The Truth about Thomas Merton’s Spiritual Mother




“Baloney!” were the first words Thomas Merton heard her say.


The year was 1941 and Merton was teaching at St. Bonaventure University. The “Baroness,” as she was called in those times, Catherine de Hueck, was speaking on campus about the Catholic Church’s failure to work for racial equality.


Merton tells the story in his autobiography:


I was walking around the football field, as usual, in the dark. The Alumni Hall was full of lights. There was some speaker there. I knew Baroness de Hueck, who was working among the Negroes in Harlem, was going to speak. When I stepped in to the room there was a woman standing on the stage. As soon as I came in the door, the impression she was making on that room full of nuns and clerics and priests and various laypeople pervaded the place with such power that it nearly knocked me back down towards the stairs which I had just ascended. She had a strong voice, and strong convictions, and strong things to say. I realized it was the Baroness.


This wouldn’t be the last time Catherine’s preaching nearly knocked someone down the stairs. With a frankness that belied her Eastern roots, Catherine became a popular female preacher —one that had little patience for inaction.


Her intensity was so striking to the young Merton that he asked her if he could come visit her Friendship House in Harlem. Who was this fierce woman?



Best Kept Secret


I’m not sure why no one knows about Catherine.


In the early 20th century, she was widely known in Christian circles.


According to many scholars, it is thanks to her, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, that the contemplative life is known in Western Christianity. (Even Thomas Keating would have known about her.)


She was one of the first white women to work for racial justice for the Black population in Harlem, New York, in the 1930’s and 40’s. Decades before the civil rights movement.


And, it is through her guidance that a young Tom Merton discerned his vocation to the Trappist monastery.


Why does no one know who she is?


I’ve spoken to dozens of spiritual directors, contemplative teachers, and writers, and almost no one knows of Catherine de Hueck Doherty.


But her fiery and feisty life is inspirational in the least–and life-altering at best.


What made her so potent that nearly bowled Merton over?


Go and stand up and tell everybody the tiniest bit of truth God has sent you... Yes, you have what it takes. The shaft of God’s light is striking you straight in the face. For a while you are a little blinded by it, but soon you will learn to see fully in his light. - Catherine Doherty to Thomas Merton


A Spiritual Mother


Merton visited Catherine at the Friendship House the following day. He spends 8 pages of his autobiography describing his time there. They ate dinner with the motley crew gathered in that Harlem community. Tom was struck not only at the grave injustices the neighborhood experienced, but also at the radical lifestyle of the Friendship House volunteers. He writes:


For my own part, I knew it was good for me to be there, and so for two or three weeks I came down every night and ate dinner with the little community. After that, for two or three hours, I devoted myself to the task of what was euphemistically called ‘looking after the cubs.’ [...]

I felt for Friendship House a little of the nostalgia I had felt for Gethsemani [referring to his Holy Week retreat]. No, it was all too evident: I needed this support, this nearness of those who really loved Christ so much they seemed to see Him.


As Tom continued to volunteer, Catherine became more and more of an anam cara, or soul friend. In the language of the desert mothers and fathers, she became a spiritual mother to him. They wrote long letters back and forth: Tom, the 26 year old convert, and Catherine, the 46 year old Russian immigrant.


They begin to dialogue about his vocation. Catherine, ever potent, would call him straight on it. Merton recalls:


Then the Baroness said, ‘Tom, are you thinking of becoming a priest? People who ask all the questions you asked me in those letters usually want to become priests.’ Her words turned the knife in that old wound [of his thinking of the priesthood]. ‘Oh, no, I have no vocation to the priesthood.’


Not sure if he was ready to admit this to himself, Tom delayed. But he was flabbergasted by the impact Catherine was having not only among the poor, but with the male priests and bishops.


Catherine de Hueck Doherty, called "the Baroness," in the Friendship House in Harlem.
Catherine de Hueck Doherty, called "the Baroness," in the Friendship House in Harlem.

Here she was, an immigrant woman with a thick Russian accent, preaching to the clergy. Tom writes:

We were in a restaurant having something to eat, and the Baroness was talking about priests, and about the spiritual life and gratitude... She had made what seemed to me to be certainly a good point. But I suddenly noticed that it had struck the two Friars like a bombshell.


Then I realized what was going on. She was preaching to them. Her visit to St. Bonaventure’s was to be, for them and the Seminarians and the rest who heard her, a kind of a mission, or a retreat. I had not grasped, before, how much this was part of her work; priests and religious had become, indirectly, almost as important a mission field for her as Harlem…


What was it that she had to offer them that they did not already possess? One thing: she was full of the love of God; and prayer and sacrifice and total, uncompromising poverty had filled her soul with something which, it seemed, these two men had often looked for in vain in the dry and conventional and merely learned retreats that fell to their lot. And I could see that they were drawn to her by the tremendous spiritual vitality of the grace that was in her, a vitality which brought with it a genuine and lasting inspiration, because it put their souls in contact with God as a living reality. And that reality, that contact, is something which we all need: and one of the ways in which it has been decreed that we should arrive at it, is by hearing one another talk about God. Fides ex auditu. And it is no novelty for God to raise up saints who are not priests to preach to those who are priests — witness the Baroness’s namesake, Catherine of Siena.

From all accounts, it seems clear that Catherine put not only the priests, but also Tom’s soul “in contact with God as a living reality.” Her fire, her love, her obedience to the gospel to give away all she had and live with the poor–who was living in this way? Were lay people? Were the clergy?


Merton was a recent convert. And while he had been doing a lot of reading about Catholicism - the writings of the saints and mystics in particular - at this point he had not met anyone living the gospel quite so radically.


They were drawn to her by the tremendous spiritual vitality of the grace that was in her... [she] put their souls in contact with God as a living reality. - Thomas Merton, writing about Catherine Doherty

Catherine showed Merton that it was possible to live in this way. And not just for medieval saints! Sanctity was part of the grittiness of our lives, mixed up with scrubbing toilets and stopping to learn your neighbor’s name.


“Never separate sainthood from ordinary living,” she wrote to Tom. “For, after all, what is it fundamentally but doing everyday things extremely well.”


Catherine was also instrumental in encouraging Merton’s vocation to write. As he pondered his possibilities for the future, Catherine had no doubts about his gift for writing:


Go and stand up and tell everybody the tiniest bit of truth God has sent you. You must, for if that grain of wheat is to grow in the hidden soil of souls, you have to plant it there. If writing is your vocation, go ahead and write.


Yes, you have what it takes. You have the right approach. The shaft of God’s light is striking you straight in the face. For a while you are a little blinded by it, but soon you will learn to see fully in his light.


And then Tom, oh Tom, you will become so very small that your writing will be like fire; and like sparks of the Holy Ghost, lighting little torches everywhere to illuminate our terrific modern darkness. Do pray so very hard now. That is the way to write these fiery, startling words.



A Woman Forgotten by Time


Indeed, it was Tom, and not Catherine, whose “fiery and startling words” would be remembered by the millions.


Both of them would later enter into worlds of silence. But in some ways, the effect this had on their legacy was completely opposite.


Tom made his decision to enter the Trappist monastery while he was on retreat with Friendship House.


Though he grappled with the idea of joining Catherine in Harlem, he couldn’t stop thinking about the monks of Gethsemane.


He wrote:

There is no question: I can’t stay at Saint Bonaventure anymore; I must go and find Christ where He really is — in real poverty and real sacrifice.


But then, what about Friendship House: it has this one great thing: it is real poverty, it is real sacrifice; it is real love of Christ in the poor. It is holy. The work is holy. The Baroness is a saint. Harlem is full of saints. And in Harlem there is no doubt a possibility even of martyrdom, in which my sins would all vanish at once and I would be certain of pleasing God, and coming to Him as His child, spotless, clean and holy and a saint!”


He realized that his path to sainthood was leading him to the Trappists. When he entered, he thought he would be giving up writing, and therefore dedicated his “last” book to the Friendship House. All the proceeds of the book sale were dedicated to them.


Of course, we all know how well his “giving up writing” went!


Catherine, on the other hand, would end up founding a new kind of community in the untamed backwoods of Canada. She, who had been a popular speaker and preacher (for clergy, in the Chautauqua circuit, even around Europe), who had done so much work for racial equality, and had become a lightning rod for change in the Catholic Church–went off to Canada to find silence and solitude.


There, she introduced people to the Russian concept of poustinia, literally meaning desert. She taught them how to meditate. She introduced lay people (and clergy!) to the practice of silent retreats and hermitages. She began to unravel the mysteries of Russian spirituality, that so reveres the poor and the “fools.”


While Tom nestled into his ancient community, Catherine began a new one, replete with lay people.


While Tom became increasingly well known, Catherine began to fade from memory.


Yet both had fiery and startling teachings about the contemplative and the active life.


And I believe it is time Catherine made a comeback.


Here are four reasons why. (Video: Revealed: Little Known Russian Mystic)


Curious to learn more?


Find a life summary, masterclass, compendium of excerpts, and recommended reading list on Catherine and more at The Women Mystics School.


Had you heard of Catherine? Where did you first learn about her?



 

Kelly Deutsch specializes in audacity. Big dreams, fierce desires, restless hearts. When seekers are hungry for unspeakably more, she offers the space to explore contemplative depths and figure out where they fit in the vast spiritual landscape. She speaks and writes about divine intimacy, emotional intelligence, John of the Cross, trauma-informed spiritual practice, and neuropsychology. Kelly offers spiritual direction, coaching, contemplative cohorts, and retreats. She is the bestselling author of Spiritual Wanderlust: The Field Guide to Deep Desire. When she isn’t exploring the interior life, you might find her wandering under Oregonian skies or devouring red curry.




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