On this feast day of Saint Mother Teresa, I read the address that she gave upon being awarded the Templeton Prize and came upon this striking anecdote:
“And in one of the places in Melbourne I visited an old man and nobody ever knew that he existed. And I saw his room in a terrible state, and I wanted to clean his house, his room, and he kept on saying ‘I’m all right!’ but I repeated the same word, ‘You will be more all right if you will allow me to clean your place’, and at the end he allowed me. And there in that room there was a beautiful lamp covered with dirt of many years, and I asked him ‘Why do you not light your lamp?’ Then I asked him, ‘Will you light the lamp if the Sisters come to see you?’ He said, ‘Yes, if I hear a human voice I will do it.’ And the other day he sent me word, ‘Tell my friend the light she has lit in my life is still burning.’”
How many in our world, particularly after this painful season of mandatory isolation, also need to hear a human voice for the light of their life to be rekindled in their soul?
Several years ago, I heard the story Bosco Gutierrez Cortina, a Mexican architect who was held hostage by kidnappers attempting to extort a ransom from his family. What struck me most about his story is how he devised a disciplined schedule for himself while is solitary confinement and he resolved to make good use of his time even while being held captive. Stripped of all of his ordinary resources, attachments, and supports, he was forced to discover what he actually had within inside himself. Without books, work, family, community, means of communication, and so much more, Bosco discovered what was a matter of his inner reserves versus what he had not yet deeply interiorized and made his own.
Sometimes I think about this and wonder just how well I know my faith, my family, and my friends. If I lost the ability to worship in community and to communicate with those I love, what would I have interiorly that would sustain me amid such deprival?
These thoughts also bring to mind an anecdote shared by Cicely Saunders, the founder of modern hospice and palliative care. In her biography, Shirley du Boulay writes, “When Cecily offered to read to David Tasma [the man who became the ‘founding patient’ of St. Christopher’s Hospice], thinking to comfort him, he said, ‘No — no reading. I only want what is in your mind and in your heart.’ She never forgot that simple reaction; and mind and heart became twin poles of St. Christopher’s philosophy.”
What do we have inside ourselves with which to comfort the dying? Without props, without activities, without prestige, who do we have to give when someone says, “I only want what is in your mind and in your heart”?