Tuesday, June 10, 2014

How I Came To Join Madonna House, Part Three

I should mention here that I am by nature a cautious individual. Risk-averse, even. This has served me relatively well in life—I really haven’t made too many genuinely dumb decisions, because I’m just quite slow in making any decision whatsoever until I’m quite sure that it’s the right decision.

This has served me well… except for when the time came for me to make the decision, the vocational decision, which always, necessarily, and by definition involves a level of risk and a lack of total certainty. I had had the excuse of having debts to pay off, and so had not had to decide definitely about MH in the three years since I had first come. The debts were gone, though, and my cautious, careful, risk-avoiding self was faced with the moment of choice.

So on May 31, 1989, I sat down with my spiritual director. We had talked about all these things in general for a couple of years already. And I eagerly told him about everything that had happened to me in the past four days (see yesterday’s post). I concluded by saying, “So, you know, maybe I could finish my month here, and then go home, quit my job, then come back here again, and then maybe become an applicant next year.”

I looked at him eagerly, certain that that was the perfect plan, prudent, sensible, and generous to boot, and one he would definitely agree with. He looked at me, paused. And said, “Yeah, you could do that. Or you could talk to Albert (the director of the lay men) and ask him to become an applicant next week.”

I nearly fell off my chair. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that you could just show up a week before applicancy began and ask to be received. I had assumed, I guess, that there was some kind of process, procedure, forms to be filled out in triplicate, letters of reference, medical checkups… well, something anyhow. (There is, but MH is emphatically a community that is never bound by its own rules and policies).

Anyhow, I stammered something out to that effect, and he shrugged it off as something of little account. I was absolutely floored, dumbstruck, and virtually incapable of speech at that point, so he simply blessed me, told me to pray about it, and sent me on my way.

The conversation had been no more than 20 minutes. I staggered out of the place, and wandered vaguely across the parking lot. I was in a state—all my cautious, careful nerve endings were exploding—and the refrain in my head was single and simple: what-am-i-gonna-do-what-am-i-gonna-do-what-am-i-gonna-do.

(In my defense, I should point out that actually becoming an applicant on June 7 would be a fairly disruptive event – I would have to quit my job, quit my parish responsibilities, leave my family, including my dying grandmother, rather abruptly—in other words, it would be pretty much like Peter and Andrew dropping their fishing nets and following Jesus.)

At that point my MH training kicked in, and I said, ‘I know what I’m gonna do. I’m going to do veggies!’ The MH men guests do vegetable prep after supper each night for the kitchen. Yeah, the duty of the moment – that’s what I’ll do.

I don’t remember the rest of the evening, which must have passed in a blur. What I do remember is that night, back at the dorm, lying awake in a fuss and fret of anxiety. I think I inadvertently invented planking that night, I was lying there so stiff with fear, positively rigid. It was around midnight, and I was wide awake. Finally, about six hours after the fateful conversation, it occurred to me that perhaps I should try praying about this (besides being cautious and risk-averse, I was also kind of dumb back then). So, right then and there I prayed the following prayer: “Uhhh, so Lord, what do you think? Should I ask to be an applicant or not?”

What happened next is one of the few times in my life I would actually classify as a mystical experience. I believe every serious believer has one or two of them at least in their lifetime; this was one of mine. The moment I asked this question to the Lord, lying there in the darkness of the dorm, the other guests all fast asleep around me, an answer welled up within me, from a depth of my soul that I can not possibly describe. It was an answer that was so strong, so resonant, so triumphant that it should have been audible, should have woken up the whole dorm. Should, in fact, have been accompanied by flourishes of trumpets and organs and perhaps a few hundred angels singing ‘Glory to God in the highest’ or some such thing.

For all that, the answer was one simple word. ‘Yes’. But it was more like ‘YYYYYYYYYEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!’, if you know what I mean. And with that answer, at which I had to laugh a little (‘what was that again Lord? Could you speak up a bit?’), peace came. Anxiety, gone. My whole body, relaxed.

As a result, I had to get up to use the facilities (from the sublime to the ridiculous here, I realize). The dorm I was in had no indoor plumbing, so I had to step outside to do that. It was a cool night, starlit, moonlit, a gentle cool breeze moving across the earth. And as I used the primitive outhouse and walked the few steps back to the dorm, both the reality of the physical poverty of MH and the incredible beauty of the life overwhelmed me. And so, in response to the YES of Jesus, I said yes back at Him.

The rest of the story is simple. I asked Albert a few days later; he said yes (really, my vocation to the place was so obvious to any impartial observer that it was pretty much a no-brainer for him). The three or four days ensuing I spent in a state of anguished anxiety—I think God knew what He was doing by springing all this on me at the last minute, as my nerves would never have stood that kind of thing for much longer.

And on June 7 (as it was in those days), the director of the women’s department, Jean Fox, presented us with the ceremonial cake with a cross on it (the symbol of applicancy—the bitterness of the cross which is sweet once it is embraced), and said ‘Welcome to Madonna House.’ At that moment, my nerves and anxieties vanished and have never returned, and I have not had a single moment’s doubt about my vocation in 25 years, and count my life here to be blessed beyond my wildest imaginings.

And that is how I came to join Madonna House.