Neat, Clean, Punctual, with a Good Sense of Humor

by Fr. David May

A dream about serving the poor had led me to join Madonna House, and in subsequent years, it continued to work on me, as the following narrative will show.

Just before making first promises in the summer of 1974, I was transferred to St. Benedict’s Acres, our farm, where I became the cheese-maker.

In those days virtually all the food processing that accompanies our harvest was done in or near the cheese house. So, there were lots of people around my particular workplace from late June till the harvest was finished in late October.

One of that multitude, a young lady from Québec, asked me how I knew Madonna House was my vocation. It was 1975 or 1976.

So, I proceeded to tell her about my dream of serving the poor, including describing the little crippled boy with bluish complexion in the backseat of the car.

Suddenly, I had a revelation. I realized for the first time that the little boy was me!

Now, looking back from the vantage point of many years, I guess I had done just enough living in the community by then to begin to be more aware of my own poverty.

At first, I had been quick to notice the faults of others, their “immaturity” and the like. But as the days and months passed, I had also begun to realize my own collection of shortcomings and signs of immaturity.

There was the day, for example, when I asked one of the women staff why a certain brother of mine in the community was so immature, actually having temper tantrums at the age of 43!

At home I had learned that such behavior was not to be tolerated after the age of three! Why couldn’t that guy just get his act together, I asked.

To which she replied, “Oh, he has made more progress here than any of the rest of us! You see, X came off the streets and became a volunteer in one of our field houses. An orphan himself, he was attracted to the Madonna House family, asked to join, and eventually was accepted.

“He has come a long, long way in both dedication and prayer, more than any of the rest of us, as far as I can see.”

I was stunned. But it wasn’t long before I began to see that what she told me about X was true. He was indeed a man of prayer, committed to serving as he was able, and … always having a hard time. His ironic description of a relatively good day was “not too hideous!”

It wasn’t long before he and I became good friends, which was helpful as we were roommates together at the farm. I began to see that I was not different from my brother.

For example, I noticed that I was often irritated at the faults of others. None of them compared to me—dedicated, working long hours, neat, clean, punctual, and with good sense of humor(!). So I would think.

Then I realized that a lot of these thoughts were really an expression of my irritability and anger. This was confirmed one night in the farm chapel, where I was “praying” and thinking of a way to correct a noisy brother downstairs. Suddenly, I felt the Lord speak to my heart: “At least he doesn’t judge anyone!”

For some reason I was most easily angered by the perceived faults or feelings of men about my father’s age.

Now the strange thing was that I had not seen my father for over 18 years. My parents separated when I was seven, and I had never seen or heard from my father after that separation.

My sister and I were raised in my mother’s side of the family, and we had only minimal contact with the other side and none with my dad.

But after I had been in Canada for a time, one of those Canadian relatives of mine told me that if I were interested, he could arrange a meeting with my father down near the U.S. border, in Windsor, Ontario.

My dad was still living in Detroit, where he had grown up, and was willing to meet me in Windsor. Was I interested?

That was a question I would not have been able to answer in the affirmative if something else had not happened before. And that something else was a tremendous grace from the Lord.

It had to do with my anger, with my secret or not-so-secret anger at God himself for permitting the innocent to suffer. Every child has a story to tell, and mine is not that different from any other, and less painful than many.

I knew a lot of love growing up; I had a loving mother, grandparents, and even great-grandparents.

I have wonderful memories from childhood of summer days at the Atlantic seashore, playing in the warm waters off the coast of Maryland, lying on the beach, building sandcastles, and eating endless numbers of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

There was also the deep pain that some children carry from the suffering they have seen around them, and I was one of those.

These experiences raised many questions for me about the love of God. If God cared, why did he permit—not only my own suffering but the suffering of so many throughout the ages? Living community life had somehow succeeded in stirring up these questions.

One winter’s night I spent a couple of hours alone in the cheese house reading the book of Job. He too had had his questions about God’s ways. But I didn’t find a real resolution there, so I went to bed because I had to get up early the next day to make cheese.

Next morning, in the dark of the February cold, I was getting dressed at about 5:30 when suddenly four words came to my mind, as if from nowhere: I too was innocent!

Those four little words pierced me deeply. I knew they weren’t coming from me, but from beyond me. All the anger I had been carrying, the bitterness, the sense of being abandoned, and all the rest dropped away like an old cloak.

So, I proceeded to go out to the cheese house and make cheese. But it being winter, I was alone all day. No one was asking me questions.

There was no one to talk to but God. And while I did so, in my imagination I saw his face. His eyes were looking into mine as if we were at the same height. From that I surmised that I was crucified with him, near him, like one of the thieves in the Gospel story.

Unlike my eyes, which had been filled with bitterness, fear, and anger, his were filled with compassion, acceptance, peace, and the assurance of a king winning a victory.

I knew he was offering what was in his eyes in exchange for what had been in mine. He alone was great enough to take on my sin and heal me.

Fortified by this gift, I was strengthened to reply in the positive to my relative’s query about meeting with my father. I’ll tell that story next.

For the beginning of this story, see “And Then God Said …” in the March 2020 issue: