St. Mother Teresa
As she knelt down to wrap a white shroud from head to toe around the deceased, I distinctly noticed the weathered hands of the Missionary of Charity sister. Those hands, weathered as they were, worked with conviction, meticulously tending to the needs of this destitute man’s final rites. I had come to learn that Arun had just passed. He was discovered a month earlier on a train platform at Howarah Junction in Calcutta, India. The unfortunate reality was that Arun ended up alone, abandoned by all his family members and left to die. I had learned this is a common practice in India. Family members would drug their loved ones and buy a one way ticket to Calcutta, where they would wake up disorientated, alone, unwanted and often suffering with mental illness. That afternoon, I had the privilege of being with the Missionaries of Charity in Kalighat, being with Arun, praying over his body, accompanying him to the crematorium and ultimately flicking the switch that cremated his remains.
It was during the last month of Arun’s life that I had arrived on the Indian subcontinent, but what first seemed little more as adventure turned itself into vocation. The Indian subcontinent was an utter shock. I had visited Sri Lanka a decade earlier, but Sri Lanka was no India. I had left the practice of law, at my wits end, wanting something to change. As a lawyer, I experienced my days filled with things to do, people to meet, cases to settle and senior lawyers to impress - I kept “busy.”
In retrospect, that time in my life was perhaps the most enslaving, where I felt the most alone. All the money I was earning was spent trying to fill a void that I truly felt deep in my core. Beneath my worrying life, however, something else was going on. I felt this gnawing sense of loneliness and lack of peace that had become an all too common reality for me. While I was busy with building my understanding of the arts and sciences, and later law, I felt more and more an inner sense of isolation. I was sure of nothing and skeptical of everything. Despite all this, I began to read more about Mother Teresa and was reminded through her, and countless other saints, that the spiritual life was a gift. But this did not mean that I had to wait passively until it was offered to me, nor was it something to be possessed. Rather, the spiritual life was meant to be shared, and its joy freely given.
Mother Teresa’s life showed me that setting our hearts on something involved not only serious discernment, but also persistence with the knowledge that a spiritual life required human effort – in ceaseless immersion. To this Missionary of Charity sister, Arun’s lifeless body was like that of Christ’s during His Passion taken down from the cross. She was using those weathered hands to wrap Him in white linen. Arun was given the dignity to die as a human being because of these Sisters’ tenderness and quality of their love. St. Teresa of Calcutta said “…by each action done to the sick and the dying, I quench the thirst of Jesus for love of that person - by my giving God’s love in me to that particular person, by caring for the unwanted, the unloved, the lonely and all poor people. This is how I quench the thirst of Jesus for others by giving His love in action to them.”
Another memory of Calcutta that was left seared onto my heart was the extraordinary concern the sisters had towards the sick and the suffering. I recall being sent into the washroom to assist an elderly man who could not walk and was covered in an awful smell. As I was carrying this man, his body draped over my forearms, I saw a wound near his ankle the size of a grapefruit, partially covered in a plastic bag. As I laid him on a stretcher in the medical room I finally saw what I had gagged at - his flesh had rotted down to his bone, infested with maggots.
This experience revealed two realities for me - first, the abandonment of our weakest members, essentially casting aside their innate human dignity. But secondly, it exposed moments of tenderness, grace, and the radicality of love. I say this because as I lay him on the stretcher, a nurse full of conviction and purpose used tweezers to remove each maggot, one by one. She disinfected his wounds, bandaged his sores, and at the same time restored his innate dignity. Treating him with kindness, respect, and with reverence restored this man’s ability to see himself as a beloved child of God.
My experiences in Calcutta with the Missionaries of Charity gave me a profound sense of mission. I realized that what I had experienced in Calcutta was the joy of self-giving. The total gift of one’s self is the cause of joy and of peace. It also allows us to grow towards a fuller understanding of Christ and a commitment towards a preferential option for the poor.
When my friends ask what Calcutta is like, I respond by saying the culture shock is not visiting Calcutta for the first time, rather the culture shock was coming back to The West, to Canada, with those experiences. They change you. They awaken a sense of mystery, and in the spiritually inclined, a sense of the Eternal One.
This is especially true with Pope Francis’ proclamation of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy and the canonization of St. Teresa of Calcutta. The Holy Father asks us to encounter Christ as the merciful father. With that he gives us a clearer understanding of the true nature of God – who is merciful like the Father. Pope Francis reminds us that what the Lord requires of us is mercy and not sacrifice, and Mother Teresa’s legacy showed us a simple way to live out mercy. By doing so we encounter Christ who calls us to search for Him on the periphery.
Prevain is a lawyer and a graduate of St. Michael’s College School in Toronto, Ontario. He earned his undergraduate degree from Trinity College at the University of Toronto, and he then went on to earn his law degree from the University of Windsor. He currently works in the Operations Department at S + L. He was in Rome for St. Teresa of Calcutta’s Canonization.