The Lord Only Knows

by Fr. David May

Twelve years have passed since I began my first term as one of the three “DGs” (directors-general) of Madonna House. It was this time of year that it all began (July 2), and now this July it ends for me, and someone else newly elected by sobornost among the MH priests (Fr. David Linder) takes on this position.

At this juncture in our history, we have decided, along with most communities like ours, that three 4-year terms is enough, and should anyone be a director for that length of time, some kind of a change is better for all concerned. I certainly have no quarrel with that point of view!

Being a DG in Madonna House is a unique way of living out the call to serve that is common to all followers of Jesus Christ. So, what did I learn about service and being a servant in the last 12 years? Or at least, what stands out the most in my mind?

1) Only Jesus was truly self-less.

Therefore he is the ideal, the model, the one to turn to constantly for the graces one needs. Sometimes I have wondered: Lord, didn’t you have any hobbies or personal interests apart from being, officially speaking, God’s Son and our Redeemer? Did you ever have any “free time”?

Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” (John 4:34)

At first this sounded like the original Divine Work Ethic, a bit grim and overly serious. Slowly, ever so slowly, the Lord would give me a glimpse of who his Father was (and is) to him.

Joy. Rest. Peace. Life. Glory. Tenderness. Source of all that is. Culmination of all desire.

I gradually came to see that there can be no selflessness in the Christian sense of that word apart from knowing, with Jesus’ help, God as Father.

In other words, our generous offering is a faint image of who the Father is for all, as Jesus taught us. Selflessness, to the extent we approach it, is not simply our emptiness, but an outpouring of the Father’s fullness through us, having received it first ourselves with awe and wonder.

2) Only Jesus loved people perfectly. Only Jesus loved everybody always.

Only he really knew how to do it according to God’s point of view. At times that is almost easily understood, such as when he suffers the little children to come to him and he blesses them. Or when he, moved with compassion, heals a sick man.

But just try putting the Gospels all together into a nice, neat compendium of Divine Love for Dummies and see how far that gets you!

For the Lord makes impossible demands regularly (for example, in the Sermon on the Mount). He requires everything a person has to offer, life included, and then offers paradise to the barely converted and a full wage with all the benefits to eleventh-hour employees.

He warns of destruction and threatens hell to the hard-hearted (Pharisees and such, but not only them) and then offers himself on the Cross for all, since the Son came not to condemn the world but to save it.

Given all that, what is the loving thing to do as leader in a community like Madonna House? As my grandmother used to say in answer to an unanswerable question: “Son, the Lord only knows!”

When to demand much? When encourage even the tiniest gesture of generosity? When speak the hard truth with firmness, when keep silent for a time, praying and fasting instead?

Grandmom, you had it right. One has to seek the Lord’s Spirit constantly in order to have some glimmer about how to love others as He loved us.

In addition, whatever form it took—baffling or instantly inspiring—Jesus’ motivation was always and forever, by day and by night, to foe and to intimate friend—one and the same: out of love for his brothers and sisters.

How often this is not true of us! Our motivations, sometimes cleverly disguised, are often so self-serving. This becomes especially evident when things don’t go our way. How quickly those reserves of loving care dry up and fade away!

Only the Lord can replace our devious and self-centered hearts with his own Heart. I could think of no other solution for my own situation.

3) To serve in fullness means one must “be a prayer,” as Jesus was.

Actually, according to Catherine’s Constitution (our foundational document for the Madonna House way of life), the person elected DG is supposed to “be a prayer” already!

And who might that be, you ask? Catherine’s answer: “A person who is a prayer loves God and man, serves man while holding the hand of God all the time, and fulfills to the best of their ability the commandment of love, unto the dying for the other person in the ordinary way. That’s a prayer.

“So that her whole life, or his whole life, is a life of service to others, constantly …. Indeed this person lives not, but Christ lives in them ….

“Don’t you see, it’s because we are sinners that we can elect a prayer. Only sinners know what a prayer is. ‘Just people’ don’t.” (from a commentary on Catherine’s Constitution, Dec 1971)

All of this is very close to what St. Paul means when he says in one of his letters to “pray always” (1 Thes 5:17). Yet for Catherine, this prayer must bear fruit in a life that is poured out for the brethren. Some people seem to do this almost naturally. It is so much a part of them to love in imitation of Christ.

A constant crying out to God, a constant being poured out for others—these two become fused into one over time if we follow Christ radically in the way of service.

Twelve years later, I can ask myself: Have I lived this way? Or at least, have I tried to, with my eyes fixed on Jesus, the Leader and Perfecter of our faith? (Hebrews 12:2a) Answer: I don’t know! I seem far from any of this. And yet all of it is burning like a flame within me.

For what greater privilege can there be than serving as Jesus did—at least to some small degree!—and to offer one’s life as a ransom for the many who have strayed, while knowing oneself as the first to be lost and ever in need of the Good Shepherd’s vast store of mercy.