Jim, 32 years old, was a devout Catholic Marine and he had always dreamed of meeting Mother Teresa. Jim had ten days of approved leave. And he decided, in that time off, to fly 8,000 miles, from San Francisco to Calcutta. When Jim’s plane landed in Calcutta he was taken by taxi through a maze of narrow streets filled with garbage. He was shocked by the poor, humid and dusty atmosphere that greeted his eyes. After what seemed like hours he found himself at Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.
At the door he was greeted by a tiny Indian sister, who when Jim said he had come to meet Mother Teresa, said to him, “I’m sorry, sir, Mother Teresa isn’t here. She had to leave for Rome.” Rome! He said out loud, dejected and stripped of his dream meeting, and having traveled so far, the marine swallowed his disappointment, and decided to stay anyway. He then asked the nun at the door if there was any way he could help out.
Of course, she said; there are three ways you can help: clean the house, or cook for the residents, or care for the dying. Jim couldn’t cook, and he wasn’t keen on tending those who were dying. So he offered to clean the building. So he was given a tiny, noisy room near the street to stay in for his ten day leave.
Over the next week Jim mopped, scoured, and polished like never before in his life. His Marine training paid off. At the end of each day he collapsed into his bed and fell to sleep immediately. After seven days of cleaning Jim was given the morning off to go exploring the city. But at the last minute the sisters asked if, instead of sight-seeing, he might instead watch the front door and open it for visitors when they rang the doorbell. Very disappointed Jim did as was asked, and that morning he sat by the door waiting for the doorbell to ring. He didn’t have to wait long for the bell to ring and when he opened the door, there stood Mother Teresa. He was speechless; there she was the most famous Catholic in the world outside of the pope, standing there, half his size, radiating this intense joy.
In her Albanian accent, Mother Teresa said simply, “Come with me, we have work to do!” She led him quickly and silently through the slums until they arrived at the underside of a bridge where the air was saturated with filth. The odors were nauseating, almost unbearable. Mother Teresa seemed oblivious to it. Jim was almost to the point of vomiting. But there under the bridge, sprawled on the ground, was an elderly man lying in his own excrement, vomit, and whatever else had accumulated on his clothing for months if not years. The odor was so powerful that Jim had to keep turning his head. The old man had wounds that were infected and had attracted many flies.
“Take him!” said Mother Teresa. Jim thought with revulsion, “take him, and touch him?” But he did, he rolled his sleeves down over his hands so he wouldn’t make direct contact. He lifted the old man up and following Mother Teresa they made their way back to the house. And when they got back Mother Teresa instructed Jim to give the man a bath. That was about the last thing in the world Jim wanted to do, but he didn’t want to disappoint Mother Teresa, and he didn’t want the old man’s final memory to include an American who had turned away from him in disgust.
And so he placed the man in a tub and with lots of soap and water he began to gently wash him, and he soon began to think it wasn’t so bad. After washing the old man he rocked him in his arms letting him know he wasn’t alone, in his final hours. And that’s when Jim saw the old man transform. Jesus was now in the Marine’s arms. No amount of blinking could alter the transformation. He was holding the Lord in his own arms. This was not a vision, but Jesus himself was there, there were holes in His hands and feet. His side had a gaping wound, and his swollen face had the marks of trauma.
He looked to Mother Teresa for an explanation and she simply said, “You see Him too, don’t you.” It took him hours to recover; he had been shaken to his core. Jim’s dream had come true, he’d met his hero, Mother Teresa, but much more importantly, under a bridge in Calcutta, in the middle of the darkest human suffering, he touched the Face of God. Jim had been chosen and sent on a mission.
You have been chosen. Everyone reading this letter has been chosen by Jesus. Our spiritual life is not so much about searching for God as it is about surrendering to God, surrendering to this Divine loving act of being chosen. You have been chosen. In our Gospel Jesus says, “I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit.” We’ve been chosen and then sent on a mission to bear fruit. And the mission is always an expression of love. Jim the Marine was chosen and sent on a mission to Calcutta where he loved in a way that was very hard. We have been chosen by Love to give love.
Now this love is not a feeling, this love is not a sentiment; this love is to will the good of the other. This love is self-giving and self-sacrificing. It’s not selfish. It is a love that forgets about self. Think of Jesus on the cross. And there are a million ways of doing that. When you look at the saints every one of them is different, but the core of every single one of their missions is love.
My prayer for us today is that we continue to grow in loving with a forgetfulness of self, focusing on God and the other, focusing on our spouse, our children, our parents, our family, and our parish. And in that forgetfulness of self may we touch the face of God in those we serve.
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley