There is a scene from Servant of God Catherine Doherty’s life that keeps coming to mind. She and her first husband had just escaped to England in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution and World War I. They were aristocrats and nearly starved to death at the hands of the Finnish Red Guards at Merri-Lokki. She eventually became a nurse’s aide with the British Red Cross during World War I and he became an officer. They went from one difficulty to another until they were able to move to England.
While in England, they lived in abject poverty. Her husband was ill and suffering shell shock. It is here that Echo Lewis’, Victorious Exile: The Unexpected Destiny of Katya Kolyschkine, begins to tell the story of Catherine Doherty’s extraordinary life.
Back home in Russia, everybody had called Katya the strong one. But now, constant hunger made her weak and dizzy. She stumbled out of the British Red Cross building. Damp tendrils of her long blonde hair escaped from the knot piled on top of her head and clung to her temples. She shivered in the chill of London’s autumn evening air.
Katya earned one shilling for sitting all day at a treadle machine stitching underwear for soldiers. For the reward of a second shilling, she had started doing overtime. Today, she had made it to the end only by sheer will power.
She trudged toward the nearest bus stop. Before she could reach it, the dizziness overtook her. She braced herself against the wall of a perfumery. If she ate the hardboiled egg she’d saved from lunch, she might make it all the way to the YMCA,
No. Boris needed the egg more than she did.
A short while into the book, the reader discovers that Boris was both abusive and unfaithful to her until she eventually sought an annulment after they moved to Canada. To sacrifice to such an extent for someone who was abusive and who made life utterly miserably was to live a truly heroic charity that was in the image of Christ.
Worn down by hunger and utter exhaustion, it would be understandable for her to eat the egg in order to make it home from work and to keep working for the two of them. Instead, she pushed through and delivered the egg to her sick, but also harsh and controlling husband. This image of her heroic charity has stayed with me.
How many times do we fail to love our own families who actually treat us well? I look at my own life and see how often I am selfish, impatient, lazy, and uncharitable towards my husband and my daughter. To remember the example of Catherine walking home clutching an egg for a man who made her life miserable is a witness to me of the power of Christian love. It is a supernatural love that goes beyond self and moves towards the Divine. We are called to lay down our lives for others, but in our sinfulness we forget how radical of a calling this is for each one of us.
I thought about this scene again this past weekend as I sat across the table from my husband at a small local bistro to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. I looked at the menu and knew that I could have ordered anything I wanted to. We traditionally don’t buy gifts for one another because we splurge on one really nice dinner a year as our gift to celebrate our anniversary.
I was originally going to order the most expensive item on the menu—which was a crab cake dinner—but as I sat staring at the price, I realized that I didn’t want it. I didn’t want an expensive meal. I then looked at the sandwich menu and chose the vegetarian sandwich. I decided to offer up my crab cake meal to God for an intention that shall remain private.
When my sandwich arrived—after we shared an appetizer—I was filled with great joy and peace. It was the best vegetarian sandwich I have ever eaten and I was filled with the love of God. This was a great grace from Him because I am weak and I normally would have ordered the crab dinner, but I knew my sacrifice was needed, so I chose to give up my meal as a small offering for someone else.
We often think of and experience sacrifice as painful. Most of us struggle with fasting and penances. I know I do! To a certain extent, they need to be difficult in order to help us grow spiritually. They should hurt in some way. The secret in the spiritual life is, however, that the more we are willing to sacrifice for others, the freer we become.
Catherine’s repeated sacrifices helped free her from the despair of her marriage. The initial pain of the sacrifice eventually gives way to a peace and joy that can only come from God. This requires perseverance, discipline, and dedication, but it comes in time. The saints are all witnesses to this truth.
This is especially true when we offer reparations and penances for others who have hurt us. Doing so leads us to healing and forgiveness. We are set free from resentment and bitterness because we choose to love as Christ loved us from the Cross. It is why reparations are essential in the renewal of the Church. It is why they are essential for our own healing in response to the wounds people cause us. We truly learn to love when we can sacrifice for someone who has betrayed, hurt, or persecuted us.
Even though Catherine needed food just as much as her husband, she sought to sacrifice everything. She gave it all back to God. She was radically united to Christ Crucified on the Cross, even if she was too exhausted from malnutrition to experience it tangibly.
It doesn’t mean she didn’t struggle. She did, but she persevered. The love she showed her abusive husband had the power to transform. Christ used her great love to lead her to become the foundress of multiple organizations, including her crown jewel: Madonna House.
We often don’t think that smaller sacrifices such as Catherine’s giving the egg to her husband, or even mine, do much good, but in the grand scheme of God’s plan they are life-changing. We become conduits of God’s divine grace when we seek to sacrifice for others. He pours out much needed graces in places we cannot see and that we will only know about in the next life.
I have watched my own spiritual sacrifices at work in those around me. Christ has shown me the power of redemptive suffering and sacrificial offerings. This can be willing a sacrifice of our own choosing or it can be offering up suffering—whether physical, mental, or spiritual—for others. It is a spiritual powerhouse that we tend to avoid or ignore.
Catherine’s example shows us the extraordinary love we are called to. She shows us how we need to love our own families, as well as those who mistreat us. She shows us the power of repeated sacrifices. It is a truly Christ-like love. Her example also reveals to us how Christ works in the supernatural order through our sacrifices. Each sacrifice and self-emptying act she offered to God, led to the graces she needed on the path He asked her to trod. In so doing, she impacted thousands of lives.
We too must embrace the calling to sacrifice for others within our vocations, but also other people in the world. We are called to love all of our neighbors, including the people who deeply hurt us. We are to cooperate in Christ’s redemptive work for the salvation of souls. In uncertain times like these, now is a good time to foster a greater love of redemptive suffering and sacrificial offerings to God on behalf of others. Through them God will release great graces throughout the world.