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So how did a woman I never met save my life? It all began in my last year of high school in the mid 1980s.

I was born and raised Catholic, but (like with many teens) it didn’t mean too much to me. I probably would have drifted away from the Church in my college years like so many in my generation did.

The event that prevented that calamity from happening is a story for another day—an encounter with God’s tender fatherly love coming to me in an intimate personal way from the tabernacle. It lasted but a moment; it has permanently shaped my life.

A day or two later, I was sitting on the porch of my family home. It was a beautiful fall day and I was intensely happy, basking in the greater beauty of what had just transpired. Somehow, from some deep recess of my being, a thought emerged: “I have to give my life to God.”

And that took hold of me in a way that would shape my life. Whatever that life was to be, it would have to be for God at some basic level.

This was the actual moment of deep conversion in my life. Experiences come and go. If I hadn’t made that commitment, I would no doubt have forgotten all about God’s tender fatherly love in time and gone my not so merry way.

So there I was, 17 or so, “giving my life to God” without a clue how to go about it.

So where did the life-saving intervention of Catherine Doherty come into the picture? Well … fast forward two and a half years. My teenage word had borne me along to the end of high school and into the seminary. There I first heard of this “crazy” Russian lady in the woods of Ontario—either a saint or a monster, depending who you asked.

My attention wasn’t much on her, as my life began to unravel under the weight of some fairly serious unresolved trauma carried over from childhood, a tremendous lack of spiritual and personal maturity (I was only 18 and in way over my head), and a general pitch of emotional pain that I am glad to say I have never experienced quite to that intensity since.

So seminary was a wash-out—that was sure. And the deep word still haunting my life—I have to give my life to God—began to burn rather as a tormenting question. Namely, how am I to do this?

The only model of dedicated Christian holiness being presented to my eyes was Mother Theresa of Calcutta. If you want to live a serious Christian life, you have to go to India and pick up dying people from the streets. That at least was the message as I heard it.

At age 18, with the wounds and traumas I had, I was a whole lot closer to being one of those dying people than anything else. So that was off the table. But then…

There was nothing else on the table, not that I could see. And by the time I was 19 and heading out of the seminary, I needed my question answered. If I had not received an answer, I would have been in short order heading out of not just the seminary, but the Church, God, and probably life itself, if I may put it delicately. I was not a happy guy.

So, Catherine Doherty. Madonna House. Those around me who cared for me at that time gently steered the fragile craft of my life to this place up in the Ottawa Valley.

There was something about the name, and even something about this woman, that was strangely attractive to me. It just sounded like the next right thing to do, even though I really didn’t know much at all about what it was.

So in May 1986, at age 19, with a heart full of sorrow and pain, I walked into the grounds of our main headquarters.

Catherine had died six months earlier; the community was in the earliest of days of the post-founder era. I knew nothing of that. All I knew was I had come to a good place. I remember turning to my very worried parents who had brought me and saying, “I think I’m going to like it here!”

So when did the life-saving happen? Day two or three.

The men guests did the preparation of vegetables after supper. I’m 19 years old. I’ve never peeled a carrot in my life.

So I peel a carrot. It is rejected by the MH woman in charge. I shrug and peel it again. It is rejected again. Third time is a charm, and off we go. I now know how to peel carrots. But she looked at me and said, with the most delightful little smile, “This is how we love God in Madonna House, Denis.”

Who knew the heavens could open and the Hallelujah Chorus start up in a low-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit, concrete-floored, basement work space all with a small mountain of carrots still to be done before me? But that’s what happened.

The question—which I could hardly even ask properly—was answered for me in a way that not only a poor frightened 19-year-old could understand and live, but anyone anywhere could all the time.

How do we give our life to God? Give him the carrot … and the potato … and the book … the tablecloth…

Give him the beauty of the sunset and the terrors of the night. Give him the person you delight in, and the one who tries you sorely. Give him your closest friend and direst enemy and all in between. And give it to Him by choosing to love and doing the best you can with whatever and whoever is before you.

This is what Catherine brought us, among other things of course, but this happens to be the part that saved my life. “Do little things exceedingly well for love of me,” and Everything is a little thing, because we are little, little people, and not one thing in our life is anything but a little thing to give to God.

All we have is the moment in front of us and what it holds. The only life we have to live and to give is the life we are living at this precise instant, and the only way to give it to God is to love right now.

So … uhh … thanks Catherine Doherty. I really think I’d be long dead without you, you know. Instead, I get to spend every day of my life splitting wood and washing dishes, listening to people, writing articles and talks, celebrating the sacraments – day in and day out. It’s a life of glory clothed in the mundane and the commonplace. And you know what—while the details differ, so do we all. Alleluia!