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Losing Our Way Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing. --------------------------------------------------------- Arundhati Roy (Indian author, advocate, activist)

Kolkata (Calcutta) – Encounters with l’Arche & the Missionaries of Charity (mi)

INDIA | Sunday, 30 August 2009 | Views [5052] | Comments [1]

Welcome to Kolkata, the City of Joy

Welcome to Kolkata, the City of Joy

I’ve journaled a lot this month, trying to express whatever comes to mind or heart, trying to make sense of this city, which one person described to me today as “a beggars' heaven” the destitute so fill its every hole - trying to figure out why I felt so called to come in the first place, and why if there is one word that stands out from this month, it is suffering. Flipping back through the scrawled lines of my well-tattered street vendor bought notebook, the front cover now completely detached from shoving it in and out of my handbag every day - or several times a day - I realize it’s hard to tell you about why I came to Kolkata without talking about Jesus. 

L'Arche - The year after my college graduation was when I came upon my first l’Arche community.  L’Arche was founded about 50 years ago in France by a Canadian ex-military officer and his advisor, a Dominican priest. It was founded on a strong theology of faith in action (a good place to start to understand the principles that guide the community is to begin to read books by Thomas Merton, found in just about any bookstore with a religious section). L'Arche communities are composed of people with mental and physical limitations (known as the “core members” of any l’Arche home) who live and work with assistants (long and short-term volunteers and salaried persons). In the beginning, one home became two, became ten, became all over the world... In each community, there may be one or more homes, for adults or children. In each, the background and life of each core member is celebrated, and each is fully accepted in all their uniqueness, and so the language, particular faith practices, and daily rhythm of each l’Arche home will looks different depending on the indigenous culture. However, each home is a replica of the next in a few aspects -

Core members come to l’Arche with mild, moderate or severe limitations.  They have intellectual limits, physical disabilities, psychiatric problems and often severe emotional disturbance.  For the most part, these are a product of their growing experiences with family and society. Now, assistants have many limitations too, but we are markedly different from the core members in that those limitations are typically not how we are identfied in society (er… typically). Like core members, we learn very early that we should change limitations if we can, and if that doesn’t work, to try and hide them. Like core members, we get praised in subtle and explicit ways for capitalizing on our strengths (this is a universal practice, but depending on which country or region in which we grew up, what exactly counted as a strength to reward is different of course). Unlike core members however, we often possess one or several strengths valued by our families and the particular society we live in, and so grow up without the suffering known only to a person so completely rejected and isolated as a core member. 

In countries all over the world, and even until the most recent decades in the West, persons with handicaps have suffered a pain unknown by most in society. I found in Kolkata that perhaps only leprosy can stigmatize a person more. Handicaps bring rejection of a most painful kind – and those persons whose families choose to bear that rejection with them are in turn ostracized by their extended families, their friends.  As one person described it to me: The families of core members and the core members are considered cursed by God. They don’t even go to family weddings, to celebrations. They deal with things on their own; it’s just them, in a country where social relationships are everything. And most in Kolkata are also financially destitute - imagine the combination.    

Since I first entered into a l’Arche home over ten years ago, I found that assistants come with a desire to give all our strengths to those who are weak. Like anywhere else we go in life, we do not come to offer our limitations, our darkness, our poverty. Often in fact we come unaware of much of this in ourselves, such as we have struggled our whole lives to deny its' existence. But in the paradox that is the l’Arche experience, an assistant is not called to minimize limitations, darkness or poverty. We are asked to enter into these experiences, accept that they are present in us, and recognize that in fact, despite our best efforts, we have a quite altogether frustrating human nature. We can call this process many different things – you can say assistants are called to dump their egos by the roadside, or empty themselves of self... Mother Teresa calls this part of the process of "total surrender"....

However you say it, assistants are not used to this, and the process quickly becomes complicated and difficult - I won’t elaborate on that part here. But I will point out that no one in their right mind wants to identify with their poverty. No one wants to enter into that place where loneliness and all manner of suffering reign. It is an awful sound to hear the call to fully live the experience that core members know every day of their lives. But in the l’Arche community, the view is that: where there is suffering, there can be death to the self, and in that empty space that is left, there the seeds of a resurrection may grow.

Unlike assistants, core members arrive already at the point of death – and so their path looks somewhat different than that of the assistants, who still must shed their ego. In this way, core members and assistants arrive at l’Arche with different needs – As another assistant once described it to me: No one has to tell the l’Arche core membes that they should get poor and empty and good things will happen. They are already there. 

Now, however you get there, whether you arrive empty, or come to that place during your stay, the transformation that follows - from death (or as a line from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting might go, “from hitting rock bottom”) to resurrection is a long one – one that each member - core members and assistants - of the community is called to travel. This journey is not automatic. It does not happen in many contexts outside of l'Arche - but at l'Arche, it is possible because the journey is made in the context of mutual relationships - the heart of l’Arche. Mutual relationships are characterized by acceptance and celebration of the other, forgiveness and grace. They are a function of all of love’s actions (kindness, patience, lack of envy, greed or boasting…).  Unconditional love is offered to the other members and also received by oneself; the exchange happens in both directions. And on this path, slowly brokeness heals, and new life emerges. 

Now I’m leaving out a lot of detail, but essentially the process is that: Where we are poor and empty, where there is death to the self, there, and only there, can transformation – the kind that changes lives and transforms souls, the kind that most everyone yearns for and the kind I believe we were born for – can happen. 

As one l’Arche assistant said to me: “We know how the story ends!” He was referring to a practice many l’Arche communities do annually – During the holy week that precedes Easter Sunday every spring, the entire community acts out the last days of Jesus on earth. For example, on Thursday, they do a practice that I have always thought should happen at least every Sunday in Church communities today – they wash each other’s feet to remember that we are called to be humble servants to those we know, those we do not know (listen to me – this is not the Chicago suburbs - in developing countries, where dirt and grime soak the streets, this process is for real!). And on Friday, they act out the rejection of Jesus by some of the leaders in his very own religious community, by his closest friends, they act out his separation from his family. They act out insults, mocking, beating. One person acts as Jesus and carries his cross. They repeat the words he said during his agony, waiting to die, asking God why he abandoned him – and calling out: “I thirst.” The others witness as he takes his last breath. And there, the assistant talking to me paused and said: “Now we’re not crazy to do all this acting with core members who have already lived their crucifixion – we know how the story ends! Resurrection!" Where we submit ourselves to death to the self, there can be new life. 

So that is why I go, and go again to l’Arche - digging into this mystical phenomenon with earnestness, always hoping to experience and grow, and to learn more detail about the process of suffering, and of death to life transformation, and the power of relationships in that work. The process has a beautiful and unique rhythm, unlike any other. I believe it to be fundamental to the meaning of life, and universal to all peoples, and whenever I am granted the chance, I jump to immerse myself in its details…there is so much to learn!

Why l’Arche in India in particular? 

When I was interviewing the international coordinator for l’Arche at the time of my dissertation, a tall soft-spoken English woman, originally Protestant but who had converted to Catholicism during her time at l’Arche in France, who exudes l’Archeness out of her being it always seems, there was something she talked about that caught my attention but that I had to put aside for the sake of finishing what could certainly have turned into the never-ending project all professors warn about. And of all things during my dissertation defense, I remember most lucidly standing in that American-evangelical Wheaton College classroom, with my family and friends listening, and talking about this phenomenon she cited – that there seemed to be an intense and universal spirituality that transcended specific cognitive thought in all l'Arche communities across the world.  This spirituality did not depend on a person’s thoughts about God any more than it depended on their capacity to even have a thought about God. That thoughts about God didn't matter, but actually experientially living God's path did (In the story relayed above, this was described in that Catholic community in France as following Jesus by taking up the cross of suffering, dying to oneself and beginning a new life). If it were otherwise, spirituality would not be available except to those intellectually gifted. But the belief and findings at l'Arche are that spiritual transformation is available to everyone who is poor in spirit, that faith is active, that it is experiential in cross-carrying and new life, rather than thought-based. Which is why the message is universal, available for everyone. Educated or not, intelligent or disabled, across all cultures, poverty in spirit and transformation toward new life is available to all. As a good graduate student in both psychology and theology, someone all about thoughts, thoughts seemed to be very important. How to understand spirituality beyond one's cognition? What exactly was it that was there, present across contexts? What was this process of spiritual transformation, of death to self and transforming resurrection, that appeared to be available to every core member, every assistant, in every l’Arche context in every cultural context? The question dominated a quiet part of my heart, and in the years that followed, slowly, I would start looking for answers.

And because the coordinator had referenced stories from India, where Hindus, Christians and Muslims live and pray and transform together in l’Arche homes – that is how I came, after years of wanting, to be in the l’Arche community in Kolkata, Asha Niketan. 

I came with no doubts that the core member is the example to follow if the assistant wants to walk toward spiritual transformation – but seeking understanding about the breadth of the phenomenon. Discovering how the potential for spiritual transformation was so deeply engrained in the human heart of each person across the world, that we all seemed to be created for this process of transformation, and that what I would call the Spirit of God was working in ways beyond our capacity to grasp - this is what pulled me. Like the Bible stories I had grown up with, about God working in controversial ways, using controversial people, beyond the permission of the holiest religious leaders, beyond our limited human revelation of how great and vast and deep the Spirit works, that I had stumbled upon what appeared to be a modern day place functioning solely to be a manifestation of this - this is what pulled me (Pictures of l'Arche in Kolkata are found in the photo section of our website).

But this is only half the story – the other half is found in the person of Mother Teresa.

The Missionaries of Charity - Kolkata is an entire city that reflects the suffering found inside of one home of the Missionaries of Charity. Since the second I stepped outside of the airport, my breath was caught in my throat, my entire rhythm disturbed. On every street, around every corner, on any means of transportation, there is a veritable onslaught of chaotic stimuli that is so invasive to all one’s five senses, that the first few days I experienced as an attack, and the weeks that followed an unending roller coaster ride - even shutting my hotel window didn’t drown out the blaring noise! The emotions I experienced were at times so intense, and so pervaded my early morning wakefulness, my late night insomnia, and my senses all the day’s length! There was such life - life - life! And work, work, work! I never got used to watching the stony facial expressions of the rickshaw pullers, their feet bare or in cheap sandals, sweating and straining to concentrate on their passenger, their tilting vehicle, the traffic assaulting them, the few rupees that await them at their destination. I cannot appreciate the tarp covered homes that line the streets, or the reality that, as one man told me: those in the streets have it much better than those in the slums. I read The City of Joy and cried, knowing that reality is always so much worse than its depiction - when you can actually smell it, fear it touching you. 

There was also the sadness that struck in realizing that, in this city that places such great value on what is holy, that has produced such philosophers and literary genius, Kolkata is no different than I have found all over in our travels. So often, Christians, Hindus, Muslims alike – there is a great belief in physical sacrifices and particular prayers and rites (flowers, animals, food, money, scents) necessary to appease God – there is a magical quality that pervades faith. And understand it as I might, it is not easy watching a poor person spend their earnings on incense, when you yourself believe that the sacrifice called for is a broken spirit. Especially since (despite what might be imagined) the poor work – WORK – all day long. They endure a work that is literally incomprehensible to my mind and body. Yet the return is so small, so inadequate! How I wished so often to just disappear from this city where images of poor brothers and sisters are so painted into it, no accurate tableau would be without them! No surprise Rabindrath Tagore, Gandhi and Mother Teresa are such revered names!

In desperation one day, I walked into a book store and purchased three books on the person of Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity (I was to subsequently buy a fourth) hoping to find... something.

Mother Teresa is not without her critics – and rightly so, given her extreme beliefs and lifestyle. The main part of her story is quite simple to tell – how the young Eastern European nun heard a call to serve the poorest of the poor, and by whose perseverance, among other characteristics, was an instrument that eventually turned nothing into a mission in Kolkata, and a mission in one city into a charity that serves in slums all over the world. After her death, private correspondence between her and her spiritual advisors was made public, arousing somewhat of a sensation for those who had any ideas about what a living saint might think and feel. In her scrawled handwriting, there was the truth in her heart – her experience was one of a dark night so intense, a suffering and emptiness so pervasive, that it appears to surpass the length of time of any other mystic known in Christianity. Her dark night was likely due to multiple sources, including what she experienced as a mystical connection between the suffering of Jesus, the suffering of the poor, and her own suffering. 

Much has been written about what lies inside the walls of Nirmal Hriday (meaning literally: Pure Heart - a name I found to be so, so, so very perfect), Mother Teresa's first home for the Destitute and Dying, near the Kali Temple in Kolkata. Nirmal Hriday is a living paradox - of despair and peace, death and life. Walking in the first day, I sensed a great joy and a simultaneous pulsing pain. I had also the very strange experience of feeling as if Mother was still there. The first thing I would see is the room for males straight ahead. The very next, on the wall to my right, a greatly enlarged photo of Mother’s old wrinkled, arthritic hands, holding her rosary (Catholic prayer beads). I was splitting my time between l’Arche and Nirmal Hriday, and whereas I began my days at l'Arche meditating in the chapel with the community members, on the afternoons of Nirmal Hriday, I would begin by contemplating Mother's hands, and their prayer in action. I would end the shift often by sitting on the clean hard floor in the small chapel upstairs (the only truly clean floor in the house), joining the sisters in their evening prayers, which included the Rosary, Vespers, and hymns.

I had moments when I was so overwhelmed with joy, I could not contain my smile – I was kissed daily by a little old lady who scurried about the women’s room. Every time she passed me, she would lift up my hand to her lips... how can I describe what that feels like? I went from person to person after the dinner meal and served them with a basin of water for their hands and mouths, experiencing the washing of the feet ceremony on Holy Thursday I explained earlier in this story. I walked from bed to bed in greeting each time I arrived, with my hands pressed together and my head slightly bowed in greeting. And leaving on my last day, this is how I said good-bye. The greeting is typical for the culture, but for me, it also held the reason for my journey – to bow to something greater than me, something we are born to seek, but often do not see or understand – and how the weeks there made me crave to shed my ego! But how difficult it is to let go, to unattach oneself completely, to die to oneself! 

On a small, individual scale, it is difficult for me to imagine any person walking into Nirmal Hriday, and not touch suffering. The experience for me was a radical, aching one that flooded me constantly with waves of complex and overwhelming reactions. Because I had long felt a deep desire and what seemed to me a call to come experience this home in particular, and because my faith is encapsulated in the story of Jesus, I felt like I was walking in the Bible - where a story of someone with leprosy is suddenly there in the bed I am sitting on too. I tried to regulate my breathing and work through nausea at several points. I came face to face with the limits of my generosity, joy, and love. I met my intolerance for suffering and my intolerance with others who could not tolerate suffering. One mass of reactions all the time, I realized what might be perhaps Mother Teresa's greatest beauty -

She was faithful in her discipline in prayer and in service. No matter the day, the feeling, the darkness. What a simple example she set, to just show up, day after day, and leave the rest to providence. And there is a call to the sisters and to each of us, to also just show up, do small things with great love, as she would say. Those who serve with the Missionaries of Charity are called to see the Christ who calls for love from each of us in the faces of those before us: “I thirst.” 

The words "I thirst" (that I described above in the story of l'Arche) are written under every depiction of Jesus hanging on the cross in every Missionaries of Charity home. These words are a call toward a path of transformation. And Mother too believed it is a universal call - that the poor are already at a place of crucifixion, where their ego is destroyed and they are emptied daily. It is those of us who serve who are called to join them, enter into it with them, imitate them; so that there, grace might abound and a resurrection occur. 

I should add that Mother's definition of who is the "poor" was a broad one:

"Around the world, not only in poor countries, I found the poverty of the West so much more difficult to remove. When I pick up a person from the street, hungry, I give him a plate of rice, a piece of bread, I am satisfied, I have removed that hunger. But a person that is shut out, that feels unwanted, unloved, terrified, the person that has been thrown out of society - that poverty is so hurtful, and so much, that I find it very difficult.  Our Sisters are working amongst that kind of people in the West." (from her biography, Mother Teresa, written by Navin Chawla).

Chawla, a Hindu working for the Indian government, had a long and beautiful relationship with Mother Teresa and her work, and his book is a wonderful place to begin if you are interested in learning more about the charism of a woman dedicated to transforming souls through active love.

This transformation, I should add, was in her eyes no more confined to relationships with strangers than it was to serving in the slums. Mother's call was for everyone to begin in their heart, in prayer, and at home, with family. She found the West lacking in prayer, and families lacking in love. It is easy to love someone in a far away land like India, but we are each called to do a much more difficult kind of prayer-filled work, to love those in our families.

(Pictures of Nirmal Hriday are found in the photo section of our website).

I have so much more I would love to share with each of you about the hour to hour experience of walking the streets of Kolkata - so many sights and sounds (and believe you me, smells!). But for now, thank you for joining me! and I will end with this, a third experience of mine this month, one reflecting a different aspect of love's power in the world - 

One of the books I picked up on Mother Teresa has an introduction by a medical doctor, Larry Dossey. He talks about the dialogue between medical scientists and prayer, and highlights the benefits of prayer on the one who prays, and also the findings on intercessory or distant prayer on the receiver, whether the receiver is a human, animal or plant, whether aware or unaware that prayer is being offered. He also talks about prayer and meditation as universal phenomena – that across time and specific faith practices, the one factor that appears to matter is love (no surprise to the health fields where empathy and compassion are so discussed!). After I read this introduction, I was reading (yes) another book on Mother – her biography, which includes a story found in many other sources – one in which Mother is nursing a dying person at Nirmal Hriday – I end with her words in that story for two reasons –

The first, because Ivan and I have family and friends from all over the world, with all different cultures and ways of expressing their faith.  And prayerful love, I believe, is the greatest thing that binds us. And the second, because I have experienced an abundance of grace this month, directly I believe, from the intercessory prayer of so many of you. I cannot begin to count the ways in which this was made clear to me, when I would receive an email here or there verifying this blessing. Of course, it is possible that I simply had a month full of very strange coincidences. In whatever case, it is beyond my comprehension - dwelling somewhere in the vicinity of faith. And so I ask you, in the words of the woman they call here "The Saint of Calcutta" –

“You say a prayer in your religion, and I will say a prayer as I know it.  Together we will say this prayer, and it will be something beautiful for God.”




Ivan and Miral,

I just wanted to say hi and tell you how much I've enjoyed following your journey. You are both incredible. Your stories and photos have been fantastic. I admire you both for your charitable work and devotion to helping others.

Miral - the stories of your stay in Calcutta were so moving. Your deep faith and love for mankind are evident. You certainly did walk in the bible.

Hope you enjoy your visit with Mom and Dad. I know that they are really looking forward to it.

May God bless you both and keep you safe, happy and healthy.



  Sue Esposito Sep 10, 2009 2:54 AM

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