My Own Little Calcutta

Photo Credit: Patrick Hendry

Photo Credit: Patrick Hendry

I’ve had a bit of a rocky start to Lent this year.

Ash Wednesday came and went without me having given any real thought to what I was “doing”.  I just hadn’t stilled myself long enough to ask the Lord what He wanted me to do. Sure, I planned to give up my usual sweets (which is a feat in and of itself for this sugar lover).

But what more was the Lord calling me to?

I already felt like I was fumbling toward failure.

On Saturday morning (four days into Lent), I got a FaceTime call from my son in college. He was calling to say his final goodbye - just hours before flying out of Houston across the globe to Albania for a week long mission trip. Listening to him chat away, I was so intrigued by the expressions on his face.

I saw excitement and anticipation, mingled with fear of the unknown. He had already shared weeks before how this mission trip would require him to step out of his comfort zones, and he was ready for that.

If there was any hint of anxious trepidation on his face, beneath it was a sense of deep joy and peace. It was overwhelmingly apparent he was exactly where he was supposed to be - doing exactly what he was meant to do.

Of course I was THRILLED for him to have such an opportunity, but admittedly - a little jealous too.

How I’d love to jet off to some faraway place and throw myself into some noble mission.

As we wrapped up the call, he suddenly mentioned Mother Teresa and how cool it was that she was Albanian. All these months of knowing Kolbe was going to Albania, I had completely forgotten this was the country of her descent!

I lifted up the book from my lap that I had been reading when Kolbe called and held it up for him to see: “Mother Teresa of Calcutta - A Personal Portrait”.  Immediately it all came together for me, and my Lenten mission suddenly became clear. My son was venturing off into his own missionary world this Lent, and God was revealing the missionary world He has called me to venture into as well.

And for both of us, it’s a new step out of our comfort zones, into deeper waters - to be the humble hands and feet of Christ; a vessel of His love.

Kolbe was being called out, and I was being called in. I knew God was inviting me to take a deeper look within the walls of my own little home. In fact, He’d been tugging at me for months, and that tug was the very reason I’d ordered the Mother Teresa book. I desperately needed a new perspective on caring for those in need; on how to be the hands and feet of Christ. And I knew her selflessly heroic witness would give it to me.

Mother Teresa was declared a saint by the Catholic Church in 2010. In 1950, she founded the Missionaries of Charity sisters in Calcutta, India, to serve the poorest of the poor. Now her order of 4,500 sisters serve the poor in 133 countries all over the world. But what sets these extraordinary women apart is that they don’t just serve the poorest of the poor. They believe that to truly serve the poor, you have to live with the poor.

St. Mother Teresa’s sisters often care for the elderly and the helpless. In the captivating book I’m reading, Mother Teresa talks about how many of the elderly have simply been forgotten by their children:

“Often they are the poorest of the poor, because they have a great hunger, a hunger for love. We must often ask ourselves: Don’t we have some of the poorest of the poor in our own family?”

When I read her words, I thought about my own elderly mother, who has lived with me and my family for the last four and half years. According to Mother Teresa, I too live with the poorest of the poor.

I pondered the depths of my mother’s poverty. At 87 years old battling dementia, she has lost almost everything - her ability to live independently, to entertain, to cook, to sew, to drive, to plan, to send emails, to fully engage in a conversation.

But the most agonizing poverty to watch is my mom’s ever increasing loss of her ability to remember: to remember what day it is, what time it is, where she lives, who people are, and in some ways, who even she is.

But the profound discovery that I’ve made journeying alongside my aging mother is that she has been stripped of everything that has ever defined her, except her family. We are all she has left, and she clings to us. Her beloved family (and her deep faith) is the only force that defines her now. Our love and presence is the only thing she wants. St. Mother Teresa is absolutely right. My mother hungers for love.

We all do. From the day we’re born until the day we die, we all hunger for love.

So I don’t need to venture off to Albania or Calcutta to feed the hungry and serve the poor. They are right in my midst. I have my own little Calcutta - right within the walls of my own home. The question is - do I see their hunger? Do I recognize their poverty? Or are they forgotten?

How often do we go looking for that “great” thing we’re supposed to do, and yet that great thing is right in front of us - disguised as something little and small. Hidden within our small, seemingly insignificant acts of love.

Deep within me, I know this. I have always known that my family is my greatest mission field. But if I’m honest, their hungers can easily go unnoticed; and their poverty ignored. Sometimes I even numb myself to it. Yes, even though I live with the poorest of the poor, they still can be forgotten.

“I can do no great thing; only little things with great love.”

St. Mother Teresa has tirelessly shown the world where true greatness lies: doing little things with great love.

But how does she do it?

A young priest once asked her,

“Mother Teresa, what is your secret?” She looked at him with a quizzical twinkle in her eye and replied, “That’s very simple: I pray.” She went on to say, “Without God we are too poor to help the poor, but when we pray, God places His love in us… Only when you pray can you really serve the poor…

Prayer doesn’t happen by itself. We have to make the effort to pray.”

This Lent, let us see with new perspective. Let us recognize we are too poor to help the poor. And let us commit ourselves to tap into Mother Teresa’s secret and make the effort to pray.

Jesus, give me the courage to venture deeper into to my own little Calcutta, the poor you have placed in my midst.
Give me the eyes to see their deeper hunger and the humility to nourish it.
Give me the heart to see their poverty and the compassion to meet them there.
Place Your love in me, so that the poor You have given me will grow abundantly rich.

I prefer a family with a tired face from sacrifices made;
rather than a pretty one which is unfamiliar with tenderness and compassion.

- Pope Francis

(All quotes were taken from “Mother Teresa of Calcutta - A Personal Portrait” by Fr. Leo Maasburg)