Mother Teresa struggled intensely in her spiritual life. And this makes what she accomplished even more extraordinary and her example more meaningful to me. Her ministry, based as it was on a singularly intimate encounter with Jesus that would gradually fade into silence, whether lengthy or lifelong, is a remarkable testimony of fidelity.
Nothing so binds me to Mother Teresa as this facet of her life, and I have found, when telling this story to others, whether in articles, in homilies, or on retreats, that nothing so deepens their appreciation of her holiness.
But I knew none of this when I was working with the Missionaries of Charity in Kingston. All I knew was that Mother Teresa’s sisters worked hard, were cheerful with everyone in the hospice, and asked the Jesuit novices only to follow their example.
Our work at Our Lady Queen of Peace was to wash, dress, and care for the men who lived in the hospice. Modesty prevented the sisters from showering and dressing the men (they did so for the women); the sisters employed one elderly Jamaican man for the task. But since he was unable to wash the dozens of men in the hospice by himself, Bill and I were put to work.
Simple tasks, really, but also grim work to which I never grew accustomed. In the early morning, Bill and I would be greeted by a phalanx of poor, elderly Jamaican men seated placidly on cheap plastic seats in the courtyard, awaiting their showers.
Leading them into the steamy bathroom, I first had to help the men out of their clothes. More often than not, their pants were wet with urine or stained from where they had soiled themselves during the night. This made the otherwise straightforward act of undressing them an ordeal, as I struggled to pull the dirty clothes off them while I knelt on the wet tiled floor in the bathroom. Next I guided them into one of the showers. Also a challenge: many of them were infirm and so needed to be led across the slippery tile floor. One man, named Ezekiel, was blind and so needed practically to be lifted into the shower.
Then I would reach around the men, turn on the water, and help them wash themselves. Sometimes during their shower they would ask me to reach places that they couldn’t reach, and I would use a rag to wash them. Ezekiel often used this time to blow his nose, blowing snot through one nostril while closing the other with his finger. (I had to be fast on my feet to stay out of firing range.) After drying the men off, I pulled on their new clothes and guided them back to the men’s dormitory.
By morning’s end I was wiped out but thankful that shower time was over, and happy to help the sisters distribute bread and tea to the men and women. This was an opportunity to chat with everyone, and since the showers were completed I was in a good mood. Bill and I could rest for a few minutes before turning our attention to other duties, the least appealing of which was clipping toenails. “Brother Jim, Brother Jim,” some would shout when they saw me doing this for one of the men. “Clip my nails, too!”
As much as I wanted to envision myself as a sort of Jesuit-style Mother Teresa, as much as I desired to find Christ in all the people, and as much as I tried to be mindful during my ministry, at the beginning of my time at the hospice I found the work revolting. Bill seemed to take more easily to the work than I did, which only added to my frustration and sense of failure. I felt that because I was a Jesuit, these most Christian of tasks should somehow be easier for me. Why wasn’t God helping me feel more comfortable here? I wondered if I was cut out for working with the poor.
But often just when I was about ready to throw in the towel, one of the sisters would smile and make a joke, or tell me what a great job I was doing, and how Mother would be proud of my work, and how Mother loved the Jesuits, and did I know that Mother liked Jesuits best of all for spiritual directors? And I knew that I couldn’t let the sisters down. The sisters got me through the first few weeks, and after that I was gradually able to enter more fully into the work (though I never, ever liked clipping toenails). In time, I grew to know the men at Our Lady Queen of Peace as individuals, not simply as bodies to be washed.
This was a great grace, which would deepen over the course of my novitiate: the understanding that “the poor” and “the sick” and “the homeless” were not categories but individuals. Malcolm Muggeridge speaks about this same realization in his book Something Beautiful for God. During the filming of his documentary in Calcutta at Nirmal Hriday, Muggeridge moved through three stages in response to the sick and the dying. The first was horror at the sights, smells, and sounds of the hospice. Second was compassion. And the third, something Muggeridge never had experienced before, was the awareness that the lepers and the sick before him “were not pitiable, repulsive, or forlorn, but rather dear and delightful; as it might be, friends of longstanding, brothers and sisters.”
The sisters’ cheerfulness, which I had at first assumed was an artful camouflage for disgust at their tasks, was revealed over time as both utterly genuine and wonderfully helpful to me and to the poor with whom they worked. And, as I would later discover, it found its roots in the spirituality of Mother Teresa. It was not a cheerfulness that masked the difficulties of the work—for the sisters were serious about their tasks. They struggled daily in a difficult situation: working long hours in a hot climate with the neediest of people using the simplest of tools. Rather, it was a cheerfulness that communicated the joy of their vocation and the joy of serving Christ.
It had a practical application, too. Their attitude was a gift to those poor who had known mostly misery and rejection in life. “We want to make them feel that they are loved,” Mother Teresa told Muggeridge. “If we went to them with a sad face, we would only make them much more depressed.”
Plainly, the sisters were happy to be Missionaries of Charity. And they were happy to be serving God in this way. “True holiness,” Mother Teresa had written, “consists in doing God’s will with a smile.” That is a difficult statement for many to accept, since it’s so close to the banal “offer it up for God” spirituality. But Mother Teresa, whose interior life was full of darkness, put into practice what she believed to great effect. So did her sisters.
And their joy was contagious. I had no trouble understanding why they attracted so many vocations. It reminded me of a comment by the Jesuit superior general, who visited our Jesuit province just a few months after I entered. During the Father General’s presentation at the New England novitiate, one novice tentatively asked him the best way to promote Jesuit vocations. His answer came without hesitation: “Live your own joyfully!”
Toward the end of my time in Kingston, I was grateful not just for having survived my ministry at Our Lady Queen of Peace, not just for meeting some wonderful people among the poor, and not just for never once getting sick, as I had feared I would. I was grateful most of all for the chance to come to know the Missionaries of Charity and to encounter firsthand the remarkable spirituality of their order. In the midst of difficult work, they were joyful. And their joy was a great example to me, a singular gift to the poor, and truly, in the words of Mother, “something beautiful for God.”
Mother Teresa by Manfredo Ferrari [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons