The months of November and December have become more and more difficult for me. It is due to the holiday season with the hustle and bustle of the mad shoppers. I find myself going through the motions of handing out and receiving gifts in return. It seems more of an obligation than heartfelt gratitude for those people in my life. One way to overcome those feelings is by taking the time to tell children about my experiences in 1992. That was the year I volunteered in India with the "Missionaries of Charity." I worked at various centers where Mother Theresa and her religious order started. The Nuns ran the Centers, but the volunteers did most of the work. I enjoyed my experience there, and on several occasions, I spoke with Mother Theresa at her home. They call her home the "Mother House" in India.
Mother Theresa called us volunteers witnesses and believed every volunteer was there for a reason. She sincerely believed that every person she encountered was due to the spirit of god's love. It is still a deep belief held by her Nuns that the spirit of love attracts volunteers to India. Mother Theresa told us that the spirit of love is with us so that we can be the presence and subtle altruistic outreach of god's love to the sick and dying.
Most of the population in Calcutta, India, live, wash, and eat on the streets. When people die, their bodies are either burned or thrown into the Ganges River. The Hindu caste system led Mother Theresa to leave the Loreto Religious order. She was a Catholic Nun with the Loreto's for 20 years. But, she wanted to help the poorest of the poor in India, so she went off on her own in 1948. Eventually, in 1950, after her work became recognized, and due to the number of followers that joined her cause, she was permitted by the Pope at that time to start her own Religious Order, which she named the "Missionaries of Charity."
She opened several centers for the sick and dying throughout India: in Calcutta, there is "Prim Dan," which means "Gift of Love," the "Mahatma Gandhi" Center; and in Hindi, there is "Kali Gaht," which means "Shore of Kali." I also volunteered at one of her centers in Washington, DC. That center is called the "Gift of Peace." I worked with people who were dying of AID's. There was a stigma attached to people living with AIDS out of fear and prejudice in the early 1990s. They did not have the medical know-how to treat people living with AIDS like they have today adequately.
Today, Mother Theresa's Religious Order has centers in almost every country of the world, and they have more Nuns than all the other Religious orders combined. I would like to thoroughly write about my experiences someday, especially how Mother Theresa was revered in India. Every Religion in India before her death incorporated her into their belief system. They saw her as a living deity sent to raise humanity. It was a real eye-opening experience witnessing how powerful religious beliefs affect the Indian people. Religious beliefs are extremely powerful upon the individual believer and collectively upon the Indian people. In India, Photographs of Mother Theresa are extremely valuable because people believe possessing her image will bring them good fortune. They also believe a part of Mother Theresa's spirit will be with her image. Mother Teresa passed away in 1997, and the Indian people still worship her as a goddess -- especially among Hindus.
The Hindus believe that their Hindu feminine god, "Kali" was incarnated as Mother Theresa. To the Hindus, Mother Theresa was just one of "Kali's" many incarnations. The Muslims in India see her as a great prophet; the Buddhists see her as someone near Nirvana and choose to return to the world out of compassion for humanity. The various Christian denominations in India recognized Mother Theresa as a living saint. That is one reason Pope Benedict XVI pushed to have her canonized as a Saint, and Pope Francis did just that; and canonized her.
In 1992 I was able to get a hotel room in India for a Dollar a night and a meal for 20 cents due to the nation's poverty. India is still an impoverished nation for the majority who live in that country. But they have rich spiritual traditions that go back long before the written word was invented. The Indian people have had a deep, intuitive grasp of their spiritual interconnectedness that goes back thousands of years.
I have been to Ecuador, too, which is also an impoverished country. The people living in the hills of Duran in Ecuador live in sugarcane huts. They have no electricity or indoor plumbing, and they wash with rainwater. They eat only what they can gather for that day because they cannot preserve their food. Water must be boiled prior to using it to prevent an outbreak of cholera. Cholera is a common ailment in that country that can kill you. When I returned to the United States, I was grateful for what I had, and the little inconveniences were just that—little inconveniences compared to how people experiencing poverty live in India and Ecuador.
When I look at life in terms of my experiences, I realize how our beliefs are a significant part of who we are regarding how we relate to others. I also realize, more so now than before, how the people living in those impoverished conditions in Ecuador rely on their community for survival. The individual cannot put themselves above the welfare of their community because the welfare of the community is vital to their survival. In America, we rely on our rugged individualism. There is no such concept in Ecuador in the hills of Duran, where I lived for three months.
The people in Ecuador looked at me with such curiosity, and they were the most loving people. I washed my clothes with them and ate with them. We had to communicate in body language because I could not speak their language. There was one thing that they loved to do, and that was laugh. They were unaware of what they did not have regarding technology because they were isolated from the rest of the world. They were content to live in their community with one another because their community was their family, and they could rely on each other in times of need.
I have also learned over the years that much of my knowledge came from books. What I have read in those books helped me acquire a lot of knowledge, but now I recognize that I am learning much more about myself from what I write; it is also a way of sharing a part of who I am with the reader.
You are probably wondering what all this has to do with the season of giving. Well, I have learned that it is not just the material gifts that count in life, but rather it is all the unrecognized, undetected, and unremembered acts of loving kindness that one bestows on others that are the greatest achievements in a person's life. What we give to humanity, we give to ourselves. What we change in ourselves, we change in humanity. If we want to live in a better world, we must change for the better. If we want to see a world of loving and joyous people, we must be loving and joyous towards the people in our own lives. That potential is part of our humanity. When we reach out to touch others, we touch a part of the humanity within us. When we change the life of another for the better, we change our own lives for the better.
What I have learned in Ecuador and what I have recognized in Mother Teresa is the profound effect that she has had and continues to have on the world. Changing and enhancing the quality of human lives cannot be achieved by imposing our will or our beliefs on others. Rather, it is achieved by living our lives as we would want others to live; in doing so, others will embrace and emulate our way of life.
I find that my life has become a quest for self-discovery. My growing self-awareness has also become my means to greater spiritual growth. But, I need to reach out and bond with others to learn more about myself.
I have learned that throughout history, especially in India with its rich spiritual traditions, that the wise mystics rarely criticized others for their shortcomings. They understood that it is best to accentuate the positive in others. When you highlight the positive in people, you accentuate the positive within yourself.
For me, the inward journey helps me better understand who I am in relation to others. Greater self-awareness can only be achieved when we better understand our humanity.
Always with love,
Thomas F O'Neill