by Shona Cahill
I am often asked how I ended up being a Spiritual Director in St Beuno’s and it is not an easy question to answer. When we find ourselves in a role that feels fitting and fulfilling and seems to use our gifts appropriately, it is a real blessing. It is necessary to look back on our faith history, the various choices we made and situations we faced along life’s journey, in order to recognise how we got to our present situation. My present work came about through a whole array of circumstances and experiences but I will say something about one of the aspects of my life in particular that I believe has led me here.
As a young university student, studying Theology in Maynooth in Ireland, I became involved with an organisation called Maynooth Mission Outreach because I wanted to volunteer to work overseas with the ‘poor’. This was a dream of mine from a very young age, fuelled by a deep love and respect for Mother Teresa, the little Eastern European woman who had dedicated her life to the poorest of the poor. She is often referred to as the Saint of the Gutters and I desired deeply to work with her and learn more about her and the God that she served. Unfortunately, I never met her, she died in 1997, a few years before I arrived in India, but I decided that I would go to Calcutta anyway and work alongside the congregation she founded: The Missionaries of Charity.
I first went to Calcutta in 2001, a young naïve student with an egotistical desire to save the world. I believed I could use my skills and talents to teach, to care for and to help all the street dwellers and slum dwellers who needed me to save them! I hadn’t landed in Calcutta five minutes when I realised that this was not what was going to happen. The one needing teaching was me, the ‘poor’ were about to become my greatest educators.
I have been to Calcutta fifteen times since then. I have worked in orphanages for severely physically and mentally disabled children, hospices for the dying, railway stations with thousands of homeless people, overcrowded slums, tiny street schools, hospitals and clinics. I have worked in hot, overcrowded NGO offices, performed interviews and researched in noisy government offices and presented on poverty indicators to the excessively wealthy elite of India in plush hotel conference rooms. It has been life-changing and profoundly challenging and ultimately brought me back to where I feel I need to be, Western Europe.
From the very first time I set foot in Calcutta, I was exposed to the spirituality of Mother Teresa. I read books about her, read her diary accounts, read speeches she had presented, reflected on her many famous quotations, tried to live the simplistic life she inhabited so well and watched in awe, the thousands of women who walked in her footsteps as Missionaries of Charity. These are by far the most selfless, hardworking and inspiring people I have ever had the privilege to encounter and work alongside. What became apparent immediately was Mother Teresa’s desire to tackle the material poverty of developing countries in its soul-destroying awfulness. But what struck me was that this was coupled with a deep awareness of the spiritual poverty of the Western world and her desire to teach us ‘westerners’ about our own poverty.
‘The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty – it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God’. Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Thousands of men and women from across the developed world travel to Calcutta in India each year to volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity. Each person is there searching. Something has driven them out of their comfortable and mostly privileged lives to one of the most impoverished and overpopulated cities in the world. We all found ourselves there, striving to serve our fellow human beings, living in filth and squalor, washing sore and broken bodies, feeding the starving, holding the hand of the abandoned dying and struggling to make sense of it all. We soon learnt that it was our own brokenness that was being revealed, our own need for answers, our own search for something more, some meaning, a point to it all. We were almost all searching for God. This was revealed time and time again through deep discussions and deep sharing, conversations that went to the heart of things. We served the poor and tried to support each other to answer these perplexing questions about what it is all about and where we can truly find God.
Mother Teresa was an Ignatian woman, having been formed in an Ignatian order, she was very familiar with St. Ignatius of Loyola and knew only too well what it meant to ‘find God in all things’. She knew too that we would come in our droves to Calcutta and what an encounter with the poor would do for us.
‘The spiritual poverty of the Western World is much greater than the physical poverty of our people’. Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
The work we did as volunteers in Calcutta was physically back breaking and extremely challenging psychologically and emotionally. It is incredibly difficult to watch people suffer and die. To know that the majority of human beings in our world live in poverty is hard to accept. But what is equally perplexing is to recognise that in Calcutta, where many of the world’s poorest live, there is a deep sense of joy. The city is sometimes called ‘The City of Joy’. It is very difficult to explain this seeming paradox. Never have I seen or experienced such immense human suffering but at the same time never have I experienced a people of such joy!
Mother Teresa invited us into this paradox. Her goal was always to form us, by allowing our deeper selves to grow in love and awareness through a profound encounter with the materialistically poor. It was through this encounter that we grew in our capacity to be compassionate, non-judgemental, abundantly generous, caring and hungry for justice. But we also grew in our capacity to somehow accept the mystery of life and the complexity of humanity, including our apparent desire in the West for empty fulfilment. Mother Teresa knew that time spent there would allow us to be in our own cultural context differently: with a deep longing for simplicity of life and a sense of God somehow present in the chaos. At a deeper level this was a longing to find our own way to serve God in a society that searched and hungered for meaning, though often in all the wrong places.
Mother Teresa knew too that being with the poorest of the poor presented us with the biggest challenge we could possibly face in life. We were exposed to the relentless vulnerability of our fellow human beings in the developing world: people at the merciless hands of globalisation and neo-liberalism, forces which rendered them powerless and voiceless. She knew that we would quickly realise the part we ourselves played in that exploitative economy through our endless consumerism, lack of concern for the environment and attitude of entitlement, which is often deep rooted in us.
Yet never, in all my encounters with the poor of Calcutta, did I meet the gaze of one of these beautiful people and find any level of resentment, blame or anger for the suffering they endured despite their being aware of my privileged and affluent life in comparison to theirs. Not a sign of envy nor a glimmer of questioning about the unfairness of it all, only a gentle look of gratitude as I washed their tired bodies or spoon-fed a rationed meal: a look of trust and a capacity to receive help with such inspiring humility that it can only leave you humbled too. They lived in their frailty with deep acceptance and unshakable faith in God: Hindus, Muslims and Christians side by side. The poor I encountered lived so much in the present moment, with gratitude and acceptance, with simplicity and joy, with humility and trust despite intense material poverty.
“We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls.” Mother Teresa of Calcutta
My work in St Beuno’s affords me the opportunity to accompany people from this part of the world who search for God and long to recognise and encounter Him in their lives. As the West becomes increasingly secular, the search for meaning continues. In the past I accompanied the poor and dying in a very different context, one of deprivation, pain and suffering caused by material poverty. Now, I accompany many who come to be with God in their own spiritual or emotional brokenness, to listen and hear Him speak to their hearts. There is no greater privilege in life for me than to sit with another human being, to listen to them and to hold the space whatever the circumstances so as to allow them to be their whole self in the presence of another and before God.
Here in St Beuno’s, accompaniment is contextually different from my past work but fundamentally still the same: being with another as they occupy the real circumstances of their lives and continue their journey onwards into God. Mother Teresa, in her wisdom, placed huge emphasis on us being very present to the people we served, noticing Christ present in them, really seeing the person before us, really hearing what it was that they communicated without their saying anything. For me personally, my time in Calcutta paved the way for me to do this work. Drawing on all that I learnt through those life changing encounters, I feel strongly the importance of accompaniment and being with the other as companion and listener. It is a true gift!