The Cross, and the Face of Christ, In Calcutta

A group of young guys we visited on the way to Mother Theresa's Center for Lepers
I’m starting to write this listening to the rain pour down on the roof outside.  Scratch that, I’m writing this as Niagra Falls apparently has relocated to the skies above me; the amount of water that has precipitated from the heavens during the past five minutes seems borderline impossible.  I should note that I haven’t seen any cats or dogs falling along with the rain drops, but there are plenty of those outside wondering the streets as well, along with goats, and chickens, and cows.   I’m in Calcutta (in India), it’s monsoon season, and I’m spending 3 and a half weeks working with the Missionaries of Charity, at the place where Bl. Mother Theresa started them 65+ years ago.  

Not that I ever expected to be here - almost exactly on the opposite side of the world as home, and nearly as far from Rome as Rome is from the mid-west - but ever since the middle of last semester it became evident that coming here was an option, and quickly something I was very interested in doing.  Unfortunately, I thought of the experience very abstractly, very idealistically.  “it’ll be beautiful”, I’d think, “to help the poor of India, to see the places where Theresa of Calcutta walked and worked, and to experience a culture very different than my own.”  And so it is, but the beauty took a while for me to find it.  

The thing was, Calcutta is anything but abstract.  The torrential rain; the mangy cats and dogs, and cows and goats; the gazillion-percent humidity; the throngs of people - some selling street food, clothes, or hindu offerings, others carrying buckets of water, kids, chickens, or whatever, some swathed in eastern-garments, others in jeans and t-shirts, others in not much at all; the ancient busses, taxis, motorcycles, auto-rickshaws (and person-powered rickshaws), bicycles, and carts of all kinds; the grime on, and surrounding, so many buildings (somehow still there after even the most powerful deluge), the garbage and sewage on the streets, and everything else.  Calcutta is an eye-opening experience like no other, and I was unprepared to be confronted by it when I got here.  I told people that this would be quite the experience, but where I was ready to see the city, help the sisters, see if I could handle the food (answer: sort of) I wasn’t ready to see 3rd-world destitution first hand.

The convent where we got lodging is a 15-minute walk from the Mother-House of the MC’s, through a pretty poor area of the city.  It’s not quite people living in cardboard houses, but it’s close.  The buildings are poor, many very dilapidated, people bathe in the streets, along with all the trash, chicken-butchering, and food-cooking, and only recently have I realized that this isn’t the slum, it’s not far off from the way the average person lives here.  The MC’s immediately assigned me to Nirmala Hriday each morning - Mother Theresa’s first center in Calcutta (after the Mother-House itself), - a home for very sick, and dying, men and women.  It’s right next to a Hindu temple (Kalighat), and entails a 30 minute ride on the Calcutta bus system (an experience all its own, with the old, now heavily decorated busses, and loads of people), and then a walk through the market up to the Hindu temple (some days absolutely jammed with people, as in, the densest crowd I’ve ever been in).  But, of course, that is just the beginning.  After arriving, I was confronted by the site of 50+ men, of all ages, slowly moving (sometimes crawling) from their cots to the main room, being washed, fed, bandaged, medicated, and otherwise cared for.  I had never seen anything like it, and I didn’t really know what to do.  So I helped where I saw a need - washing clothes, trying to talk with the men, spoon-feeding some of them, mopping up, scooting them around on chairs, holding their hands and just smiling at them.  It was exhausting work, a bit terrifying, sometimes revolting.  

After Kalighat, we usually try to find something to eat, whether that be bread and peanut-butter from a grocery store or some food at a cafe (there’s a couple that other volunteers have pointed us to that are sanitary), but after lunch we have ended up doing a variety of different things.  We’re officially assigned to Daya Dan, another MC center, this one for young men/boys who are disabled in one way or another.  Some are blind, some very emaciated, some with mental problems or learning disabilities, others just under-developed.  It’s hard work all the same, again it’s just very draining to try and figure out how best to help these guys, especially when I don’t know the language or how capable they are.  The other day I was trying to help teach one of them who is blind how to climb the stairs.  He did make it up eventually, but I was frustrated by his inability to really do it on his own.  He just didn’t seem to ever pick up the rhythm of stepping, pulling, stepping, pulling…  Another one of the boys I tried to feed a snack the other day, but I didn’t know how to tell him to swallow, and he didn’t seem to understand that rather important stage of the process, so we ended up with most of the snack, and a good bit of added saliva, still in the bowl afterwards.

So, basically, on the face of things, the days have been filled with a lot of challenges.  It’s frustrating because everything is so different, disgusting because so much of the city is so squalid (not the MC centers, I must emphasize), distressing because these men, and so many of the people I see, are in such dire straights, and disconcerting because I am so unprepared to cope with, and respond to, what I’ve been seeing.  I just finished spending 3 weeks studying Catholic social teaching, but we had mainly discussed bringing the faith back to a western world, that is ignoring, rejecting, or persecuting it.  I have spent a year studying theology, but we’ve stuck mainly with Scripture (reading and interpreting it), the Trinity, the Church (theologically, historically, currently), and doctrines of the faith (understanding and explaining them).  I’ve spent 3 years in seminary, gradually growing in my ability to pray, study, think, reflect, and trust in God. I thought I was doing pretty well all-in-all, and then I got here and I found myself at a loss as to what I could do in the face of so many struggling people, and my person discomfort in the face of, and living amidst, all of that.

Thankfully, God’s grace has been abundantly active over these past couple of weeks!  During all those moments of frustration, or disgust, He’s given me glimpses of beauty and love.  So often on the walk back each evening - when I might be lost thinking about the smells or grime - some of the kids who live there chase after us calling out “hello!”, “good night!”.  Their laughter and friendliness is just beautiful.  At Kalighat, the guys are so grateful simply for our presence.  One of them, Thomas, has a condition where all his muscles are locked up, so he can barely move and is kind of curled in on himself.  So, myself and some of the other volunteers will usually try to spend some time each day trying to stretch those muscles and loosen him up a little.  He will say “more” to tell us to keep pushing/pulling, “volunteer tea time” when our break-time comes each morning, and will break into the most beautiful, single-tooth, grin when we’re working with him.  Just the moments of grace that come each evening during our Holy Hours (either with the Missionaries of Charity at their motherhouse or sometimes the MC Fathers at their rectory) are awesome.  Our Lord is so generous in His consolations after my pitiful attempts to be a glimpse of His love to those I work with each day!  

In the end, I’ve been forced nearer than ever to the cross, mainly in the sufferings of those that live here and in my own pitiful attempts to help them.  It’s a daily struggle to be here - when I work, I don’t know what I’m doing, when I sleep, I sweat, when I eat, I mostly want things I can’t get here (a salad would be absolutely amazing!), when I move around, I am repulsed by the roads, crushed by the crowds, or ripped-off by the taxi drivers.  Yet all these things, as I said, I’ve realized are a chance to draw close to the heart of Christ.  When Peter rebuked Jesus for thinking about going to Jerusalem to die, Christ had tough words for him.  Why?  Because the cross is the heart of who Jesus is.  It is only on the cross that Our Lord allows “king of the Jews” to be written (before He had always avoided that title) - not because He wasn’t king before, but because the cross shows Him to be the king of love, the king who suffers for us, the king who takes our sins upon Himself.  So yeah, Calcutta isn’t much fun, but it has been an amazing experience nonetheless because of that great grace that it is to stand for a while nearer to the cross.  Pray for me that I will accept that grace without complaint, asking Our Lady to help me (she's the first and closest one to the cross) and learn to love a bit more like Jesus because of it.

Water, on the roads (in a bus on the way to Kalighat)
Random side note: it’s now a couple days after I started this post and now it’s sunny and hot outside…  BUT, between now and then, there were also times when a foot of water was covering about half of the roads in Calcutta…  

Less random side note: I also have now experienced the so called “kiss of Calcutta”, otherwise described as being miserably sick for 3 days with a high fever and not being able to keep anything down - thankfully, now I’m just about back to 100%.
Final note: because I wasn't able to get to the internet over the past week or so, I'm actually now back in Rome having spent the last couple days in Chennai (further South in India, still on the East coast) seeing the city and especially the tomb of the Apostle St. Thomas.