Arriving to Calcutta, I had an immediate strong reaction to the chaos, the disorder and the unrest. People everywhere. Unbreathable air. A strange fog that enshrouds the buildings. I ask the taxi driver: it’s smog. Winds that carry the smell of sewers alternate with the odor of burning. Calcutta is an urban agglomerate of about a million people. In the midst of this swarming of lights, sounds, and cars, human life seems accidental.
After about an hour by car, we arrive at the residence of the sisters of PIME where we will be staying. As soon as we get out of the taxi on the main road, everything is run down and dead looking. The convent is covered with locks, as if they must defend themselves from every kind of assault.
Now it’s dark. We leave with a taxi to go to the Motherhouse, the place where Mother Teresa lived and died. There aren’t roads, but narrow and confused spaces between houses, rubble and piles of trash. There is a continual screaming of car horns. It seems like something out of the Inferno of Dante.
Among the poor and desperate faces that crowd the street, we meet the sweet and motherly face of a sister. In the hands is a rosary that she was praying as she stood there waiting. She brings us immediately to the chapel on the ground level. A bare room. There is just a crucifix with the phrase: I thirst. And there, facing the tabernacle, the tomb of Mother Teresa. Don Massimo kneels down and I follow suit. I am suddenly invaded by a sense of unworthiness, emotion and forgiveness. The figure of that small and simple sisters appears immense to me. The tomb is a large and made of stone without any decoration. What gives glory to the Mother is other.
We go up a story, where there is the Adoration before the Mass. This is the larger chapel. It is a bare, rectangular room. In the center of the long side, the Holy of Holies is already exposed. Before and to the left of the altar, about one hundred sisters kneel in adoration. In India, everyone takes off their shoes before entering a house or a church. It is the first time that it comes to me to unlace them. I am tapping into something simple and at the same time sacred. The pavement is covered with mats. The barefoot sisters pray at close contact with the earth, to the point of becoming one with it in prostration. They are in another world. The saris that they wear are the garb of the poor, and yet they have a discreet elegance. From the windows that are open due to the heat, the violent noise of traffic and screaming enters. It is unimaginable that in that continuous din, there can exist a heart of silence. “How can one live in such a place?” I asked myself while we were being driven there. Only if she is filled with the grace of sanctity. Mother Teresa brought paradise within hell, silence and prayer within the dispersion, care and attention into the chaos and devastation.
The powerful sweetness
The heart of that silence is the eucharist. The sisters, kneeling, wrapped in their saris before the altar seem like the adoring angels of a nativity scene. That silent prayer is a familiarity gained in time, day after day. Meanwhile, from the door to the right, the volunteers begin to arrive. All of them are young and foreigners, and for the most part young women. They enter in silence, attracted by the Eucharist exposed and the sisters in prayer, by the Face and the Body of Christ. Seeing such a scene makes one desire to fall down in adoration. The chapel becomes filled with life, with luminous eyes. This spectacle does not impose itself on the confusion of the world that infiltrates continuously through the windows with a challenging air: instead it beats it with a powerful sweetness that can spring up only from the heart of a mother. In this way, I understand that she is present here. A life transformed by Christ is not limited any more by time and space.
In this silence there is a single word: I thirst. Written on the wall behind the crucifix. “I thirst for your love, I thirst for the souls that do not know me,” Jesus said to Mother Teresa at the beginning of her mission. Where I saw only repugnant misery, Mother Teresa saw souls desired by Christ, souls that God was missing. In this place in which there is no sign of beauty, she was able to found an order of contemplative life. She threw herself into that world in order to get to know the thirst of God. She let herself be emerged in a love without limits and she got close to those persons, becoming even more Indian than the Indians. There is a form of knowledge that is infinitely more profound than every human science: charity. The sisters intone the Te Deum. If in the heart of this saintly Mother, there is a welcoming place for all of these persons, then there is also a place for me.
Christ in the poor
The following morning, we return to the Motherhouse. This time we try to go by foot. I am scared and excitable. There are pigs rummaging in the garbage. Dogs lying on the ground. We cross paths with little bulls. For sacred animals, they not taken care of very well. As we proceed, the streets become more crowded, the kiosks and street stands get more numerous. These side streets function as immense markets. The scents are invasive: fish, meat butchered out in the open, spices, cooked food, exposed sewers. Every now and then from the foundations they bring water that they throw on the ground and that lies there, stagnant. Here the men work and the women do laundry.
We get lost. The streets are indistinguishable. Everything is disorderly, unfinished, derelict. Even in these tight spaces the cars speed around, leaning on their horns. If I get distracted by looking around, I run the risk of being run over by a car.
In the end, we arrive. The sisters welcome us. I return to the chapel where there is the tomb of Mother Teresa. I could stay in that place for hours. We visit a little museum: manuscripts, objects that were used to cure her sickness, photographs of her infancy. I am at the center of an event that changed the history of the world.
I begin to speak with one of the superiors of the Order. She has an intense gaze, profound and welcoming. I understand that behind those eyes hides a familiarity with another world. She lived with Mother Teresa for 13 years. They had already had the perception of her sanctity, but they were continuously discovering new things. I ask her about the “darkness” of Mother Teresa. She responds that she had never spoken about with anyone, only with her spiritual directors. She was full of joy, a whirlwind. It was that darkness that pushed her to seek Christ in the poor. After years of mystical frequentation with Christ, in her there was an absence that could not find peace. A nostalgia for that closeness that Christ had given her and then taken away. She couldn’t live without Him anymore. In this way, she sought other roads. From this mysterious dialogue of absence and silence was let loose her immense life’s work.
I ask the sister about the habits of prayer of Mother Teresa. She prayed just for the amount of time indicated by the rule. She had many things to do. She was a mystic, but not a contemplative. Serving persons was her prayer. She wrote letters into the night. She room was extremely simple: a bed, a desk, a table for the rule. It was above the kitchen, in an extremely hot position, in order to share in the life of the poor even when she was in her own room.
On all of the walls of the place there are the aphorisms of the Mother: simple, profound, poetic, concrete. In the sober and luminous poverty of these sisters, there is a great attraction. It is this poverty that allows them to be so free and joyful, which transforms the misery that surrounds them. In them the difference between misery and poverty is evident. Above all in the liturgy where everything is very taken care of, clean and precise. There is a sense of the presence of Christ.
Mothers for ever
One of the sisters gave me a rosary blessed on the tomb of Mother Teresa. “If a priest is holy, then the space and the persons around him become holy.” It is a maternal invitation, delicate and decisive so that I might take seriously the sanctity of my ministry.
A volunteer accompanies us to the house for abandoned and disabled children. There an explosive sister from Madrid welcomes us. No one had said we were coming and yet it feels like our presence had been awaited. All of the works of the Order are sustained by providence. This word comes out of the mouths of the sisters as if it were the name of a person. The structure that we visit was born in order to make sure that every woman could bring her pregnancy to term. The heart of Mother Teresa could not support the atrocity of abortion. One sister feeds a disabled baby with a tenderness and a love that will make her the child’s mother forever.
In the afternoon, we visit the first house where Mother Teresa began her mission. It is a house for sick men, many of whom have their flesh marked by deep folds. Someone approaches us, touches our feet and asks for a blessing. Don Massimo celebrates mass in the chapel. A dozen sisters interrupt what they were doing and come to sing. Some of the fixed parts are Gregorian, and so we sing them together.
Next to this house, there is a Hindu temple. An endless line of people waiting to enter to receive good fortune for the new year. On the side of this temple that is full of extravagant, colorful, and grotesque images, the reality that those gods introduce and hide is revealed. Outside of the palace of the Mother, there is just a cross. She had wanted it. And in all of that ruckus, a single word emerges: I thirst.