During this time of year, when people are trying to scrimp and save, purchase gifts for family and friends, and prepare for Christmas, it can be difficult to keep the right perspective. Many people stress about money, family, and the pressure to have the “perfect” Christmas. It’s been on my mind this week, so I thought I would write about the true spirit of giving – something that isn’t restricted to a certain season, or specific day.
When I think of a group of people who are experts at giving, I think of the Missionaries of Charity. Blessed Mother Teresa’s sisters have devoted themselves to the service of the poorest of the poor, and they sacrifice family, personal comfort, and even their homeland to do so. During the summer of 2012, I spent several weeks living with the Missionaries of Charity in Tijuana, Mexico. The purpose of my trip was primarily to practice Spanish and to be helpful in some way, so I asked if I could volunteer to assist in whatever work they happened to need done.
The sisters live in a small compound in the middle of a slum about a 20-minute-drive from the San Isidro border. They have tall, concrete walls surrounding their few, cramped buildings, with razor wire coiled along the top. Inside, they have a small convent, some classrooms, and a dormitory for elderly, and abandoned women. They had a small room prepared for me, one that young women discerning a vocation usually stayed in. It was impeccably clean, but with only the bare minimum in the way of furniture. The sisters invited me to join them in their rigorous daily schedule, involving very early mornings, and revolving constantly around prayer and work.
The main mission of Postal, the house where I was staying, was to provide 24/7 care to the twenty or thirty women living in the dormitory attached the sister’s living quarters. Most of the women living there are very elderly, with only a few able to even walk. Because of this, the sisters (with the help of a few local women) cook, clean, bathe, and see to their every need. During my first week, I stayed primarily in the kitchen, preparing and serving food, cleaning things, and trying to adjust to the drastic changes in environment and daily routine. Every morning a few sisters and I would strip all the beds in the dorm, wipe down the thin, plastic mattresses, remake the beds with fresh sheets, and sweep and mop the floor. Every night after dinner, the sisters would assist the women into bed, changing diapers and comforting those who were in pain or needed special attention. I shied away from the evening routine, partially because of the language barrier, and because I was uncomfortable with the idea of changing someone’s diaper. I have a lot of younger siblings and have babysat more children than I can remember, but changing the diaper of an adult, that’s a different story. To be honest, the idea of it completely freaked me out.
After a week of skillfully avoiding the nightly routine, one of the sisters finally called my bluff. She was an older woman, tiny, but incredibly energetic and charismatic. She pulled me from the kitchen one day and informed me that she needed me to change someone’s diaper. I tried to talk my way out of it, but she wouldn’t hear it. I went up to the sweet, old lady she had pointed at with an armload of supplies and panic in my heart. Sister quickly moved to help someone else, leaving me alone. Standing in a corner of the room, looking at the frail woman before me, I felt absolute dread. I did not want to embarrass this woman. She didn’t even know my name. We could barely communicate at all. What if I hurt her? She looked so tiny and helpless. I finally realized I just needed to get it over with before I completely freaked out. As I clumsily started, I felt so overwhelmed about the situation. How did I even end up here? Why am I in Tijuana right now, of all places? What on earth was I thinking? I never in a million years imagined myself in this situation. I lost all focus as doubt and worry took over my mind.
Suddenly I felt a hand on my arm, and looked down to see sister standing right next to me. She looked at me with a beautiful light in her eyes and said three words I will never forget.
“This,” she said, “is Christ.”
“What you are doing right now, you are doing to Christ.”
Then she walked away.
Suddenly Everything made sense. The entire mission of the sisters, the reason for their unending joy, the purpose that motivates them to do the work no one else wants to do, for people no one else wants to do it for. They give of themselves, in all things, for Christ. And because of their poverty, the greatest thing they can give to the people they serve is the tender love that Christ gives to us. Christ, who gave Himself Entirely to us, at Christmas, and later in His death. Looking down at the woman before me, I felt an immense sense of peace and joy. I could see Christ in her. In such a clear way that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it before.
During this Christmas season, I would like to encourage you to give wholeheartedly of yourself to others. Strive to see Christ in everyone you encounter, no matter how difficult they may be. Giving presents and material things is good – but it is not the point. “It is not how much we give, but how much love we put into giving” (Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta).
Till next time,