When I was a small girl I didn’t know very much about the way of the cross, but I loved to walk along and follow the pictures. I was always very sorry that Jesus Christ had had such a tough time. I remember once collecting all the crucifixes my mother had and taking Jesus off each one! In school I remember using a small ladder to reach the bloody feet of Jesus. I scrubbed the red paint off.
The sisters were terribly incensed, and wanted to know who had done it. They gathered all the children and asked, “Who did it?” In front of everybody I walked up and said, “I did.” They asked why. I said, “I couldn’t stand to see him with all those nails and all that blood. I just wanted to make him more comfortable.” I wasn’t punished.
I discovered that my father also loved the church building. When I was growing up in St. Petersburg I always walked from school to home with my governess. I liked to stop in at St. Isaac’s Cathedral. One day, there, in front of Our Lady’s icon, was my father. He stayed there for two hours. I know because I wanted to find out how long he prayed and I stayed until he walked out. My governess was very annoyed with me for staying so long, but she couldn’t say very much. After all, I was in church, and there was my father doing the same thing! I wasn’t even 10 years old at the time.
As my father was walking out I asked him what he was doing there so long. He said, “Catherine, I do what everybody else does in church—pray.” All this impressed me very much. Perhaps this experience helped to make the church building attractive to me. I sensed what people call a “presence” in the church, and it held a very deep attraction for me. Through it, God was laying in me the foundation for something else.
Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Fragments of My Life
Reflection – We are reading through Catherine Doherty’s testimony on ‘The Church and I’ from her autobiography. Yesterday and today she tells us of her childhood experiences in the church; tomorrow and following, little Katya will grow up and her experience will be quite different, though her love grows no less.
When Catherine recounts these childhood experiences, though, she is not simply reminiscing of a simpler, happier, more innocent time in her life, as many of us do. She is a woman of great depth and intelligence, and is doing something here that is a little more consequential than a walk down memory lane.
I think Catherine sees in her early childhood experience of Christianity and the Church a sort of pristine, unfiltered distillation of Gospel life. Her parents were extraordinary people, and their words and example left a life long impression on their daughter. In a few short years Catherine would be plunged into the complexities and sorrows of adult life: an early and unhappy marriage, war, revolution, starvation, exile, poverty, motherhood, etc. Her childhood faith and love became a sort of symbol for her of the undiluted essence of Christian piety and practice before it all got so complicated and hard.
She came to see that the strong faith of her home and family and her own self were God’s first school of love for her, and gave her words and insights that she would be called to live out for the rest of her life. The prime example of this is her wish to take Jesus down off the Cross and wash the blood off his feet. This childish gesture of compassion would become the great theme of her whole life: to console the suffering Christ by alleviating the sufferings, and especially the loneliness, of others. MH is still very much in the business of washing that red paint off those feet, even though we too are little and have to use a step ladder to reach them!
But it is this other little encounter with her father that is very telling, in the context of the Church. ‘What were you doing?’ ‘I do what everyone does in church—pray.’ Very simple, but very profound. The church as a place of prayer, a place of encounter, a place where there is a presence, and that presence is God—this would never leave Catherine. Whatever else goes on in church, whatever things happen there for good or for ill, it is ultimately, first and last, and essentially a place to pray.
Some counter that God is everywhere, and we can pray anywhere. Well, of course. I am praying as I type these words in my room here in Combermere! But human beings are creatures of time and space, and we have always longed for and carved out of this secular world of ours sacred time, sacred space—for times and places set apart for God or the gods.