by Steve Héroux.
My first impression of Albert Osterberger when I came to Madonna House in 1989 was of a simple, boisterous man, somewhat irritating, with a loud, generous laugh, someone quite at home there. Nothing gave me a clue that he was a highly educated engineer and a very capable manager.
And I was surprised when I discovered that he was, in fact, the director general of men. He certainly didn’t fit the sophisticated, arrogant image of authority I had encountered in other places.
Now, twenty years later, contemplating his face as he lay in his casket, I saw the semblance of royalty, which inspired in me a deep sense of awe.
As I continued to gaze on him, I also remembered that during my first years as an applicant and a young staff worker, Albert was often criticized—at times very strongly by both men and women—for his decisions and the way he moved. Was he stubborn? Could he not listen? Did he not care?
It could indeed be a frustrating challenge to try to get your point across to him. Hence, the disapproval he faced was sometimes fierce.
The sheer quantity of such criticism would have caused most of us much obvious pain and distress, yet I cannot ever remember seeing Albert looking burdened or depressed. My memory of him, even under fire, is that of a cheerful, jovial, open man, one who was always welcoming. He must have had great courage and integrity.
I remembered a conversation I had had with a friend a few months before Albert’s death, a conversation in which I referred to him as "master and commander." His face in the coffin certainly reflected this: strength, dignity, and authority—authority in its beauty.
For authority is indeed a beautiful quality—a quality that comes from within and not from what a person says, does, or commands. It is something eliciting a listening ear and inspiring respect and obedience.
Another image I have of Albert is that of a steel rod that would not bend under the pressure of the staff or any other challenges.
Was he just stubborn or insensitive? Perhaps, but I believe that above all he trusted in his own fatherhood. He believed in the grace he had been given to direct and care for this family.
There is no doubt that Albert’s spirit was set on rock, on the solid foundation of obedience to God. This took him to the depths of surrender.
Whatever God’s will was, Albert surrendered to it no matter what the cost. And the surrender of one’s heart and life bears fruit in surprising ways.
I remember more than one frustrating conversation with Albert, a conversation in which he didn’t seem to hear or "get" what I was saying. These conversations used to infuriate me, but then I started to notice something much deeper at work.
As the years went by, my encounters with him became increasingly filled with peace and a deep sense of God’s tenderness. In some way, my issues didn’t matter as much as the fact that my heart was drawn to God’s loving kindness through Albert, who was so tender and so filled with genuine delight in life, in God, in me.
I would walk out of his room with my issues still not "resolved" or even attended to, but comforted in my soul in a manner way beyond what words could convey. The willingness and courage to go on would well up in me again.
As I came to know Albert more over the years, I discovered in him a man of vision and of deep, tender love of God and of the Madonna House family. This love extended to each of his brothers and sisters in the community as well as to his many friends outside Madonna House. As time went by, I saw him becoming more and more a true father.
Albert’s love of God’s will and his surrender to it were indeed of a rare quality. When he was in his late sixties, Alzheimer’s knocked at his door. He opened the door in a way that proclaimed to all that the man who had been such a strong leader was, above all, a disciple.
Alzheimer’s slowly strips a person of everything. Over and over, one piece at a time, one sees one’s most treasured faculties, possessions, and abilities taken away.
Albert’s continuing peace from the early stages of the disease through the end is evidence of the fact that he said yes to all of his losses—surrendering mightily in a way that baffles the mind and awes the heart of the beholder.
His last years were certainly the time of his most powerful witness and work. It was then that the "master and commander" revealed his true strength: meekness and docility.
He literally let himself be led by the hand by whoever held it and told him to sit or to stand or took him here or there. He let that person brush his teeth, dress him, undress him, feed him, wash him.
In the midst of such losses, the image that remains in me of Albert shines and sings. It is that of radiant joy and peace, of a powerfully comforting presence.
One of the latter days when Albert was suffering from Alzheimer’s, I was filled with darkness and shame. It was one of those days when you simply feel repulsive. I was afraid that my inner disposition would disturb Albert, affect him in some way, cause him distress. I knew there was no way to conceal my trouble from his spirit.
But, as I had now been doing every day for a couple of years, I was helping with his care, and it was time to get him ready for bed. And it happened that evening that I had a good chunk of time alone with him.
Albert was serene, trusting, and peaceful as always. Our eyes locked, and I plunged my look into the clarity of his gaze, into the brightness, joy, and delight in his eyes. I said, "Albert, I see heaven. What do you see?"
He did not answer with words, (he could no longer speak) but I knew that although I felt that my dark veil would obstruct his sight, there was something here that was far more profound than my darkness or sin, something far more real.
Albert’s face was radiant and filled with a delight that pierced through the veil, chased away the darkness, and dissolved my shame. I was pure, innocent as a child again. And I knew then that the eyes that were locked into mine were those of the Father.
Living icon of the Father—this was Albert’s vocation and passion. Until his last breath, he fathered a multitude.
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