The following piece comes from Kay Warren’s book called “Dangerous Surrender”. It is a moving, inspiring book and I think this lengthy section will keep your full attention.
“When I think of heroes; people who embody dangerous surrender; I think of Mother Teresa. For me, probably more than anyone else in the twentieth century, she represents a life yielded to God. She determined from an early age to allow God to use her gifts, talents, and passions for his kingdom, and what he did through this tiny little woman is astonishing.
Because of my admiration of her selfless service to the “least of these,” I decided to visit her Home for the Dying in Calcutta, India, in October 2004.
Not many people have spent time in one of the Missionaries of Charity’s homes around the world, especially non-Catholics, so I thought I was doing something pretty wonderful. I felt noble, even virtuous, for what I was about to do.
There are two volunteer shifts a day at M.C., and my friends and I chose the morning shift. Volunteers are required to attend Mass with the sisters before beginning the workday. We knelt on the hard wooden floor of the Mother House and prayed, sang, and listened to the homily for the day with nuns in their white cotton saris. After tea and rolls, we headed to M.C. Once again, I was completely unprepared for the experience.
The sisters stay extremely busy tending to the women and men in their care; fifty on the men’s side and fifty on the women’s side; and don’t have time for cozy chat with new volunteers. When I asked one sister briskly walking past me what I should do, she barely glanced at me and said, “Do what you see other’s doing.”
I don’t know if I expected her to stop, look me in the eye, and shower me with words of praise for showing up that morning, but it certainly wasn’t the reception I anticipated! I noticed other volunteers grabbing gloves and surgical masks out of a metal bucket, but by the time I made it to the bucket, the only masks left were extra large; useless for me. Gloves? None that I could find. My friends Mary, Judy, Cisco, Steve, and I just looked at each other, and with a resigned shrug of our shoulders, we plunged into serving the dying men and women.
Steve and Cisco headed to the men’s side, while Mary, Judy, and I went through the doorway for the women. Fifty small cots were lined up in rows, and there was a flurry of activity as volunteers, nuns, and patients mingled together. I quickly figured out that there was a system; women were fed breakfast, given a bath, and dressed in clean clothes; their bed coverings were changed; simple medications were dispensed; and then they sat on their beds or slept. We joined the brigade of volunteers. Some of the volunteers come for weeks or months at a time, so there were a few veterans who took pity on our ignorance and gave us specific tasks to do; “Feed that woman over there. Be careful; she gets nauseated easily and throws up.” “Here, help me get this woman into the bathing area. She can’t walk by herself.” “No, I’m sorry; there isn’t any hot water to wash your hands. Just use the faucet and dry your hands on your pants.” “Medication? Well, someone donated aspirin and a salve for fungus. The sisters are handing it out right now.” “What is wrong with this woman? Maggots got into the wound on her head, and that awful-looking open sore is actually healing.” “Clean that bed; no, there aren’t any more gloves. Get some disinfectant from the kitchen and put it in that bucked of cold water. You’ll find a piece of cloth that you can scrub the diarrhea off the mattress.” “You really should put on a mask; I’m certain the woman you’re holding so close to your face probably has tuberculosis.”
Within a half hour of arriving, my romanticized notion of “serving the poor” had evaporated into the stench of diarrhea and disinfectant, the screams of a man suffering as maggots were pulled from his wounds. The sight of injuries that made me feel sick and the stillness of a woman passing from this life into the next jarred me. “What a fool I am!” I thought to myself. Why did I ever want to come to this horrible place? When is my shift is over? I can’t wait to get out of here. I can’t handle much more of this.” I was a wreck.
The morning routine was finally finished. Women were fed, bathed, and dressed in clean cotton dresses. Their beds had clean sheets. Some had received simple medicine, and now we waited; waited for them to die. That’s what you do in a home for the dying.
I retreated to a quiet corner to gather my shell-shocked emotions and to allow my stomach to calm down from the sights, sounds, and smells. An alert nun saw me hiding and called for me to start folding donated newspapers into makeshift bags to dispose of soiled bandages. I am a klutz at art projects, and folding newspaper in the precise ways the sister hurriedly demonstrated was harder than it looked. I was relieved that I could still be useful without interacting with any more of the women.
But then I saw her.
As my eyes wandered aimlessly, they met those of a woman sitting by herself on a cot on the other side of the large room. I silently scolded myself for making eye contact; hadn’t I already earned my “nice person” stripes that morning? I felt as if all of my senses were on overload and I couldn’t handle one more disturbing encounter. But she motioned urgently for me to come to her. I got up grudgingly and walked slowly to her side, where she drew me down on the cot next to her.
Instantly, tears streamed down her face, and in Bengali she began a torrential flood of words. My first thought was “I have absolutely no idea what she is saying,” but then in a moment of clarity, I knew exactly what she was saying! This woman was pouring out her life story to me. She told me in the most vivid words she could muster how she ended up sick, alone, and dying in Missionaries of Charity. She mourned that her family was either too poor to care for her in her illness or too uncaring, or perhaps family had been lost long ago. I’m sure she told me of the hopes and dreams for her life that were dashed by circumstances and disappointments. Her grief grew by the minute, and her body trembled with emotion. We sat side by side on her tiny cot; an Indian woman approaching death and an American woman who didn’t know how to help her.
All at once I was full of compassion for her, my sister.
I threw my arms around her and drew her very close to me so that our faces were just inches apart. While she was speaking in Bengali, I spoke in English, believing that the God who made her could help her understand, if not my words, the love with which I spoke them. “I am so sorry you hurt! I’m so sorry that you are here, alone and dying in this place. I’m so sorry that your family is not here with you; that they abandoned you to face your last days by yourself. But you are not alone! God is with you! You matter to him, and you matter to me. My arms around you are his arms; as I am wiping your tears away with my fingers, these are his fingers; as I touch your face, know that it is his hands lovingly reminding you of how dear you are to him. He loves you so much he sent his Son, Jesus, so that you could spend eternity with him! And he has sent me to you today to hold you and tell you one more time how special you are to him.”
I couldn’t assure her that she would leave Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying and be restored to full health. I couldn’t guarantee her that her family would be outside, waiting joyfully for her to come home to them. I couldn’t promise her that there would be adequate pain medication to make her death easy and comfortable. I offered the one thing I had in my power to offer --- my presence, my very self. I offered her the gift that everyone can give – the gift that costs more than our money or even our energy, and time --- our very presence.”