The theme within the Prince Albert Catholic School Division this school year is “Faith: Live it.” When it comes to journeying in faith, Rev. Robert Barron encourages us to “begin with the beautiful, which leads to the good, which leads to the truth.” Bearing this in mind, I will attempt to shed some light on the journey my wife, Megan, and I experienced.
After teaching for three years with the Prince Albert Catholic School Division, Megan and I decided to apply for a one-year leave. Our leave was graciously granted and as the school year drew to a close, we were excited to see what would unfold. We wanted to begin our time in a simple manner, one with a focus on the God of creation and an eye to appreciate the beauty around us. The first section of our trip was bicycling from Calgary to the West Coast where we continued south to California. It was liberating to have only food, our bicycles, the essential camping gear and the beauty of nature to accompany us.
Cycling along the coast of the United States, we were at times overwhelmed by the incredible kindness, generosity, and heart-felt conversation of our southern neighbours. For example, one lady invited us to camp on her land, shared tea with us and the next morning brought us pancakes. Another fellow pulled over beside us on the highway and insisted on giving us money. After we refused the money, he set it on the road and drove away. In a world so “up to date” with news and gossip, this was a breath of fresh air when it can be all too tempting to become doubtful of the basic goodness of people.
Later in our trip we were fortunate to discover more of this goodness of strangers while spending two months in Kolkata, India. Kolkata is a vibrant city with a collision of different people, sounds and cultures. While volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity in the city, we met a wide variety of fellow volunteers from all over the world. Each week there were new priests celebrating mass at Mother House along with the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, the volunteers and other local parishioners. On more than one occasion the visiting priests shared the most heartfelt of thanks with the sisters for reminding them why they had become priests.
Mother Teresa truly left a mark; she put “skin” on the truth of the Christian message in a way that the world has not been able to ignore. While she may not have left pretty shoes to fill, she did leave a captivating example, timeless words of wisdom, her faith-filled way of life that fosters humility and prayerfulness, and a legacy of love that continues to walk with and greet the poorest of the poor each day. Her words, “Don’t look for big things, just do small things with great love . . . the smaller the thing, the greater must be our love” began to take on a on a very personal meaning.
Many volunteers we worked with as well as numerous sisters at Mother House had known or met Mother Teresa. I asked the same question to many of them: “What was it like to meet Mother Teresa?” By far the most common answers referred to how Mother Teresa made each person feel as if she or he were the only person in the room. Each of these people spoke of her whole-hearted presence and attention to who she was speaking to no matter what was going on around her. To me this seems so profound, so simple, so small and yet so rare when really, you’d think any of us could practice this if we really made it a priority — couldn’t we?
When we first went to visit Nrimal Hriday, the home for the destitute, one of our volunteer friends who had met Mother Teresa and did his best to live by her words, “the person who gives with a smile is the best giver because God loves a cheerful giver,” looked at me and noticed I looked nervous while greeting the patients. He echoed Mother Teresa’s challenging words and loving way, insisting that I “smile” and “be not afraid.”
I had another opportunity to respond to his challenge when another cheerful friend introduced me to the art of shaving the patients’ heads and faces. This man was always smiling and singing as he worked, and he obviously enjoyed dousing the men’s smooth, freshly shaven faces with wonderful smelling aftershave that he had picked up in a little shop. When I asked him about this little ritual, he told me, “they really love this!” I think he enjoyed it even more than the men he was taking care of.
Although volunteers working with the Missionaries of Charity may come from completely different cultures with completely different languages, one common thread linked the community together: everyone was excited about catching a glimpse of the huge mark such a small lady left on the world. Almost equally inspiring for us was hearing the ways in which so many of the people who had been deeply impacted by her had continued to live the rest of their lives. Some became “lifers” as Missionaries of Charity along with countless others who went back to their home countries to do “something beautiful for God” in their own unique ways. Their lives were a testament to Mother Teresa’s words: “Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta . . . What you are doing I cannot do, what I’m doing you cannot do, but together we are doing something beautiful for God. You must put your love for God in a living action.”
During her lifetime Mother Teresa spoke of the many people dying for lack of food and the many more dying for lack of a little love. In our western world, where there is so much striving to be or do something worthy of praise, we see almost as many signs of loneliness, lack of meaning and purposelessness. Could part of the solution we are looking for be as simple as cheerfully giving the people around us the real, quality attention they hunger for? Could it be as simple as doing small things with great love?
Thanks to the strangers we met along the way, Megan and I have returned from our journey with a new perspective on the importance of beginning each day with a focus on the beauty, goodness and truth surrounding us. A personal goal of mine is to remember to be more present and to seek first to understand and see the goodness in each person I’m with — both inside and outside of the school. A goal Megan has is to spend more time focusing on the beauty and goodness in the everyday things here in Prince Albert as opposed to the not so good things. A key take-away from the trip that we both hope to remember is that each one of us can find “Calcutta” right here in our homes, schools, workplaces or wherever else we may be — and to be inspired by the many people who are doing just that.