The Gift of Long Distance Friendship
Catherine Doherty and Dorothy Day at the Lay Congress in Rome, Fall 1957 (Source)
When I left the city I’d been living in for almost five years to return to my parents' house during the pandemic, there was still snow on the ground. My friends and I said a rushed goodbye, keeping an unfamiliar and awkward distance, as we all made hurried plans to brace for the unknown. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to some of them. Now, the cicadas make their voices heard before breakfast, July is more than half over, and I haven’t seen anyone I’m not directly related to since March.
Although things have been opening up where I live, and the COVID-19 infection rate is dropping, my close friends live in different cities. We’re fortunate to have access to the internet, but we all know it’s not the same. Staring at floating heads on a screen offers only a fraction of the life-giving balm of the presence of a dear friend.
When the pandemic first started, like many of us, I concentrated my hope on when things would go back to normal. I looked forward to the day I could be near my friends again, and we could do all the things we love to do together – coffee shop dates, morning mass, staying up late chatting over a glass of wine. I had the impression that the world had paused, and we simply had to hold tight until we could all go about our lives again.
As time wore on, it became clear that it isn't going to happen like this. In the next few months, my friends and I are moving to new cities and starting new, separate adventures – some even embarking on their vocations. We won’t be going back to our university town, living a few doors down from one another; free for a cup of tea, or study date at a moment's notice. Our friendships are going to be long distance for the foreseeable future.
Our changing reality makes my heart ache, but it is all part of the path to heaven. And as St. Catherine of Siena said (according to Dorothy Day in her book On Pilgrimage), “The path to heaven lies through heaven, and all the way to heaven is heaven." Heaven is all around us, but sometimes we lose sight of it. And sometimes, heaven comes to us in the form of a friend.
For my birthday, only weeks before the pandemic shut down our country, I received a book called Comrades Stumbling Along: The Friendship of Catherine de Hueck Doherty and Dorothy Day as Revealed through Their Letters. Compiled and annotated by Fr. Robert Wild, following their almost fifty-year friendship, this book was a timely comfort.
Catherine and Dorothy only saw each other in person on a handful of occasions. They spent most of their time in separate countries, trying to follow the call that God had placed on their hearts. Even apart, their friendship endured, because it was based in a mutual desire to do the will of God. And as much as their friendship was holy, it was remarkably human. Reading their letters, I was surprised and comforted by how often I saw my own friendships reflected here.
Catherine’s letters were often dramatic and verbose, while Dorothy’s letters were down to earth and practical. Catherine constantly showered affection on her dear friend, while, at times, it seems that Dorothy, reserved and level-headed, merely endured it. They had squabbles and talked it out. They helped each other out in whatever way they could; at one point they sent a five-dollar bill back and forth until one of them was able to swallow her pride and use it, though they both sorely needed it. Their headstrong and often opposing personalities drew them closer and to greater holiness.
These holy women were vulnerable with one another, reaching out when things were difficult, knowing that their fears would land in safe and gentle hands. I recognized myself in Catherine's note at the end of one of her longwinded letters: "As you notice, I am somewhat in the dumps and so I turn to you. But it wouldn’t do, would it, that the darkness in my soul should blot the sunshine out in yours, so pray for me."
Dorothy responds by calling Catherine to a higher hope, reminding her that Christ called the poor and the unprofitable to be His servants and disciples when He walked the Earth. She says, "Let us think only in terms of our own selves and God and not worry about anyone else… Why should we expect to be anything else but unprofitable servants? We simply have to leave things in God’s hands." In the same letter, she shares her own struggles, and returns the request for prayers.
Prayer. This was the cornerstone of their friendship. In each of their letters, they ask the other to pray for them. Prayer, mutual admiration, sharing in sorrow, and allowing the other to uplift her with a holy hope; together, they shared in the pain of the crucified Christ on the heavenly road to Heaven.
In an article after Dorothy Day's death, Catherine writes, "Periodically, we would have a good cry into our coffee cups. We really cried, I mean honest, big tears… We had had it! But Dorothy and I would always rally; and I think rallying is a sign of perseverance."
These women drew strength from one another to rise up and continue following Christ to Heaven, even in the face of devastation and weakness. They cried openly, but they cried together, and continued stumbling along. Their sisterly love, a true gift from God, fueled their perseverance. This holy friendship is biblical even, for, "If they fall, one will lift the other up" (Ecclesiastes 4:10).
Catherine and Dorothy are a perfect example of how, as we draw closer to God, and align ourselves with His call, sometimes the evils of the world will grate on us and weigh us down. They don't flinch from this reality, but remind each other that, though the road to Heaven is not easy, it is heavenly. They help each other see God in this, the cross in this. They help each other see the Love in this. Even miles apart, “My intercessor is my friend as my eyes pour out tears to God; on behalf of a man he pleads with God as one pleads for a friend” (Job 16:20-21).
As friends, we are called to stumble along this heavenly road together. We can draw on each other’s strength, call each other to greater holiness, and pray for the other when they are hurting. As friends, we remind each other of our worth in the sight of God.
So, call your friends. And if you are yearning for the presence of a friend in this moment, turn to Christ for guidance. I know from experience that He will lead you to a friend whose heart can gently meet your heart. And in the meantime, take this letter from Catherine to Dorothy as a letter from one dear friend to another:
Just heard [...] that you had a little set-back. I am sorry to hear it, but I know that you are going to take good care of yourself, not because of yourself but because of all of us. We need you to ‘hang around’ a little more in this funny world where people like you are one in a million.
Just because you ARE, I take courage.
With much love, Catherine