A drop of clean water.
When I was a baby Jesuit novice, I spent a summer working in a wonderful hospital in the Bronx called Calvary. It is a hospital for people with advanced cancer---cancer which cannot be cured. From the beginning it was about easing their pain and their suffering, but it was also about providing them with love and dignity in their final days, not unlike the Houses of the Dying that Mother Teresa established all over the world. I witnessed firsthand what an extraordinary place Calvary Hospital was, and still is.
Our job as Jesuit novices that summer was to be orderlies for the hospital, working the early shift from 7am to 3pm every day. I had never done any work like that before in my fairly sheltered life, and to be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to taking care of people who were dying. I think I was scared that I wouldn’t know how to handle all of it—witnessing their suffering, taking care of their needs, and most especially dealing with death face to face.
We had to learn how to take care of their most basic needs---to change their gowns and bedding when they had lost control of their bladders or bowels; to bathe them in bed without hurting them; to help them eat, often spoonfeeding them; to assist them when they were vomiting or when they needed an enema.
At first, some of these tasks were nasty and gross to me—the smells, the gruesomeness of the wounds, the foulness of it all---and I remember thinking on the first day that I might not make it to the end of the summer.
But on the second day I was asked to take care of a woman who was very ill. I had to change her bedding, and using the technique I had been taught, I had to roll her over from one side to the other to switch out the old and dirty sheets with new ones. She was in a lot of pain, and as I tried to take care of her, she sensed my awkwardness and unease. I wasn’t sure where to put my hands on her body, or how to gently move her. She took one of my hands and placed it on her hip. “Here,” she said with the sweetest, warmest smile that went right through me. “And here,” she said as she took my other hand and placed it by her shoulder. “We can do this together, sweetheart.” As I rolled her over, I could see her repressing the pain, and I knew it was because she didn’t want me to feel badly that I was hurting her.
When I finally finished the job and got her propped up as best as I could, she looked exhausted. But she asked me to come closer and then reached out to me with her hands and gently held my face. “Thank you so very much, thank you. You are… magnificent. God bless you.” And that smile again.
I hadn’t done anything really, except changed her sheets very poorly, and here this very sick woman was taking care of me. My face in her hands, I felt like a little boy again. I didn’t know what to say, the lump in my throat so large, my emotions suddenly taking over. “I’ll be back,” I finally croaked out, getting up to leave. “I would like that,” she said.
My shift was over. I left the hospital, went to our apartment and took a shower, and had dinner with my fellow Jesuit novices. I came back after work that night to visit her, and she was unconscious. I didn’t know what to do, so I just stayed there. She died as I sat beside her bed, holding her hand. One of the nurses who came in told me that she had been a cleaning lady all her life. And she told me that it had been a privilege to take care of her, she was one of the loveliest people she had ever met.
I had to leave the room, went down the hall to an alcove, and broke down in tears. Another nurse came over and put her arms around me. “It’s OK,” she said. “This is what we do. We take care of each other.”
I learned a great deal that summer about humility. And about privilege. The people I served at Calvary were from all walks of life. They were CEO’s, carpenters, cops, authors, athletes, teachers, cleaning ladies. They were from every age group and economic class, every race, and every religion. And it didn’t matter. They were all welcome to the table of love provided for them by the most dedicated health workers I have ever met.
I learned from them that the most humble of tasks—like cleaning a person who had had a bathroom accident—was the greatest privilege—my privilege. They taught me to help my patients retain their dignity, to enable them to feel more comfortable, to find a way to make them smile, and in the process I was equally blessed.
Like millions of others, I was very moved and inspired Mother Teresa’s work with the lost, the forgotten and the unwanted. But when it was revealed after her death that she had suffered for almost 50 years with a spiritual illness—of never feeling God’s presence in her life, only God’s absence---and that she embraced that long dark night as a gift from God to enable her to be one with all the world’s lost, forgotten and unwanted, that was when I understood what real humility is all about. 50 years of her work with the poor, the dying, the rejects, day in and day out, even as she suffered the most profound loneliness in the absence of God’s encouragement and love---that’s humility.
I read a story about her, just after she received the Nobel Prize for Peace. On her way back to her home in India, her plane made a stop-over in Rome. She was exhausted but she graciously spoke to waiting reporters, putting a miraculous medal into the hand of each one of them. One reporter seemed to be a little skeptical about what it all meant. “Mother,” he said,” you are seventy! When you die, the world will be as it was before. What has changed after so much of your effort with the dying and the poor?” It was a loaded question, but she smiled brightly, as if the man had kissed her affectionately. “Well,” she said, “I never thought I would be able to change the world! I have only tried to be a drop of clean water in which God's love could sparkle. Does that seem like nothing?” The reporter didn’t know what to answer, and he fell silent for a moment. She spoke to him again. “Why don't you try to be a drop of clean water, and then there will be two of us.” Again the smile. “Are you married?, she asked him. “Yes, Mother”. “ Wonderful,” she said. “Tell your wife as well and then there will be three of us. So you have you any children?”. The reporter said, “I have three children, Mother”. Then that most wonderful smile dawned on her face. “Tell them, tell your children too and then there will be six of us...!”
CS Lewis once said "Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less."
Isn’t that what Jesus is telling us in the Gospel? For every one who exalts himself will be humbled. And the one who humbles himself will be exalted. Perhaps the greatest definition of humility that we have is that one on the wall before us. Thy will be done, not mine.