Reflections by Jerry Webber

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Standing Still, Walking with Humanity

Catherine de Hueck Doherty was a Russian immigrant who fled Communist Russia in 1920. She arrived penniless in Canada, but within ten years through hard and industrious work had grown to have great wealth. A Russian Orthodox Christian, in 1930 she heard the words of Christ: "Sell all that you have and give to the poor, and come, follow me."

In 1930 she sold her possessions and went to live with the poor in the slums of Toronto. With a deep and intense faith in God, and a sincere love and concern for the poor, she made a difference in that very difficult setting. Soon many others, drawn to her faith and her mission, were led to join her. She was invited to New York where she did interracial work in Harlem. She spoke around North America on issues of faith and prayer, racial discrimination and social injustice. Often she was speaking to hostile audiences of Christians who did not want to hear her radical message. She founded Madonna House as a training center for those who would integrate a deep spirituality with significant social work in the world.

In reading some of her memoirs over the last couple of weeks, I was particularly struck by one phrase she consistently used with others who worked alongside her in the ministry to the "little and least." Often she reminded her co-laborers that "we must stand still in order to walk alongside humanity."

"Stand still in order to walk with humanity"? That doesn't make sense at first glance. How does one stand still in order to walk?

For Catherine Doherty it meant that the most crucial preparation for the work of tending the soul of humanity was the work of prayer and listening to God. And for her, prayer and listening could not happen in its most life-shaping form without stillness. "Stand still" is a call to prayer, to silence, to listening.

To many, Catherine Doherty is most well known for bringing to the Christian West the Russian Orthodox notion of the poustinia. In Russian Orthodox Christianity, a poustinia is a room or space that is set aside entirely for prayer. In Russia it would typically include icons, prayer ropes, and candles. But in its simplicity, it would by its very presence be a call to prayer. In a sense, the poustinia would be the womb from which any action or social justice in the world emerges. The poustinia would be the "standing still" place, so that when one emerged from prayer she/he would "walk with humanity," that is, to engage the world in a way that is transforming and right-making.

So Catherine Doherty, a deeply prayerful and spiritually connected woman, made a difference in her world. Today we might speak of how she held together prayer and social justice as "contemplation and action." Her contemplation, her "standing still" became the source or the reservoir from which she "walked with humanity," she acted for God in the world.

She held the tension when many of us want to choose one or the other . . . the people of prayer who want nothing to do with the brokenness of humanity . . . the people of mission who see prayer and listening as a mindless waste of time.

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