The first time I see Mother Teresa striding down the hall, it’s clear that she has let go all pointless baggage. She’s short and wide, she has energy in spades, and she barrels on like a tank. She can’t be stopped. She comes to chapel early, kneels on the right-hand corner mat, and gets busy praying.
The room where mass takes place is spare — a simple altar, floor mats for the nuns, bare floor for those who have come to work at Kalighat, where the destitute come to die. The priest comes in last. His voice is the call, ours the response. Through high windows fiery light pours down, the room fills with lifting energy, and our words fly up and out the windows like a flock of doves. I imagine that nothing my hand touches will ever again be hard cold matter.
Calcutta in July is a petri dish multiplying microbes. Sidewalks fill with sneezing, coughing citizens. Lorries crowd thoroughfares, revving engines, grinding huge gears, and I sweat, cough, sneeze with the multitudes. The hospice is next door to a Kali temple. Did Mother Teresa choose Kalighat’s location because Kali Ma, the Hindu triple goddess of creation, preservation, and destruction would reside next door?
I arrive as Sister Luke instructs a young Brit to get down on his hands and knees and scrub the entrance threshold. Roughly half the volunteers are in their forties or fifties, and the others, like this Oxford undergrad, are the young who aspire to change the world. Would Sister Luke admit that she likes seeing this privileged boy on his knees?
I introduce myself, and Sister Luke nods.
“Women work on women’s ward,” she says, pointing.
Luke goes back to her desk on a raised platform between the men’s and women’s wards, and records a new donation of Bactrim in her ledger. Thus ends my training. Karin, who is my age, shows me where to find supplies of clean gowns, sheets, towels, soap, points out the bathing area, toilets. The only medical apparatus is a handful of thermometers and one drip bottle hung from a coat rack. There’s a cabinet of meds, mostly over-the-counter pain killers — that’s it. But this bare simplicity doesn’t feel austere. I have friends in the states who are nurses, and I recognize the atmosphere they mysteriously create with their presence. Kalighat houses the harrowing of illness and death, and it’s also the harboring landscape of love.
As a child I’d played beneath an elm next to my grandmother’s yellow irises. Into this bower I brought abandoned things — a fallen blossom, a dying cricket, pebbles that called to me. A cracked saucer of rainwater. I’d cherished these forgotten ones and played at comforting them. I suspect that this play was a way of assuring myself that I would also be comforted.
Here I go the rounds from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., collecting more of the world’s abandoned. Unless we participate in the dread, the sense of loss, the anguish, the dereliction and the destitution of the crucified, wrote Thomas Merton, we cannot enter into the mystery: the mystery of the interconnection between all things. We are not always aware of this interconnection. But when we notice it, to participate in makes obvious sense.
Karin asks Sister Luke where she keeps the shrouds.
“You are here three days,” Luke says, “and you do not know where are shrouds?”
The windows are above our heads: they afford privacy but let in light. The cots are low, so I must kneel, and the lower you go, the less high and mighty you can pretend to be. I can’t understand Bengali, nor can my language be understood. And how fitting — for I’m in a place where my actions will speak louder than words. I mime: shall I carry you to the bath? Help you walk to the latrine? Do you want a cup of water? A woman nods: yes, please. Another pushes the glass away. When they chat with each other do they assess me? It doesn’t matter.
Kneeling beside their cots, I’m bowing to them. I practice this bow the way I practiced the piano over and over. The women are the black and white keys, the possibility of love’s music. Some are starved, some worn down by the hard work of living without wealth. I fill their cups with water and remember myself at four years old, working in the garden with my mother. Afterward we bathed together, and my mother looked weary but happy. Work was an elixir, and she’d drunk it down. Her body’s satisfaction was a kind of wealth. Now her body is giving in like the bodies of these women. Like Calcutta’s old mansions that once were grand, they’re crumbling.
In the nineteenth century the Bengali elite built their palaces in Calcutta, the cultured classes flourished, and the poet and mystic Rabindranath Tagore recited his astonishing poems. Now Mother Teresa’s work has pumped up Calcutta’s prestige again. She bows to this city every afternoon between 3:00 and 4:00, when she opens the door of her private quarters and steps out to receive anyone who comes.
The new French volunteer, Clarice, is just out of high school, and aspires to become a nun. As a first step, while still in Paris, she’d shaved her head.
“Come with me to visit Mother. Please! I am too frightened to go alone!”
I remember the hot feel of idolatry when I was four: my mother, I believed, was the repository where all secrets were kept. Clarice is in idolatry’s grip, and ardor like hers, in someone so young, is sweet. We bus to the Motherhouse and join the line of supplicants waiting. At 3:00 p.m. Mother opens her door, steps out, greets the first petitioner. The line moves slowly as each supplicant departs, floating above the parquet.
Clarice is nervous. Will meeting Mother bring on palpitations? Fainting, it occurs to me, is very French. Does Clarice carry smelling salts in the pocket of her lacy cotton blouse? A family of five Bengalis in front of us takes their turn.
Clarice clutches my forearm. “Mother is so close!” she whispers.
The five hustle off, and Clarice sinks to her knees at Mother’s feet. Mother grips her arm and tugs her up. Clarice is in shock: forbidden to kneel? This cannot be! Again she collapses. Again Mother tugs her arm: there will be no groveling!
“What is your name?” Mother asks. “Where are you from?”
Clarice is weak from the strain of being gazed upon by a saint.
“Paris!” she gasps.
Mother explains that the Sisters of Charity operate AIDS hospices all over France, and urges Clarice to volunteer when she returns. Clarice nods vigorously. Mother has instructed her how to proceed in life! Clarice holds out a tiny St. Teresa medal and presses it into Mother’s hand. Mother’s hand presses it back.
“I have taken a vow of poverty,” Mother says. “I can’t accept gifts.”