The practice of silence leads to a strengthening of our humanity; it will lead to greater discernment, deeper peace, and freedom of soul.
Ultimately, the practice of silence increases our capacity for awe, our capacity to worship the only thing worth worshipping: the God of all creation.
We have countless examples in the Church of those who were spiritual geniuses in the practice of silence. Catherine de Hueck Doherty is one of these. Her practice of silence was a primary weapon in this interior battle for holiness.
The Silence of a Lover
Doherty was a spectacular swirl of paradox: a baroness who begged; an internationally recognized speaker who practiced profound silence; a divorcee who remarried and whose second husband became a priest. She lived quite literally all over the world and yet came most alive in her poustinia, her interior desert.
Fervor for the poor and forgotten would accompany Catherine through her flight from Russia, her escape from an abusive marriage, all the way into the poverty of Harlem, and back into the Russian poustinik tradition—a life of silence, prayer, and fasting—which she helped revive throughout the very noisy twentieth century.
Perhaps it was the grave difficulties of her life that drove Catherine to the interior hermitage, where in silence she met the abiding presence of God. Born into an aristocratic family in Russia in 1896, she lived in Egypt because of her father’s work there. She married at sixteen, served on the front lines as a nurse in World War I, and was decorated for bravery. Back in Russia with her husband after the war, she was shot in the hand amid the political and social upheaval following the Bolshevik coup of October 1917. Not much later, she and her husband were present at Mass when, during the Consecration, the priest was shot. They fled the country, first to Finland, then to England, and then to Canada.
After the abusive marriage ended, Catherine lived in poverty in Harlem, working menial jobs until she was “discovered” by an agent for the Chautauqua speaking circuit. As a lecturer, she achieved financial stability. Along the way—in 1919—the baroness, “the B” to those who loved her, was received into the Roman Catholic Church and later became a Third Order Franciscan, taking a vow of poverty. All this by the time she was thirty years old.
Longing for Relationship
In spite of her apostolates, writing, and speaking, Catherine’s life was marked by controversy, misunderstanding, rejection, and a profound loneliness. All of this she embraced as a share in Christ’s suffering. She even argued that we need our loneliness because of the ways it can form us. She wrote:
You have to penetrate the mystery of Christ becoming man, and then you will know what loneliness is. It will frighten you and you will try to run from it, but stay. Keep moving into the mystery. As you move in, as the door of love, the door of obedience, the door of surrender, and the door of passionate loving opens, something will happen to you. Your loneliness will completely change.
That is, our loneliness puts us in touch with the deep loneliness that Christ experienced on earth, especially on the cross, and the longing he has for relationship with all of humanity. It is a longing he has for you. This was a conclusion Catherine reached in her practice of silent prayer.
This deeply personal encounter with Christ was something that permeated the ministries she launched, in particular Friendship House and later Madonna House. They were meant as refuges for the whole person, for whomever showed up at their doors. They would serve and celebrate, albeit very simply, the eternal reflection of Christ that each unique person was.
As with many ministries, Doherty’s efforts were sometimes thwarted or challenged. Friendship House, in particular, was beset with struggling factions and differing visions. Many at Friendship House were uncomfortable with Catherine’s second marriage to the journalist Eddie Doherty. Both were free to marry in the Church; Catherine’s first marriage had been annulled. Nevertheless, their marriage was met with some disillusionment from those closest to Catherine.
The Dohertys eventually left Friendship House and established the similarly run Madonna House. In another unusual twist, the couple took vows of celibacy, and a decade later, Eddie Doherty received Holy Orders in the Melkite Rite.
Despite such an unusual path, Catherine’s work led to her meeting such luminaries as Dorothy Day, Pope Pius XII, and Pope John Paul II. She influenced a generation of young people in search of God in the silence, including Thomas Merton.
Catherine’s life was steeped in silence, and it is impossible to miss the correlation between her life of silence and her exceptionally generous life of ministry. Despite the whirlwind of setbacks and obstacles in her life—enough to disorient the steadiest among us—she found a way to practice and advocate for an interior stillness before the Word of God, not as an activity but as a life posture. She wrote:
All this standing still can be done in the midst of the outward noise of daily living and the duties of state in life. For it will bring order into the soul, God’s order, and God’s order will bring tranquility, his own tranquility. And it will bring silence.
It will bring the silence of a lover listening with all his being to heartbeats of his beloved. The silence of a bride, who in utter joy listens to her heart reechoing every word of the beloved. The silence of a mother, so deep and inward, that in it she listens with her whole being to the voice of her children playing in a nearby yard, cognizant without effort of the slightest change in each voice. Hers is a listening silence which takes place while she competently, efficiently and lovingly attends to her daily duties.
This silence will come and take possession of lover, bride, mother, worker, nurse, apostle, priest, nun—if only the face of their soul, in the midst of their daily occupations, is turned to God.
Catherine’s silence was the silence of a lover. It was a passionate, consuming silence that burned like a lonely, brilliant star in the heavens and surely directed many on the road to a deeper relationship with the Lord.
One Book Only
Equally important to silence is one single book: the Bible. And it seems to be one of the most important vehicles for entering into this passionate silence. Doherty asserted that the Bible was the incarnation of the Word and a lifetime isn’t enough in which to read it. It brings one face-to-face with the Word. Read it in deep faith, without analyzing or pursuing it academically. Read it in deep faith and allow it to stay in your heart, that the words there may take root in your heart. And wait for God to come and explain them—which he inevitably does when he finds deep and complete faith.
When Mary was greeted by the angel she didn’t totally understand what the greeting meant or what the result would be. She simply said fiat, “Yes.” Neither did she understand what Christ said to her in the temple after three days of looking for him. Yet, she “put all his words into her heart”. Put them there and keep silent, waiting for God to take those words out of his heart and reveal to you what those words mean.
When we take God’s Word with us and allow him to speak, when we wait in silence, our silence creates room for the voice of the Lord to be learned, to be heard, and to be heeded.
A Silent Heart Is a Loving Heart
Any life of prayer, meditation, and contemplation does not stop with the consolations one may find in one’s “prayer chair.” Rather, the life of prayer leads to a life of action, and it orders the actions that one takes. Catherine’s life was ordered toward the recognition of the absolute sanctity of a person’s soul and the reverence that soul was due. Hospitality, then, was one of the great fruits of her prayer life and the work of the houses that she opened.
She once wrote, “A silent heart is a loving heart and a loving heart is a hospice to the world.” Her heart, her writing, and her life remain places where the weary can come and rest.
Catherine died December 14, 1985. Her cause for canonization was opened in 2000.
This is an excerpt from Love like a Saint by Elizabeth M. Kelly (The Word Among Us Press, 2021), available at www.wau.org/books.