Nothing to Complain About, But Miserable – Part 4

by Father David May

This the fourth article in a series recounting how God’s “words” to me have guided and shaped my life. At this point when I had been living on our Madonna House farm for three years, the call to the priesthood seemed suddenly to take on an urgency. The year was 1977.

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After beginning to get to know my father and his side of the family, I returned to Madonna House and to our farm to resume life as the cheesemaker. But for reasons I didn’t quite understand, an interior pressure started building up within me to begin a more formal preparation for the priesthood.

I had been in promises less than three years, and life at the farm was good. I had nothing to complain about, and yet I was miserable. So, I wrote Catherine about my experience and my desire to resume studies. She wrote me by hand a little poetic reflection which I’ve kept ever since:

“Peace and charity. He who desires to follow the Desired One must steep himself in little things, like planing a board well, like spending hours to make a rocking chair or a table. For 30 long years, so they said, that’s all Christ did, except in childhood he just gathered what St. Joseph did not need.…

“Yes, for 30 years, they said, he was just a carpenter. Consider who he was, and keep singing, dancing that you, too, can do tiny small things. Love, B.”

While I appreciated greatly what Catherine had written me and truly took it to heart, the restlessness inside continued to trouble me. This, despite that beautiful word from our foundress, and regular communication with my spiritual director.

On Holy Saturday morning, I lay in bed fully awake at 4 a.m. I was still troubled, and I couldn’t sleep. Suddenly, it was as if an angel passed by my bed and pierced me with a word from the Lord, though I saw nothing and did not hear any voice.

But what I heard clearly and distinctly in my heart was the following. “A priest must occupy the lowest place; he must want nothing for himself, not even the priesthood.”

I lay in bed for a time, kind of stunned at what had just happened. I felt pierced to the core, joyful and confused all at once. I couldn’t stand just lying there, and since I was off that day, I walked the 10 km. (6.2 miles) or so miles from the farm to Madonna House.

In less than two hours, I was banging on the poustinia door of my still-sleeping spiritual director. I recounted breathlessly what had just happened, and asked if this was from God or not!

After he had absorbed my words and my presence for a few moments, he told me that yes, it was from the Lord and to be at peace about it, putting all back into God’s hands.

I tried to do that over the Easter days off, but mostly all I could do was sit around kind of stunned, so powerful was this experience. Even to this day, those words are burning in my heart. Whether or not I have lived them out as a priest, God alone can judge, but burning inside me, they are.

More purification and spiritual darkness followed that summer, until I was able to surrender the whole question of the seminary back into the hands of the Lord.

By late summer I was truly at peace once again. Within days, while I was picking potato beetles off the potato plants, I received from the director of priests, Fr. Callahan, a phone call telling me I had an interview at the seminary the next morning and to prepare myself accordingly.

Within a few weeks I was taking up residence in a Canadian city as a member of the first-year theology class of 1977.

It was a time of upheaval in the Church. There were three popes in little more than a year, culminating in the election of John Paul II in October 1978. He would try to steer the universal Church back to the true spirit of Vatican II that the Council fathers had originally intended.

My seminary was a mix of sharing in that exalted goal and in opposing it with a more “modern” spirit at odds with the Magisterium in many respects and teaching a critical spirit of all things Roman.

I took Pope John Paul as my guiding light, along with a couple of great theologians of similar stature—Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac—both steeped in the writings of the early Church Fathers.

I also had the immense advantage of coming from a community of deep Catholic faith in Combermere, as well as the example of loving and faith-filled dedication my mother had given us kids. All of this exceeded by far in attractiveness and spiritual power certain intellectual trends at the university.

While during the school year I was learning many things about the Faith and about the state of the Church at that time, during summer break I would return to Madonna House.

One summer I was sent to Marian Centre, our house in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; the next, I went to the Casa de Nuestra Senora in Winslow, Arizona. In each place I received a “word” that would stand me in good stead for the rest of my life.

In Edmonton, where we serve the street people, I was taking a day for poustinia and was reading John 15 about the vine and the branches. I got to the line at 15:5 where Jesus says without me you can do nothing.

Once again I was immobilized by the word of God, and simply lay in bed, my Bible opened at that page, for some time. I don’t remember any particular context for that word at that time, but it still reverberates within me as a word ever relevant to every situation.

The following year (1980) at the Casa was quite a different experience, as I did a lot of catechetical work (and play!) with the children of our neighborhood.

One little orphan fellow particularly won my heart, but the day finally came in August when I had to return to Canada. I said good-bye to Bobby and put him down in the alley behind our house.

I felt like I was abandoning him back to the streets, but later I understood that by obeying God in this, I was not leaving Bobby for lost but rather giving him back to God.

I understood that this is the nature of celibate love—it receives warmly and chastely the one God gives you to love and care for, but at some moment you must give that person back to the Lord. Well, really you must give him back at every moment.

Your great gift of love is not in the holding close (so to speak) but in the giving back to the Lord and letting go…over and over and over. This cuts so deep into one’s natural affections and inclinations, but chaste love of this kind is a tremendous channel of divine grace and spiritual fruitfulness.

By the next year I was ready for ordination to the priesthood, but something happened on my retreat beforehand that must wait for another article.

Soon, words from the Lord of the kind I’ve been writing about would largely cease. I learned that I had been given what I needed to serve God’s people (and for my own salvation!), and now the challenge would be to surrender to the Holy Spirit so as to live from those words in the coming years.

to be continued