Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Life With a Russian Bear

I interrupt the usual ‘Benedict blogging’ today as it is the 26th Anniversary of death of the Servant of God, Catherine de Hueck Doherty.
For those who may stumble upon this blog (watch that first step – it’s a doozy!) and don’t know me, Catherine is the founder of the Madonna House Apostolate, of which I have been a member for 20 years. She was a refugee of the Russian Revolution who became Catholic, came to Canada and devoted her life to service of the poor in a wide variety of venues and means.
This excerpt from a 1977 New Covenant article I chose for three reasons: it captures her style wonderfully; it has a Christmas theme; it reflects on the type of poverty she and MH turned more and more towards alleviating in the last decades of her life and our subsequent community life. It’s a bit long, but worth the read!
So here it is, our very own ‘Russian bear’ of a passionate lover of God and humanity, calling us to take a good look in the mirror:

I was praying last night, and a very joyful idea came to me which I want to share with you. At first it wasn’t joyful at all. I entered into a sort of gloomy state. I didn’t despair, because a Christian never despairs, but I was really down, because I realized that no matter what you do, no matter how much you tell people, no matter how much you explain...
—psychologically, metaphysically, theologically, philosophically, you name it—North Americans have an utterly poor image of themselves. This is a fact, and it is a fact that makes the psychiatrists and the psychologists rich!
People go to talk to them at $35 an hour because these people don’t dare talk to anyone else. In our so-called age of communication, they can’t communicate the deepest reality of themselves.
I sat still and took a long look at this picture. Here was Bangladesh, dying from hunger because of poverty; and here are wealthy Americans dying because they’re afraid to talk. They’re afraid to talk because they don’t really believe that they are worth listening to. So they wither like a fig tree, only seeing themselves in a mirror of their own making.
I looked at this scene deeper and I began to pray in earnest. The thought came to me that everyone loves a child. It occurred to me that perhaps it would be a good idea for North Americans to remember that once upon a time they were children too. Perhaps everyone could dig up a photograph of themselves and look into the eyes of their own selves, and see how beautiful they were. For every child is beautiful. Yes, they could start from there.
Then the thought of the Incarnation came to me. The great mirror that is always before each of us is Jesus Christ. We are to be icons of him so that other people may know and love him. But how can we be icons of him if we detest ourselves! If we have this distorted idea of ourselves! What kind of an icon do we make of him then?
The scene was becoming clearer. I said to myself: “Yes, we not only have to look at our own photographs, but at the icon of Christ within us.” Scripture says, “I have put my seal upon your heart.” He has put a seal upon our hearts. He loves us—that is his seal, his icon in us, his photograph. If we look at him it doesn’t matter how we imagine him to be with our technological notions of a perfect Kodak likeness! That’s not the point. We must look at the spiritual image which is being formed in us over a period of years, and which is the true mirror. It is the mirror which truly reflects us. Christ is in each of us, and, depending on our faith that he is truly with us—truly Emmanuel—we can see ourselves in him. That is our true image. Then we lose that horrible, devil-inspired, poor image of ourselves.
This poor image consists in the belief that we’re basically unlovable. This is the “gospel truth” the average person believes: he or she is unlovable. It might be because they’re looking at themselves from the wrong angle. It might be because they think they are sinners, as they consider the fact that we really are all sinners.
But how foolish all this is! If we look closely at one another we will always find some redeeming feature that will change our picture of that person. As far as sin is concerned, it’s true. Who of us is without sin? But why worry? Why slide down a pit of our own making? The arms of God are wide open like the arms of the father of the prodigal son. In his hand he is always holding a ring to put on our finger and a beautiful garment with which to clothe us. Let us never forget that we are saved sinners, and that God forgives our sins.
That’s what the Incarnation is all about. The Incarnation is the physical, touchable, tangible forgiveness of God in the shape of a Child. God the Father sent his forgiveness in the form of a Child, his son. Well, if that is true, and it is, it’s also true that our sins blur this mirror of God. It is then we begin to think that we’re lousy, that nobody loves us, and so on.
We forget that there is another mirror in us. The mirror of God’s face, of his tenderness, of his gentleness, of his forgiveness. As far as sin is concerned, all we have to say is “I’m sorry,” and the mirror is clean—and we’re not unlovable! But even when we are in sin, we are not unlovable in God’s eyes. Wasn’t he himself accustomed to eat and hobnob with sinners? Didn’t he canonize a prostitute and a thief?
“I hate myself because I’m a lousy character and nobody loves me.” Whoever put that notion into your heads? Well, I guess Jansenism and Puritanism had something to do with it. But you’re older now and intelligent enough to throw that stuff off. It’s simply impossible to go on like this.
As I continued to pray I said, “Lord, You said that whatever we ask for in your name you would give it to us. So now I ask very simply but very boldly, that, as far as possible, you pt an end to the wrong image people have of themselves.’ It’s such a tragic thing to be burdened with when all around us the angels are singing and glorifying God. It’s such a stupid thing to have this poor image in our hearts when on our lips we have the name “Emmanuel,” “God is with us.” He is with you right now, at this moment. Go deep into your soul and see him. He will be your mirror. Look there and discover what you are really like!
And what are you really like? You are beloved of God. You are covered with the fiery and marvelous wings of the Holy Spirit. In Russia we call the Holy Spirit the Crimson Dove because he came as a flame upon the Apostles. The Flame, the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, was sent by the Son, to show you the way to the Father.
Look at yourself as I do, as God does. I look at you, and I see your beauty, and it staggers me. I am awed, and I praise God. Because everyone looks simply radiant. It makes no difference whether you are old or young, fat or skinny. Each one of you is of such infinite beauty that my heart sings. I see your beauty and I see how it affects and beautifies everything that it passes—men, trees, beasts. (This is, of course, my Russian imagination at work!) And then, all that nonsense about your being unlovable just melts away from you, and you emerge as a shining icon.
Do you know what makes you beautiful? The love of God which shines through you and in you like a fire. You are walking in a fire. You walk (I can’t even explain it) in sort of a golden radiance. As you pass by, the trees themselves seem to bow down. Even the little animals that I love so much come out to look. And some men along the way say, “Behold, we are seeing the face of God. Let us follow these people who are revealing it to us.”
It was a most beautiful experience. My heart was full of some strange and inexperienced love of God, and I praised him for all of you. I put on a nice little record that I like and started dancing at in the morning! Yes, that’s how you affected me last night. “I am the Lord of the dance” was the song, and indeed he is.
The one prayer that I addressed to God was that you lose forever the wrong idea that you have of yourselves, the false image, because it prevents you from seeing the face of God. If you look at yourselves and don’t see the face of God, what kind of life do you lead then? No wonder psychiatry and psychology are so popular. Run into the arms of God! You remember the Song of Songs which says “He kissed me with the kiss of his mouth.” Believe me, you must allow yourselves to be kissed by God, which means that you must believe that you are beautiful because God-made, beautiful because baptized into his death and resurrection, beautiful because he has become incarnate so that you might become sharers of the divine nature.
When you ponder these truths your shoulders should straighten up, your step become poised and graceful. You should know who you are. You are Christians! You are followers of Christ! There is no room in a Christian heart for a wrong self-image. Are you going to tell me that what comes from the hands of God can be so distorted! Can it be evil? “But,” you will say, “I was beautiful when I was a baby, but look at me now!” So I’m looking at you now, and what do I see? I see the same image as when you were a baby. Sinfulness has been removed by the words “I’m sorry.’
Somebody said to me the other day that they were frightened by the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It frightened them because they had to say, “Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Well, I thought that I had heard everything, but I never heard anything like that before! Considering the fact that we really are all sinners, the best thing to do is to say “have mercy on me.’
Let me put it in plain, twentieth-century English. You go to Jesus and you say: “Look at my face. Honest to goodness, I’ve got to over-haul the dang thing! Jesus, will you please put new make-up on me?” Only his make-up will restore our true image. It’s as simple as that. I don’t care if you’re 18, 40, 60, 80. You are beautiful, beautiful because you’re God-made, God-saved, God-loved. How can you any longer think of yourself as unlovable? It’s impossible! Impossible!
Think again of the Child. God the Father must be very enamoured of children since he sent his Son as a Child. “God, give me the heart of a child and the awesome courage to live it out as an adult,” is a favorite prayer of mine.
Finally, in my prayer, I saw you as you are, and my heart leaped for joy. It is that joy I wish to share with you. For what can we bring as gifts to the Child? Can we bring him a sad-sack story about our poor self-image? No. We must bring him the joy that’s in our hearts, and we’re going to bring him gratitude for our creation. Have you considered what a tremendous gift that is, that he created us? From the moment of our baptism to the moment of our death, we live in hope and are immersed in love. Guided by our faith, we know that we—you and I and God—are one. So, any time you doubt your identity, look into the face of God and say, “Lord, I see myself. I am your icon.”
“You Are the Image of God,” New Covenant, May, 1977


  1. This is a real help. I know nothing about your foundress but she evidently would have been a good "human formation" staff member in seminary!

    1. That she would have been! She actually started a pre-seminarian program here in 1980, which has been running continuously ever since, with precisely that kind of human/spiritual formation in mind. God bless...


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