. Louis de Montfort. Mary, Mother of the Church, became guide to their lives and to their apostolate.

Catherine’s lifelong passion to console Christ in others propelled her forward. Again young men and women asked to join her. Graces abounded. In October 1951, Catherine attended the first Lay Congress in Rome. The Papal Secretary, Msgr. Montini (later to become Pope Paul VI) encouraged Catherine and her followers to consider making a permanent commitment.

On April 7, 1954, those living in Combermere voted to embrace a permanent vocation with promises of poverty, chastity and obedience, and the community of Madonna House was established. The following year, Catherine and Eddie took a promise of chastity and lived celibate lives thereafter. From these offerings, an explosion of life took place and Madonna House grew. On June 8, 1960, Bishop William Smith of Pembroke offered the Church’s approval to the fledgling community at the blessing of the statue of Our Lady of Combermere.

Catherine had a faith vision for the restoration of the Church and our modern culture at a time when the de-Christianization of the Western world was already well advanced. She brought the spiritual intuitions of the Christian East to North America. Lay men and women as well as priests came to Madonna House to live the life of a Christian family: the life of Nazareth. They begged for what they needed and gave the rest away. At the invitation of bishops, they opened houses in rural areas and cities in North and South America, Europe, Russia, Africa, and the West Indies.

I found this prayer of hers, doubtless written during a sleepless night, moving:

The night was dark. I lay awake. Does anyone understand the horror of dark nights, when all is quiet as if it were dead? I faced the past and shuddered; the future and shrank. Seventeen long years of pain and suffering, seventeen years of hell, and nobody knows! Indeed, I am a failure in all things—in married life, in motherhood, in any work for humanity.

Lord, as I think of all these failures, I wonder if by any chance it would be possible to find anyone who has made a bigger mess of life than I. I am sure not! Jesus, Master of all things, how do you stand such as I?

Oh, I am not complaining about my fate. How could I? For all that has come to me is well-deserved because I am such a sinner. My sins are always with me and before me, as are the graces I have lost. I often think of these graces. Are they lying there, crying, because I haven’t made use of them? Or have they been picked up by chance? Who will know the end of this mystery? Death alone will solve it.
— April 25, 1937

Brian Simmons in his book The Sacred Journey states that we are to be lilies not merely in a vase, but lilies among thorns: “when the curse of sin surrounds you.” Although we may not have experienced the type of failure that Catherine Doherty lived during her life, all of us have met rejection and felt we’ve made a mess of something in our life. We may cry out, “But, Lord, I am hurt as I walk among the thorns.”

The mystery of your heart will only reveal itself in time as your give yourself over to, as your align yourself with, the Divine Designs for your life that unfold even among the thorns. The lily of the field remains small and pure, simple and simply at the service of the One who knows and cares about its destiny and the way he will use her to be love in a world so desperately in need of his love.

Photo by Océane George on Unsplash

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