“The word ‘love’ is so misunderstood and so misused.”
-Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta
This past year I’ve been working with Karenni refugees from Burma who now live in St. Paul, Minnesota. I had the chance to develop friendships with a few of the families throughout the school year and felt called to continue serving the Karenni community throughout the summer. I went from devoting two hours of service a week during the school year to around thirty hours per week in the summer. I didn’t know exactly what the summer mission would entail as it had never been attempted in this area before. I had no idea where exactly I was heading or how exactly I would get there. The only real objectives I had was to love the Karenni and to lose myself in their lives. I trusted that God would take care of the rest.
I now look back on this summer mission as a classroom of love. It was a privilege to be able to spend my summer amidst such precious and kind-hearted individuals. Yet, if I had known in May what the refugees were going to teach me about love, I may have never signed up to stay for the summer.
When Blessed Mother Teresa began serving the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta, she experienced a profound case of spiritual desolation. She would go to prayer and would not feel God’s presence with her. She had an immense longing for the Light of the World to shed rays of peace in her soul, but all she encountered was darkness. This went on not just for a few weeks or months; this dryness in prayer was present throughout the entirety of her mission; fifty years. Among the adjectives she used to describe the state of her interior life were, “lonely,” “abandoned,” “hopeless,” and “rejected.”
Spiritual directors attempted to bring her some comfort by reminding her of the writings of St. John of the Cross on what he calls “the dark night of the soul.” Certainly she acknowledged the idea that the feelings of separation were meant to help purify and expand her heart, but it’s a concept that is more easily appreciated in retrospect than in the moment of suffering. Eventually a spiritual director helped her to consider the purpose of her trials from another perspective; a perspective which radically transformed her understanding of the purpose of her mission.
The spiritual director helped her to note the striking similarities present between her personal spiritual life and the lives of those she served. One author observes, “The condition of the poor on Calcutta’s streets, rejected by all and abandoned in their pain, was, she claimed, ‘the true picture of my spiritual life.’ She had reached the point of complete identification with her people with their misery, loneliness, and rejection.”
As Mother Teresa began delving into this great mystery, she helped her sisters rediscover the nature of their work and the purpose of their vocation. She once wrote:
“Try to increase your knowledge of this Mystery of Redemption. This knowledge will lead you to love, and love will make you share through your sacrifices in the Passion of Christ. My dear children, without our suffering, our work would just be social work; very good and very helpful, but it would not be the work of Jesus Christ, not part of the redemption. Jesus wanted to help us by sharing our life, our loneliness, our agony and death. All that He has taken upon Himself and has carried it in the darkest night. Only by being one with us has He redeemed us. We are allowed to do the same: All the desolation of the poor people, not only their material poverty, but their spiritual destitution, must be redeemed, and we must have our share in it. Pray thus when you find it hard, ‘I wish to live in this world which is so far from God, which has turned so much from the light of Jesus, to help them, to take upon me something of their suffering.'”
Elsewhere, she adds, “We must experience poverty if we want to be true Carriers of God’s love. To be able to proclaim the Good News to the Poor we must know what is Poverty.”
I came across these passages at a very difficult point in the summer mission. I’d been having some fun times playing soccer, going fishing, making movies, and having Bible studies with some of my friends within the Karenni community. The honeymoon stage that made me feel like “loving them” would only cost me my time (and a little gas money) eventually came to a grinding halt. I was soon thrown into the purifying furnace within the Sacred Heart of Jesus to learn how much love really costs.
First, I experienced a prolonged period of spiritual desolation. Every day I prayed for at least one hour to keep my thirsting heart satiated by the Spring of Living Water. I longed to cling to a Constant amidst the many uncertainties in my life. However, at a time when I needed Him the most, it felt as though He wasn’t with me. It quickly became a source of discouragement. To a significantly lesser extent, I experienced the same interior trials Mother Teresa faced, including feelings of loneliness, abandonment, hopelessness, and rejection.
Second, I began to feel just as distant from the Karenni as I did God. Serving them was not as easy as I had imagined it would be. Because of age restrictions, cultural differences, my own weaknesses, and frequent instances of miscommunication, it became more and more difficult to spend time together. Plans were canceled at the last second or, because they had misunderstood me, they would not be present at their house when I came to visit. Hardly any adult could speak English, which meant I could not spend time with them unless I had a young person to translate. People my age had summer jobs and would sometimes be placed on call, never knowing exactly when they would be going in. I would sometimes go several days in a row without even getting to see any of the Karenni. I felt like (as I shared in an earlier post) a failure.
Thankfully, a friend was able to show me an important relation between these two phenomena. He reminded me that spiritual desolation is a way in which God is able to purify and expand our hearts. It is in those times that we must realize how dependent we are on Him. Our main desire has the chance to mature from wanting the good feelings He can give us to wanting Him alone. It is a time for Him to reveal the true motives of our hearts to see if we will stay with Him even when we’re not getting warm, fuzzy feelings from encountering His presence. In a similar way, I was going through a kind of desolation in my relationship with the Karenni community. I knew that instead of just crossing my arms, pouting, and waiting for them to come to me, I had to reach out to them all the more. As Mother Teresa exhorted, I had to truly “love until it hurts.”
That was when I met So Meh.
So Meh is twenty-three years old. I met her on my Saturday “pioneer day” when I try to meet and visit with a handful of new families. When I walked into the apartment I saw So Meh sitting in a seemingly uncomfortable position. It soon became obvious that she had some sort of physical and mental disability. As I began speaking with her (through a translator), I found that she rarely gets the chance to leave her apartment. She has never gone to school. She has no friends. She spends most of her days just watching TV. I repeat, she is twenty-three years old.
My heart immediately went out to her and she soon became the focus of my prayer. As I reflected on her debilitating condition and my challenges in prayer and in the mission as a whole, I happened to pick up a copy of Come Be My Light; the book that shares Mother Teresa’s interior struggles in her own words. It was at that moment that everything began to come together.
I could relate better to So Meh, who had daily experiences of loneliness, rejection, and hopelessness, because I myself was experiencing those things interiorly. God was humbling me to prevent me from developing a Savior-complex. He had me experience in some way what Karenni individuals experience daily so that I wouldn’t treat them like a living museum; taking pictures of fascinating “exhibits” and pitying their circumstances as I kept my safe distance. It was God’s way of transforming my heart to allow for, in Mother Teresa’s words, a “complete identification” with the Karenni.
I thought about a lifeguard having a pool of people entrusted to his care. One day he sees a person drowning at the bottom of the pool and feels the urge to help. From his platform he throws a lifesaver onto the surface of the water. Then he pats himself on the back, tweets about his good deed, and goes back to scanning the pool. This, unfortunately, is how I feel I approached the summer mission in the opening weeks. I soon discovered that God was calling me to jump from the platform of safety and immerse myself into the pool of uncertainty. Was not one of my objectives for the summer mission to “lose myself in their lives”? I had to meet people where they were at, and that would require taking their sufferings upon myself in one way or another. As Mother Teresa wrote, “Let us share the sufferings of our Poor, for only by being one with them we can redeem them; that is, bringing God into their lives and bringing them to God.
Love embraces sacrifice. It cries out to the suffering beloved,”I will take your place! I will take your sufferings upon myself.” What mother would not look upon her cancerous child and say, “Lord, spare his life and take mine instead!” What husband would not look upon his wife while she’s in great pain and say, “If only I could take on her sufferings and give her my own health.”
This, my friends, is the great mystery of the Incarnation and the Cross. Our Lord left the safety of Heaven to “lose Himself” in our lives, into our woundedness, into our poverty. As Mother Teresa wrote, “Jesus was sent by His Father to the poor. To be able to understand the poor, Jesus had to know and experience that poverty in His own Body and Soul.” When a murderous king caused his family to flee the country, Jesus took upon Himself the sufferings of every refugee. When He was abandoned by His friends, rejected by humanity and put on a Cross, He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” In doing so, He took on our feelings of abandonment, rejection, and hopelessness. He allowed Himself to be crucified so that we would see the greatness of His love which said to us, in effect, “I will take your place! I will take your sufferings upon myself.” Because that’s what true love entails.
The Cross is the tool we must use to descend into the wounded-ness of the poor and the suffering. We cannot settle for comfortably loving others from a distance. We can say we love the poor, that we love all of humanity, but only the scars we bear will prove it. Shame on us if we escape this world unscathed by a love that calls us to take on, in some way, the sufferings of those we love. I agree with Venerable Fulton Sheen that on the day of our Judgement, Our Lord will ask each of us, “Show me your hands. Do they have scars from giving? Show me your feet. Are they wounded in service? Show me your heart. Have you left a place for divine love?”
The only real objectives I had for the summer mission was to love the Karenni and to lose myself in their lives. So simple, yet so much more difficult than I could have possibly imagined.
And I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.
“I am filled with consolation, and despite my many afflictions my joy knows no bounds.”
-2 Corinthians 7:4