Posted July 17, 2009:
Two Paths to God

by Paulette Curran.

There is a story I heard many years ago. Perhaps it is a Desert Fathers’ story; I don’t remember. It goes like this.

Three monks lived together. One spent his days in prayer, the second was sick, and the third took care of the other two. Their reward, the story-teller said, was equal.

This came to mind when I was considering telling you about the lives of Fr. Sharkey and Elsie in the same issue of Restoration.

Both were members of Madonna House and both died the same day, but there aren’t too many other ways in which they were alike. In their temperaments, their work, their paths to God, they were about as different from one another as two people can be.

Elsie, from the time she was a small child in Edinburgh, Scotland, had wanted to serve God and people as a missionary. She also loved travel and adventure, and both before and after she joined Madonna House, at least some of the time, God gave her both.

When she was nineteen, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, she went to France to work in an orphanage. Had her father not sent her a cable—"War imminent. Come home immediately"—she would have spent the war in France, unable to get home.

After that, she trained as a nurse and eventually came to Canada when this country needed extra nurses during a polio epidemic. It’s in Canada that she came across Madonna House. She already had plans to move on to Australia when she decided to join Madonna House instead.

In Madonna House, besides Canada, she served in Carriacou, West Indies; Haifa and Nazareth, Israel; Yorkshire, England; and Raleigh, North Carolina, in the American South.

Fr. Sharkey was a Dominican priest and college teacher when he joined Madonna House. Within our community, he spent his last 37 years in a life of prayer as a poustinik—37 years in a tiny log cabin in the forest.

Elsie found God through the stuff of life. I don’t think I have ever met anyone who enjoyed the little pleasures of life more than she did. She loved nature, swimming, canoeing, hiking, biking, meals, just about anything going on, and people. Especially, I think, it was in people that she found God.

Fr. Sharkey was an ascetic who found God directly—apart from the world, even apart from much of the ordinary community life of Madonna House. One saying he often quoted to his directees was "Agere contra," Latin for "act against"—your inclinations, your leanings, your coping devices.

Elsie often delighted us with stories of her adventures. Fr. Sharkey virtually never talked about himself.

Both poured out their lives in love, but in very different ways.

Elsie was a nurse, midwife, head of a nursing home (for a short time in Israel where the languages were Hebrew and Arabic—which she did not know at all—and French, which she knew very little) pastoral care worker at a hospital, and volunteer at a hospice for the dying.

Fr. Sharkey spent most of his four days a week "out of poustinia" giving spiritual direction.

Their personal ways of loving, too, were very different. Elsie was affectionate by nature, and God used that. She had a way of making you feel like she was happy to see you and be with you, a way of making you feel loved and respected. No wonder she was able to give so much to her patients.

Fr. Sharkey, on the other hand, was an introvert, intense, and he had a passion for truth. He was reserved by nature and somewhat awkward socially.

In every way he could, Fr. Sharkey gave his all for his directees, and it was obvious at his funeral that they knew he loved them.

There is something else, too. Over the years, it was beautiful to see Fr. Sharkey’s growing gentleness. And in the last two or three years of his life, he came to a particular kind of tenderness, a rare kind—a warm tenderness that is in fact the unconditional loving mercy of God himself.

What breadth there is in MH spirituality that two such different people could find their path and their home within it! And what breadth there is within the Catholic Church!


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