Photo: Dan Valenti
The beautiful women of the Member Services Department at the Marian Helpers Center on Eden Hill, Stockbridge, Mass. — from left, Beth, Linda, Christine, Sandra, Theresa, Gina, and Mercy — put a worried scribe at ease when they "mothered" him into pitching in to help the department. The day included a touching example of humble generosity.
By Dan Valenti (Jun 23, 2009)
The envelope addressed to "Fr. Joseph, MIC" had been slit open, just as the others in the pile. I emptied the contents: a short note from a woman apologizing that all she could spare was one dollar in support of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.
The dollar bill was enclosed in a homemade white envelope, crafted from a piece of 8.5"x11" paper, taped on all sides so that it could not escape. As I took the cutter across the tape seals, I had a feeling of awe. From the slits in the side, I could feel the Gospel come to life.
Clearly, the woman had made a gift from her poverty and not from her excess, calling to mind the widow's two coins. Her dollar rose in magnificence as I pondered what a sacrifice it must have been.
She had attached a hand-written note on a smaller piece of paper. The script belied a once-beautiful penmanship that had been rendered shaky by advanced age:
Dear Father Joseph,
I am sorry that I cannot give more than this offering, but it is truly all I can spare. I am a widow living on a fixed income. I have a great faith in The Divine Mercy and in Our Lady, and I want to make this offering. Please forgive my handwriting, as arthritis has set in and it is hard for me even to grip the pen.
I pray that some good can come of this, and I thank God every day for the wonderful priests and brothers [of the Marians]. There are many more people less fortunate than I am due only to the blessings the Lord has given me.
With that, she signed her name, unknowingly giving me an unforgettable lesson in humility, generosity, and love.
Volunteering to Help
I came across this letter and offering as part of my fill-in stint with the Member Services Department at the Marian Helpers Center. Member Services takes care of the requests sent in by the nearly two million members of the Association of Marian Helpers.
Due to short staffing and a backlog of incoming mail, other departments at the Marian Helpers Center were asked to volunteer to open envelopes, record the offerings, and pass along any notes or requests to the appropriate office (prayers sought, candles to be lit, and the like).
I'm a writer. I'm in the Editorial Department. What did I know about accounting and registering incoming mail? Nothing. Nonetheless, I volunteered to help. Nothing bad ever happens to a writer. Everything is potential material.
On the day of my assignment, I reported to Christine, manager of Member Services. She smiled, thanked me for helping, and gave me my marching orders to report to her namesake Chris or to Beth. They are both supervisors.
Chris, I soon learned, is a "mountain" or pillar of Member Services. That's what her colleagues say. She has a smile readily given and line-drawn eyes that squint with easy laughter. She entrusted me to Dale, my 'trainer."
The word brought to mind a whip-wielding Clyde Beatty, in the cage with a toothless lion.
"Courage," I counseled myself, "courage" — me, a man who has spit in the eye of organized crime bosses during my stint as a newspaper journalist in a previous professional life. Like Prof. Marvel in "The Wizard of Oz," I'm a man who has sneered at danger and scoffed at doom.
Was I scared?
Behind the Wheel for the First Time
Dale led me to the computer workstation where I would be sitting for the next six hours. As she began her tutorial, I said, "This better be easy enough so that even a writer can manage it." Dale smiled and reassured me. "A child could handle this." Quickly, I looked around to see if I could borrow a child. None could be procured at so late an hour.
I would be fine, she told me in a tone of voice a mom uses when guiding her 4-year-old to tie his shoes.
Dale was right. I was fine. The job entailed registering every letter in my stack, recording the contents on the computer, and dealing with the contents — placing the checks or cash into designated slots on a slate-gray receiving tray or seeing that notes and requests got to the proper office or person.
Dale processed the first few letters, patiently explaining each step. She then let me do one. I felt like I did years ago when my dad pulled over on the side of a long-forgotten Berkshire back road, stopped the car, got out, and said, "How about you driving?"
It was my first time behind the wheel, on an actual road, where there might actually be — gulp! — oncoming traffic. My right foot shook like Jerry Lee Lewis working piano pedals as it hit the gas. Somehow, I made it through unscathed from my first driving lesson. So did my dad.
'I didn't hit f2'
I processed my first ten letters or so tenuously, with the deliberate motions of a rookie. Each time I made an error, Dale was there to pounce.
"Now what did you forget?" she asked like a benign drill instructor. They always know the answer when they ask it like that.
My mind performed a rapid inventory of steps in the process. Got it!
"I didn't hit "f2," I answered. The response pleased my teacher, and I felt like I did the day Sr. Loretta gave me a gold star for a watercolor in fourth grade.
Letter after letter, I found my rhythm. When Dale took a break, supervisor Chris, to whom Dale referred as "the Queen Bee around here," took over as my guardian. She zipped through her own large stack of mail at the workstation to my left, not looking at me, and yet, if I slipped up, she somehow knew.
The stack got smaller as my confidence grew larger. I was moving through the mail with the regularity of a metronome. At one point, the regularity produced a meditative, prayer-like state. With my mind emptied of useless thoughts, I concentrated on the task at hand. Runners, I'm told, reach a point in their exhaustion where they break through fatigue, find their second wind, and experience "runner's high." I experienced "envelope-opener's high."
Dust Gets in Your Eyes
When I reached the last letter, I paused. I didn't want to stop. I had actually come to enjoy my stint with the good women in Member Services. They work hard yet manage to maintain an easy, loose, yet productive atmosphere.
With a poetic flair that could only have been arranged by providence, the final letter contained the widow's dollar bill. I read the note. I held that precious dollar. My eyes welled up.
I'm a tough guy. Tough guys don't eat quiche and don't cry. Must have been a speck of dust that got in my glazzies and made them water. Yeah, that's it. Ragweed. Pollen. Angel dust.
I brought my work to supervisor Beth, who signed off, but not before asking me why I hadn't brought M&Ms in for the girls? The needle confirmed my total acceptance by the women. I gave it right back. I said I didn't want to be accused of shameless bribery, that I preferred to take my Member Service medicine straight, without a spoonful of sugar.
We deposited the banded envelopes and contents of the gray tray in a pushcart. Each cent was accounted for, and each would be helping the Marians continue their good works of mercy throughout the world.
I left Member Services and headed back to my office in "the cottage" on Eden Hill.
I felt glad not only that I had helped my colleagues as best I could but also feeling rewarded by the widow's dollar. Once again it was proven true: nothing bad ever happens to a writer.
Dan Valenti writes for numerous publications of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, both in print and online. He is the author of Dan Valenti's Mercy Journal.