“Information, please”

{Special note to those under the age of thirty;  At one time, you could call “411” and get a live person, who would actually give you a phone number, without charge.   How cool is that?}

When I was working as an information operator for AT&T in 1982, I was instructed that after giving out a phone number, I should never say, “God bless you.”  Yes, thirty-five years ago, this was forbidden language which could potentially offend a customer.  Operators were periodically reviewed by different supervisors every few months.  Of course, they did this without our knowing it.  Since I was defiantly using “God bless you” as my usual sign-off, each time I was reviewed, I was reprimanded and instructed that I should instead use the dull, bland, “Have a nice day.”

I was not interested in wishing a nice day to people.  Instead, I persisted in using “God bless you.”  That is, until the day the head manager discovered to her dismay, that I had been warned about blessing customers on four separate occasions.  She firmly told me that if I persisted in my defiance, I would be fired.

“Okay,” I caved in, ” I’ll comply.”

Which I did.  Until the day came when having tendered my resignation (I was quitting to become a full-time LAMP Missionary in Brooklyn’s inner city), I was working my last day as an operator.  Since the worst thing that could happen to me would be my being fired (ha!) I  returned to my old, forbidden practice…. and blessed everyone who asked me for a number.

Merrily, the day went on like this.  With an hour to go in my ‘stellar’ career at AT&T, a call went like this;

“God bless you,” I said, after supplying a number.

“Did you say ‘God bless you?'” a young woman asked.

“Yes, I did.”

“I’ve never had an operator say that to me!”

“And probably, you never will again,” I should have said.  What I did say at that point, I don’t recall.  However, the call continued, as the woman opened her heart.

It seems that she had had a genuine conversion experience some years before.  Jesus had come into her life, and she had embraced the power of the Gospel of grace.  I was delighted to hear this.  However, recently she had stopped going to church and reading Scripture.  It clearly bothered her.  She used a classic Evangelical term;

“I’ve back-slided!”

For the next hour, we proceeded to dialogue about faith, doubt, and the mercy of the Good Shepherd.  The Holy Spirit used me to encourage her; that she could come back to the faith.   I can’t remember exactly what we said, but I do recall that our conversation was lively, mutually respectful, and filled with joy.  What I didn’t know at the time… I was exercising a Spiritual Work of Mercy known as “Counseling the Doubtful.”

Me as St. Paul teaching on the Spiritual Works of Mercy
Me, as St. Paul, teaching on the Spiritual Works of Mercy

A few times during our talk, the woman (whose name I never learned) marveled that she was talking about Jesus Christ with a telephone operator… and for a long time!

This fact was obvious to one  of my fellow operators.  She was within earshot, and knew that I was conversing with a customer and not exercising the usual restraint.  I whispered to her, “It’s my last day… let them fire me.”

The five o’clock hour arrived, and I had to inform my new friend that it was quitting time.  And not just for that day, I informed her, but for good.  I told her that I was being called into full-time ministry, and that instead of giving out phone numbers, I looked forward to sharing the Gospel in Brooklyn.

This woman, a ‘straying sheep’ if you will, was very grateful both to God and to me, for what was a truly informative, “information call.”

Jesus knew which operator needed to take her call

One take-away from this story; Jesus knew which operator “had her number.”

When I pulled my headset out of the jack for the last time and turned it in, I walked out of the office with a lightness to my step and a wide smile on my face.

You just never know how far a simple “God bless you” can go!!!

Why Mary Matters

I didn’t grow up with a relationship with Mary.  I didn’t hear about her, nor experience Marian devotions.  But when I was twenty-seven, I became a missionary in Bolivia, teaching English to 6th to 12th grades.  I had wanted to go to Africa but civil wars redirected my plans.  I was afraid to go to a Spanish-speaking country because I’m not proficient in languages, but God had things He wanted to show me.  Unbeknownst to me, Central and South America have a great devotion to Mary, the Mother of God.

Artwork by Tom Mussio
Artwork by Tom Mussio

I lived in a small village called Loma Alta, meaning “high hill.”  During the month of May, the rosary was prayed each night in a different family’s home.   After the rosary, someone played guitar and we sang lively songs of praise.   After this, we ate.  Families prepared delicious empanadas, fruit, flan or cakes.   We’d try to guess what would be served the next night.

As I started feeling more of a connection with Mary as my “heavenly mother,”  I thought of different times in my life when I had felt lonely, lost, or sad and realized that I could have picked up a rosary, “contemplated the life of Jesus through the eyes of Mary,” as St. John Paul II wrote in his Apostolic Letter on the Rosary,  and been comforted.

The Salesian order, with whom I served as a Lay Missionary, also has a very down-to-earth way of relating to Mary.   They use the title, “Mary, help of Christians” and see her as Mother of their Salesian family.

In his Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,”  Pope Francis writes, “popular piety enables us to see how the faith, once received, becomes embodied in a culture and is constantly passed on.”  Through the people’s great faith and devotions, I learned to love Mary.  I came to understand that she’s my mother, who prays  for me.

She’s your mother also, who prays for you.  Why not pray a “Hail Mary” or decade of the Rosary today?

If you’re asking the question, “Why do I need a relationship with Mary when I already have one with Jesus?”  let me ask you a question.  Would you like to grow closer to Jesus?  Mary’s sole goal is to lead us closer to Jesus, so that we might listen to Him.  Think of the wedding feast of Cana.  What did she tell the stewards when they discovered there was no more wine?  “Do whatever he tells you”  (John 2:5).   She was looking out for the best interest of the wedding couple, who were in the embarrassing predicament of running out of wine!  Jesus initially told Mary that this situation didn’t concern Him.  But when she persisted, He performed his first public miracle.  Jesus apparently realized God was prompting Him through his mother.

With Pentecost approaching, here is one more reason to call on Mary’s intercession.  St. Luke tells us in the  Acts of the Apostles, that Mary was present and praying, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles.  This is not merely a detail.  It is recorded so that we may know that Mary will pray with us for the all the gifts that the Spirit wants to bestow upon us.

Come Holy Spirit, and pray for us, Mother Mary!