In the summer of 1986, 21-year-old Susan Conroy left her family and friends and headed off to Calcutta, India alone to assist the Missionaries of Charity. "This is a story about how 'all things are possible with God,'" she writes. "It is a treasury of the lessons of love that I learned from Mother Teresa and her beloved poorest of the poor."
Bringing Joy from the Children to the Dying
I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the
kingdom of heaven.
As the summer months passed, I realized that it was a beautiful balance to work with the young children at the orphanage early in the day and with the dying destitutes in the afternoon. The children filled my heart with unspeakable happiness, and I could then carry this joy and love I received from the little ones to the patients in the Home for the Dying each afternoon. "How great is the humility of God to use people like you and me to bring His love and compassion to those who are suffering. Let us thank God for allowing us to be channels of His love," Mother Teresa shared with me.
I also had the opportunity to travel to a small village outside the city of Calcutta during my first couple of weeks in India. A lively volunteer from Australia, Moira, invited me. Moira was always making everyone laugh. Working with children was her specialty. She welcomed a small group of us volunteers to accompany her on this special journey to the countryside, to visit and entertain the poor people there. Moira taught us a variety of acts and mimes and songs. I personally cannot sing or dance well at all, but in that village, I sang and danced! I did whatever I could to bring joy to the people and lighten some of their suffering, without being too concerned or embarrassed about the quality of my performance.
First, we visited a leprosy rehabilitation center, where we entertained lepers and people who were mentally ill. As soon as we began to sing and do our skits, people from the village gathered outside the doors and windows to see us. One of the songs that Moira sang as a solo, in front of a roomful of people, was "Pretty, pretty Auntie Moira can kiss anyone better than you can," and she actually went around the room kissing people! It was a lighthearted diversion for everyone, including us, although it might have helped matters if the people in the audience understood English.
Our next "show" was for little ones. We gathered many of the village children together in one place and began to do sing-alongs and a whole assortment of things to brighten their day. After we finished our show, we asked if someone from the audience could come up and do some entertaining. I will never forget seeing three little girls come forward and do an Indian song and dance. Their voices were so sweet and their dancing was so beautiful! I loved the way they moved their wrists, hands, feet, and heads so gracefully. After they finished, I asked one of the little girls to teach me how to dance like that. Little did I know that this wonderful visit with the village children and this earnest effort to learn how to dance would make such a special difference in my experience back in Calcutta.
After I returned to the city, I resumed my work in the Home for the Dying. One afternoon, I was walking past the bed of one of the dying women in a dark corner of the shelter when I noticed that she was reaching up to me for some water. Her wrist turned in such a way as to remind me of the children dancing in the village. And so I began to dance. Although this frail woman had little or no strength left in her and she could barely even speak, as soon as she saw me dancing she began to laugh and laugh and laugh (I still do not know whether I should take that as a compliment or an insult, but it was obvious that my dancing really made her happy). It clearly brought joy to this poor woman to see Indian dancing even at its worst! After that experience, whenever I walked past this particular patient's bed, she would reach up to me and turn her wrist, and I knew that it was no longer to ask for water it was to make me dance.
Three little Indian girls dancing for children from their village and Mother Teresa's volunteers.
I discovered that it did not take much to bring a bit of joy to someone, and whatever was given with a smile seemed to be accepted gratefully. I was often amazed at how brightly another person would light up from inside merely by being noticed, by being looked at or smiled at. During my stay in Calcutta, I wrote the following words to myself:
Do not dwell in the darkness unless you can and will bring light into it. Do not carry with you negative thoughts or feelings unless you can transform them or channel them into positive and constructive thoughts, actions, energies. Be always a light to others, capable of dwelling in or passing through the darkest, most revolting places without adding to the misery, never dragged down in depression, never a burden to others.
Mother Teresa used to say: "We will never know just how much a simple smile can do." This was true everywhere I went in Calcutta, including the place where the poor were suffering their last agony in Mother Teresa's shelter for dying destitutes.
The Home for the Dying
To a person who has slept
in a gutter, the Home for Dying Destitutes must seem like a paradise.
The Home for the Dying has been called "Mother's first love." She believed so firmly that what the poor need is simply and above all to be wanted. To Mother Teresa, they were all "children of God, for whom Christ died, and so deserving of all love." She seemed to have a place in her heart for each one of the poor, sick, and dying whom she encountered.
Sometimes these people are taken from the streets on the threshold of death. There is scarcely anyone else in Calcutta who will even notice their dying. But the (Missionaries of Charity) have a refuge specifically for dying destitutes. It is right alongside Kali Temple.... It is a highly scrubbed and totally antiseptic shed crammed with stretcher beds, row after row of them, and their moribund occupants. There are people in their twenties, but hardly anyone looks less than sixty.... They have been brought here because of a ... conviction, unfathomable to the deepest dogmas of Hinduism, that there is some point in bringing a human being who has been totally neglected since birth to a place where he can at least die with a scrap of dignity and with somebody aware of his end.
I volunteered every afternoon in the Home for the Dying. It is located in a section of Calcutta called Kalighat, which means "Kali's bank." Kali is the Hindu goddess of destruction, and Kali Temple, located directly alongside Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying, is an important Hindu shrine. The building, which presently serves as the Home for the Dying, formerly served as a place of rest for pilgrims who came to worship the goddess Kali. Sometimes, as we were caring for the patients in this shelter, we would hear religious processions passing by outside. Each procession brought with it a great deal of noise and commotion: ringing, chanting, and a corpse on its way to the burning ghats (an area where bodies were cremated) near the Hooghly River. It was bizarre to step outside the Home for the Dying, this place of peace, and to see these lively goings-on. Then again, it was a fitting experience for this city of contrasts.
Every day, Sisters from the Home for the Dying go through the streets of Calcutta in an ambulance, searching for dying destitutes.
Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying is called "Nirmal Hriday" in the native language, which means "Immaculate Heart." I refer to it as the "Place of the Pure Heart," and that is truly what it is. It is a place where love, in its purest form, is practiced every day. It is a place where hearts, through intense suffering and humiliation, have become very pure and holy.
It was a privilege to ride in the Missionaries of Charity's ambulance to and from the shelter for dying destitutes each day. This provided me with the opportunity to develop a closer relationship with the "Sister Superior" Sister Luke, the one in charge of daily operations of the Home for the Dying. Sister Luke was a blessing and an inspiration to me. The ambulance ride also gave me a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes activities of the nuns. For instance, I learned that the Sisters always had their rosary beads within reach, and as they traveled across the city, they prayed. I also experienced their daily routine of picking up leftover food from a local business and bringing it to the shelter to feed the dying.
The street dwellers were often able tell when someone on the pavement was about to die. They would flag down the ambulance when they saw it coming along with Mother Teresa's nuns. We would stop the ambulance, climb down from the back of it, and together we would lift the body of the dying person up off the sidewalk and carry him onto the ambulance. We would then transport this person to the Home for the Dying. There, we would give him a bath, clean garments, nourishing food, medicine, a bed, and a great deal of love. Without this shelter, many of these destitutes would simply die on the sidewalks, in the gutters, or in the alleyways, mostly unnoticed by the passersby.
Just Begin One Person at a Time
Mother Teresa used to say that if she had not picked up that first person from the gutters, she never would have picked up the remaining 42,000. We all have to start somewhere. The first day that I entered the Home for the Dying, I came upon the men's section with the skeletal remnants of human beings lying lifelessly in rows of stretcher beds. They were staring, scratching, and coughing. Many were silent. I felt as though I had been there before. It was just as I had seen in the black-and-white photographs by Mary Ellen Mark, and as I had read in various books. I stood in the middle of the main aisle, waiting for one of the Sisters to give me some guidance. I thought they would clearly see that I was a new volunteer and I did not know where or how to begin. I walked from the men's section into the women's section. I waited for a few minutes and then I realized that no one was going to tell me what to do, because they were all showing me what to do! So, I began to help them as best I could, by joining in the work and following their example. My very first task was to help one of the young Sisters lift an emaciated patient off her soiled bed, scrub the plastic bed covering with sudsy water, bathe the patient and give her clean, dry garments, and then gently lift her back onto her bed. We went down the aisle and helped one person at a time like this. One, one, one. My first reaction to the work was an exuberant inner rejoicing: "I can do it!"
I walked from the men's section into the women's section. I waited for a few minutes and then I realized that no one was going to tell me what to do, because they were all showing me what to do! So, I began to help them as best I could, by joining in the work and following their example.
Mother Teresa often used to say that what matters more than our actual deeds is the amount of love we put into them. The most important thing is not how many we help, but how we help each one. It was only in this perspective that we could say that what we were doing really mattered.
In Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying, one of the most difficult parts about being with the patients was that I could not be with all of them at once. As I was feeding a dying man, I could look up from his bed and see a dozen pair of eyes staring back at me, waiting to be touched and cared for. The same was true of working with the children in the orphanage. One must really take Mother Teresa's approach that of loving one person at a time, wholly and fully. This is the only way to deal with all the suffering and work in a city like Calcutta.
One day in the Home I approached a man very near death who needed help. When I came to him, his clothes were stained: the smell was unbearable, and he was spitting up the most foul-looking matter. His pelvic bone protruded more than anything I had ever seen before, even in the Home for the Dying. He was so skeletal. His cheekbones were sharp and pointed. His eyes were large, frightened, sunken, almost panicking.
I had to change his garments and clean him. I hesitated, knowing how humiliating it must have been for him to be bathed and cleaned by a woman, especially in his condition. I found this so difficult. I had not worked much with the dying men yet. I felt they needed to maintain their sense of dignity no matter how small.
Given time, I overcame my difficulties while I performed my work. These words by Saint Francis De Sales became very meaningful to me: "Have patience with all things, but chiefly have patience with yourself. Do not lose courage ... every day begin the task anew."
We Are Channels of God's Love
Open your hearts
to the love of God which
He will give you not to keep, but to share.
Mother Teresa once said, "We started our work as the suffering of the people called us. God showed us what to do." I was clumsy when it came to cleaning up soiled garments and bathing the patients. I was better at feeding them and holding their hands. When the food was fully prepared, we would distribute it, hand-feeding those who were incapable of feeding themselves. After the meals had been eaten, it was time for washing all the dishes, distributing medicine, and simply loving. I told the patients how beautiful they were. When they tried to respond or smile, I told them I loved them and that I was happy to be there with them. Perhaps they did not understand my words, but they seemed always to understand what was in my heart. With Mother Teresa's Sisters, we volunteers would hand out water, blankets, biscuits, bed pans, anything needed. Some volunteers would assist in providing basic medical care if they were willing and able, like giving injections, dressing and cleaning sores, or setting up IV's. We would massage the arms, legs, and feet of the dying men and women, rub their shaven heads and protruding ribcages, listen to them and try better to understand Bengali and suffering.
Above all else, we endeavored to keep our spirits high, and to carry a ready smile and a willingness to touch. I would do virtually anything that might bring joy and alleviate some of the suffering. As with the children, so much could be done for the dying. Sometimes having just a smile to give made a beautiful difference. As Mother Teresa said, "The miracle is not that we do this work, but that we are happy to do it."
Occasionally, I was asked to lift the body of a deceased patient from his bed. A white sheet was spread out on the floor, and we would wrap the body from head to foot, carry it to the morgue, and then lift the corpse onto a shelf. (I did not take the bodies to the nearby burning ghats as some of the other volunteers were called upon to do; I just took them to the morgue located inside the Home for the Dying). We would do whatever was needed most at the time whatever was immediately in front of us. Above all else, we endeavored to keep our spirits high, and to carry a ready smile and a willingness to touch. I would do virtually anything that might bring joy and alleviate some of the suffering. As with the children, so much could be done for the dying. Sometimes having just a smile to give made a beautiful difference. As Mother Teresa said, "The miracle is not that we do this work, but that we are happy to do it."
Mother Teresa taught us that unless our work is "interwoven with love" it is not of much use. "God does not need our work. God sees only our love. He will not ask us how many books we have read, how many miracles we have worked, but He will ask us if we have done our best for the love of Him." (This is what my own mother always taught me to do, too.) Just using our hands was not good enough. We were called to also use our hearts and our whole beings. "Have we played well? Slept well? Eaten well? Nothing is small for God because He is almighty, and therefore each one of our actions done with and for and through Jesus Christ is a great success."
The work in Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying was simple, humble, and basic. It consisted of countless small deeds. It was just human beings helping other human beings. Giving cool water to the thirsty. Scrubbing the metal plates with ashes and coconut fibers. Cleaning and disinfecting the soiled garments and sheets in big open vats, and then carrying the laundry up to the roof where it would be hung to dry. Washing the floor on our hands and knees. Bathing patients who needed help. Carrying them to the small area where they were bathed. We were busy each day washing the patients' wounds, soothing their sores, but most importantly we comforted their hearts and prepared them for a peaceful death.
The patients grew accustomed to seeing my face each day. They knew that I was there to stay for a while. We became like family to one another familiar and comfortable with one another. As the days turned into weeks, I learned what each person liked. Many found comfort in having someone to listen to them (even if that someone did not understand Bengali). One woman always wanted to have her skeletal limbs "exercised" by having me bend them and straighten them out repeatedly, while another patient enjoyed receiving a few extra biscuits. I knew that the fragile "skeleton lady" was not easily relieved of her suffering, but I could sit at her side each day, with her small hand in mine, and let her know that I wanted to be there with her.
Mother Teresa taught us in word and deed that what matters is the way we look at each person, the way we speak to them, the patient understanding and love we show to them with every encounter. There were some patients with whom I truly connected, and when they were taken from us, I truly missed their presence.
Through time, I also found ways to reach out to more people simultaneously. For instance, when I entered the men's section of the Home for the Dying, I would turn toward the patients, raise my pressed palms to my forehead in a traditional Indian gesture, and then greet the men with a smile and "Namaste!" which means "I bow to the light within you." I could, in this way, touch them all at once and watch their faces light up, one by one, up and down the rows of stretcher beds.
We had to overcome all our fear through prayer and love. Mother Teresa taught us in her writings: "...if you really love that person, then it will be easier for you to accept that person and [your service] will be with love and kindness."
"Love Proves Itself by Deeds"
All souls are capable
Saint Teresa of Avila
"Many people talk about love and about God, but they maybe are not loving at all," Mother Teresa said to us. "Love cannot remain by itself it has no meaning. Love has to be put into action and that action is service.... Our work is only the expression of the love we have for God. We have to pour our love onto someone, and the people are the means of expressing our love for God." These homes for the Poorest of the Poor were perfect places to experience how love and service are always related. Saint Teresa of Avila said: "Love is always stirring and thinking about what it will do. It cannot contain itself."
In my first days at the Home for the Dying, it was clear to me that I was afraid to work in the men's section. Late at night, while I was lying on my bed at the YWCA, I could distance myself from Calcutta and reflect upon all the intense things that I had seen and experienced during the course of each day. I could also look at my own reactions. I realized that I had been avoiding the dying men; I had been going straight to the women's section. I was afraid. I had heard that the men die much faster than the women do. I was afraid to face death. I immediately resolved to overcome my fears and to begin working more with the men, starting that very next day. This made an extraordinary difference. I learned to work with love greater than fear. It was like opening a window to heaven.
"Love has no room for fear; rather, perfect love casts out all fear... Love is not yet perfect in one who is afraid" (1 Jn 4:18). It was time to perfect my love.
The Power of the Human Touch
Love and the gentle
heart are but a single thing.
Dante Alighieri, Italian poet
I began to spend most of my time in Nirmal Hriday, the Home for the Dying, with those who were closest to death. The more serious, critical cases were placed closest to the front of the ward where they could be watched over constantly. Every touch counted so much. Many of the patients whom I cared for and became close to, died. Sometimes the touch of my hand was the last human contact that a person felt during his or her earthly life. I learned to touch each person with as much love and care as possible. What a meaningful approach this was to each human being to give my very best at each moment.
I felt that the only lasting impressions we made in the Home for the Dying were spiritual and invisible we left our fingerprints on the souls of those whom we had loved and served.
I found it much more difficult to face the multitudes of poor people on the streets in Calcutta than to face the dying destitutes in the shelter at Kalighat. On the streets I could only watch and witness the misery and aloneness and struggle; in the shelter at Kalighat I could touch and soothe the aching bodies and minds. Likewise, I understood how some of the journalists, authors, and tourists who simply passed through the Home for the Dying might have been terribly uncomfortable upon seeing the rows of suffering, dying bodies of the poor. What a difference it made to join the poor, to take a small part in their great suffering, and to try to lighten their burden just a bit!
One afternoon during my first week, I fed a woman with a large, foggy teardrop clinging to the edge of her eye. I sat with her, massaging her hands and face. She never uttered a cry or a word. She just watched me with those eyes. I went to the Home for the Dying the next day. I did not see the woman with the big teardrop, and I knew that she must have died. She most certainly could not have recovered. As I stood over her empty bed, Sister Luke reminded me simply that she was on her way home to God. I learned that time was very precious here in the Home for the Dying. Every moment was precious.
That day, as I rubbed the rigid, flesh-covered bones (no muscles) of another patient, I lifted my eyes and watched a small, skeletal woman shuffling along the cement floor between the rows of beds. She looked frail and death-like. I glanced around the room at all of the faces, at the very thin, brown arms and legs, at the sullen, staring eyes. Some people were crippled and had to be carried to the bathing area. Some could walk all by themselves. Others shuffled along, crouched down on the floor. Seeing these skeletal bodies creeping around the floor was like watching the land of the living dead. If I had seen this in a detached sort of way, without being part of the picture, I could almost have believed that I was on the set of a scary science fiction movie.
Sometimes I could do nothing for a patient except kneel by her side as she cried aloud; her body was in too much pain for me to even touch her. I could only soothe her with the knowledge that she was not alone in her agony. In order to avoid becoming disheartened or discouraged, I always had to be doing something, anything, to alleviate at least part of the suffering. Always, I was amazed at how the simple, human touch could bring such comfort to both the giver and receiver. It lessened fears and eased pain. I imagined that my hands were sources of light light that emanated from my fingertips and soothed those whom I touched. It was really a beautiful thought. Our hands have so much to give, so much power to soothe aching bodies and souls, such comforting and penetrating warmth. Without the physical presence and contact, it was an unnerving, mortifying experience to be in the Home for the Dying. With it, it was an intensely meaningful and strengthening one.
"God's love is infinite full of tenderness, full of compassion. The way we touch people, the way we give to people, that love we have for one another it is His love in action through us. Do small things with great love."
"There are moments in the Home for the Dying when a visitor can believe that he has reached the backside of hell," one author wrote. Occasionally, visitors would come in and go on a tour through the shelter for dying destitutes. Sometimes I would watch them as they made their way slowly down the aisles, looking from side to side at the withered, wasted bodies, the shaven heads, the solemn, staring eyes. Some of these onlookers seemed to be quite uncomfortable, wanting only to turn on their heels and run out the door, slightly embarrassed by the awkward situation they had walked into being sightseers in the Home for the Dying.
The overall picture can be overwhelming to see unless you yourself are immersed in it. The dying "bodies" ceased to be a frightening and repulsive sight once contact was made and a hand was held. That touch of a hand seemed to create a bond and to remind me that they were human beings, with hearts and souls and feelings not just frightful-looking bodies. A friend of mine from Sweden, volunteering like myself, once asked me why I was not more afraid to caress the foreheads and cheekbones of these faces that were so gaunt and seemingly fragile. I knew that I was more afraid not to touch them.
Volunteers would sit with the dying patients, giving them everything possible, knowing them as brothers and sisters, and friends, caring for them with great care, respect, and tenderness, and occasionally sensing some sort of spiritual interference as an unexpected group of sightseers came on a tour of the shelter sometimes busloads at a time to look with pity on the lifeless "bodies." These tourists seemed to take away all that we had tried to give the patients. They stripped our patients of their dignity, by strolling through the Home as if it were a zoo. A certain measure of anger always swelled up inside of me whenever tourists came through. It seemed so demeaning to the patients. It broke my heart every time. I often felt that we had to start from scratch in alleviating the sadness and apparent humiliation of the suffering souls who were in our care.
In the film Mother Teresa, Mother said:
God's love is infinite full of tenderness, full of compassion. The way we touch people, the way we give to people, that love we have for one another it is His love in action through us. Do small things with great love. It's not how much we do but how much love we put in the doing, and it is not how much we give but how much love we put in the giving. To God nothing is small; the moment we have given it to God, it becomes infinite. Doing great works without love is nothing, while doing small things of everyday life with great love is what life is all about. No matter where we are in the world, love brings hope, love gives comfort, love brings peace.
The work itself was not extraordinary; the Sisters and volunteers were just doing "the most humble work for the sick and dying," as Mother Teresa would say. Rather, it was the spirit of the work that was extraordinary: the spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, tenderness, and reverence with which each person was touched, held, and cared for.
There is a sign in the Home for the Dying with the words of Mother Teresa: "Let every action of mine be something beautiful for God." Mother Teresa did everything with love and care. The beauty of her love was that it was faithful and ongoing.
She taught us to "pray the work." And indeed every touch, every glance, every word was a prayer.
Susan Conroy. "Our Mission in Life Is to Love and Serve." In Mother Teresa's Lessons of Love & Secrets of Sanctity (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2003), 71-86.
Reprinted by permission of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division and the author, Susan Conroy. All rights reserved.
Susan Conroy made her first trip to Calcutta to work with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in 1986. In 1987, at the request of Mother Teresa herself, Susan spent two weeks in the Order's convent in the South Bronx, New York, in contemplation of the religious life. During these two weeks, a time she calls "the most profoundly meaningful experience of my life, " Susan came to know Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who has had as great an impact on Susan's life as Mother Teresa. Susan did not enter the Order, but in 1991, during Lent, she once again returned to Calcutta to work with the Sisters among the dying destitutes. She and Mother Teresa kept up their correspondence until Mother's death in 1997. Today, in addition to her work as a tax specialist, Susan translates the works of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux from French into English for several publishing houses. Mother Teresa's Lessons of Love and Secrets of Sanctity was Susan's first book. Her second is Praying in the Presence of Our Lord with Mother Teresa.Copyright © 2003 Susan Conroy
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