And Then God Said …

by Fr. David May

If you were asked the question: what, more than anything else, has influenced the way you’ve lived your life thus far, what would you answer? In giving some retreats to Madonna House staff over the last year or so, I’ve had occasion to reflect on that question. And now I would like to look at it in some depth beginning with this month’s article.

To put it briefly, it is God’s words to me that have most shaped my life, both interiorly and externally. However, these “words” have all taken place in quite ordinary circumstances, without undue drama or extraordinary phenomena accompanying them.

And I must note right at the beginning that I am not referring here to little daily inspirations or even to God’s will as expressed in the duty of the moment of a given day. Rather, I’m thinking of words that shape, guide and form you for the rest of your life.

The first of these occurred when I was 21, in my fourth year of university, and in the midst of a crisis of faith. This crisis had been intensifying for months and culminated with me praying in my parish church one autumn afternoon.

In the midst of my anguished state I got a clear word: “Leave everything behind and go away.” I was pretty sure “away” meant “far” and “north,” to a place that differed from what I had been accustomed to.

I talked to a priest in the parish who confirmed I was having a crisis, that in the history of the Church this wasn’t all that unusual, and we settled on a Trappist monastery in Massachusetts as a starting place to deal with it.

“Don’t bother to write them,” he counselled. “Just show up and they will receive you for a time.”

It turned out that they expected you to write after all! But Father Breen was right: they did receive me for a time, introduced me to a lady running a prayer house nearby who was a former member of Madonna House in Canada, and before long I was on my way to Canada and Madonna House—both were “away,” “different,” “north,” and Madonna House, conveniently, was Catholic.

Thus, my first “word” from the Lord coincided both with some gospel passages and with the first two words of the Little Mandate of Madonna House: “Arise! Go!” and later, “and follow me.” For the moment, the part about giving all to the poor didn’t apply.

Besides, I was a little irritated that Madonna House, which had copies of the Little Mandate hanging everywhere, had misspelled “compromise” in the line “preach the gospel with your life, without compromise,” eliminating the 2nd “om” and leaving “comprise”! They seem pretty compromised as to spelling, I thought.

Despite this difficulty, I stayed for 5 ½ months, found it helpful, and returned to Maryland wondering if I had a possible vocation to the place.

By the way, this “word” from the Lord continues to shape my world view to this day. Our God is one who can and does speak to us, gives orders, expects to be obeyed—all for our own good.

And yes, I had begun praying around age 16, mainly by reading the Scriptures and sitting quietly in our back yard. I’m sure that, too, was inspired by him.

There was a hunger to know him, but why it was there and why so intense, I didn’t yet know. But I did know I liked it when he had spoken to me, and I was hoping to hear more!

So, I was home for the summer of 1973, finishing off a degree, helping my grandfather exterminate termites now and then, and praying about whether to become a diocesan priest or return to Madonna House.

I visited various priests recommended to me around the diocese. I noticed it was possible to pray and live simply as a diocesan priest, but it was also a very solitary life for the most part, even with more than one man living in the rectory.

On the other hand, there was family to consider and being near or far away from them. It was not easy to decide what to do.

By then it was well into July, or maybe early August. I was anxious for an answer, and then one night I had a dream that clinched it for me.

The backyard of our house bordered a major highway, U.S. Route 50, which runs from Sacramento, California, to Ocean City, Maryland via Washington, D.C. (among other places). In other words, all the major traffic travelling from Baltimore and Washington to the beaches of eastern Maryland went by our house.

Quite often, a car would stop behind our house so that the occupants could change drivers or check something under the hood. In my dream, this is exactly what happened.

A first car stopped. I went out to see if there was something I could do to help. Yes, they were all thirsty, so I went inside and got them all nice cold glasses of lemonade. They were delighted and thanked me, and then travelled on towards Ocean City. And I felt so proud of myself, so happy.

Then a second car stopped. These people were having engine trouble that required a particular kind of wrench. Well, I went to my grandfather’s workshop, found the wrench, brought it to them.They fixed their car and travelled happily onward. And again, I felt so good about myself, and so appreciated.

And then a third car stopped. It was an old car, a real jalopy. The people travelling in it were also very poor. In the backseat of the car was an eight-year-old boy who was crippled and had a bluish complexion. They took him out of the car and put him in a wheelchair so that he could get some fresh air.

What they needed from me was some Epsom salts. So I went to the house and found some and brought it to them. They were very happy with this, and as they got ready to resume their journey, they thanked me.

But when these people thanked me, it was a very different experience from the preceding two cars. Instead of being full of myself, I was humbled by these poor people. I was freed of a certain kind of egotism that goes with being “good” and “helpful.”

At that moment I woke up,sat up in bed and said, “I have my answer! I’m called to serve the poor. I have a vocation to Madonna House. Because Madonna House serves the poor! And I won’t be so full of myself.”

Later that day, I wrote my spiritual director at Madonna House and also the director of the lay men asking if I might become an applicant. They both encouraged me to return, which I did about a month later.

So that was the second word to me. It had to do with leaving everything behind and following the Lord and serving the poor. I became an applicant of Madonna House the following January and made first promises in August 1974.

So strong was the word coming from that dream that I have never since doubted my having a vocation to Madonna House.

But it was only later that I was to learn that there was more to this dream than I had originally thought. Much more.