Madonna House

A Job Making Beds

by Martha Shepherd

Arlene Becker founded MH Ottawa, our first poustinia house in 1973. But before she was able to do that, something needed to happen in her heart. Catherine Doherty knew that.

Arlene is from Minnesota in the American Midwest—pioneer country. The people who settled there fought through blizzards, worked hard, and were rugged and strong.

Arlene was taught by Irish nuns, and she was the second of eight children. Her mother had always told her: “You’re a Becker; you can do it.”

Arlene succeeded at pretty much everything she did. She was the leader of this and the star of that; she was pretty much front and center all the time.

She became a dietician at Mayo Clinic, one of the most prestigious medical institutions in America, and she was engaged to a Harvard medical student. Then she came to MH to visit her sister!

One day while here, Arlene heard Catherine Doherty talk in the dining room, which Catherine did every day. That particular day she talked about how the world was hungry and thirsty, how it was crying out for God. You can help, Catherine told her listeners. You can lead them to God.

This lit a fire in Arlene, and she was never one to pass up a challenge. And what could be a greater challenge than meeting the great hunger of the age, the hunger for God?

She broke off her engagement with the Harvard medical student, resigned from the Mayo Clinic, and joined Madonna House.

Catherine sent her “to meet the needs of the age” at the family camp we ran at that time in Virginia.

Arlene did housekeeping and maintenance, and she ran programs for children. She was working eighteen hours a day as was everyone else who worked there.

Many of those attending were high-powered families from Washington, and it was a very intense, high energy kind of place. Arlene loved it.

After a few years, Catherine visited that house. The staff were really tired; they’d been working really hard.

So Arlene complained. She said to Catherine, “You know, the work is really hard down here. We’re constantly making beds.”

Catherine didn’t pause; she didn’t blink. She just said, “Obviously, if you are tired, you don’t know how to make beds.”

Bristling, Arlene said, “I can make a bed!”

Catherine said, “Not very well.”

“I make beds well!”

“You could learn to make them better.”

“There’s nothing wrong with the way I make a bed!”

“You need to go out, get a job, learn how to make beds.”

“OK! I will!”

They worked out the ground rules. Arlene had to get on a bus and go someplace where she didn’t know anyone. Being a homing pigeon from the Midwest, she decided on Madison, Wisconsin.

Catherine gave her bus fare and enough money so she wouldn’t starve to death before she got a job.

So Arlene went to Madison, and she rented a dingy little room at the YWCA.

Then she started hitch-hiking around looking for a job making beds. But she couldn’t get one.

This was so depressing. She went around looking for jobs at a hotel all week, but her demeanor was a problem. She exuded an attitude of “I can do it!” and she filled out the applications honestly. No one was going to give a highly presentable Mayo Clinic dietician a job making beds.

After about a week, she caught on to this and started looking at the people who were making beds. She started kind of slouching and looking like, “I really need a job.” And she didn’t give her educational background.

Eventually she got a job in the housekeeping department of a hospital—making beds, cleaning toilets, and doing lots of similar things.

Doing menial work eight hours a day was easy on one level: Arlene was used to working hard. It was boring, but it was not something she couldn’t do.

But all day long as she did it, she was thinking, “How did I get here? What is going on? Why am I doing this?”

Then she’d go back to her dingy, empty room at the Y with its window looking out at a brick wall. There was nothing to do, and she didn’t know anybody in Madison.

This was the first time in her life that she had ever been alone, and it was the first time she didn’t have a challenge. All this opened up a deep well of emptiness inside her.

Yes, a whole new place that she didn’t like very much opened up inside of her—something she’d never been aware of before.

How do you live without a challenge? Who are you when you have no achievement to accomplish?

Then one night, there was a knock at the door.

She opened it, and standing there was an old lady who lived down the hall, a poor elderly lady.

She said to Arlene, “Do you want a piece of apple pie?” and Arlene dissolved into tears.

She said, “Yes, I want a piece of pie!” It wasn’t the pie, obviously. It was the fact that this was the first time she’d been spoken to as a human being for two weeks.

If you work in the housekeeping department of a hospital, people see you as being on a low rung of society. Actually, they don’t see you at all. Nobody sees you even if you are very good looking, which Arlene was.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like. If you’re working in the housekeeping department of a hospital, people don’t notice you.

Nobody did, and nobody spoke to her until this old lady did. At that moment, Arlene experienced what it is to receive compassion.

She realized that, in the eyes of the world, this elderly lady wasn’t considered important either. She would have been seen as just a poor old lady.

But she could give Arlene something she desperately needed. Compassion. You don’t have to be educated or trained or gifted or anything else to give compassion, but it’s the most valuable thing in the world.

That’s the moment in which Arlene’s poustinia vocation was born. That’s the moment when she touched her own emptiness and what it means to receive compassion. That’s a big part of what it is to be in the poustinia.

After about another week—she’d worked there about two weeks—her boss wanted to make her a supervisor! She was in trouble. She had to get herself out of there before she developed a whole new career!

She got herself back on a bus and returned to Madonna House where Catherine Doherty hailed her like a conquering heroine.

Shortly after that, Catherine sent her to Ottawa to open our first poustinia house.

Excerpted from a talk at the Sheptytsky Institute Study Days, July 4, 2009