Thomas F. O'Neill
We make our living in life
and what we give makes
our life worth living
The months of November and December have become more and more difficult for me with each passing year. 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 gifts to family members and receiving gifts in return. It seems to be more of an obligation than a heart felt gratitude of having these people in my life. One way for me to overcome those feelings is by taking the time to tell children about my experiences in 1992. That was the year that I worked as a volunteer in India with the "Missionaries of Charity." I worked at various centers that were started by Mother Theresa and her religious order. The Nuns ran the Centers but the volunteers did most of the work. I really 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 volunteer's witnesses and she believed that every volunteer was there for a reason. She deeply believed that every person she came in contact with was due to the spirit of gods love. It is still a deep belief held by her Nuns that it is the spirit of love that attracts the volunteer's to India. The spirit of love, Mother Theresa told us, is with us so that we can be the presence and the subtle altruistic outreaches of gods love to the sick and dying of India.
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 is what 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 given permission by the Pope 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 is"Kali Gaht," which means "Shore of Kali". I also worked at one of her centers as a volunteer 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 AID's victims out of fear and prejudice in the early 1990s. They did not have the medical know-how to adequately treat AID's victims like they have today.
Today Mother Theresa's Religious Order has centers in every country of the world and they have more Nuns than all the other Religious orders combined. They also have more Nuns than are Priests in the world due to the Roman Catholic priesthood becoming a dying breed.
I would like to thoroughly write about my experiences someday, especially about how Mother Theresa was so revered in India. Every Religion in India prior to 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 powerfully religious beliefs affect the Indian people. Religious beliefs are extremely powerful upon the individual believer and collectively upon the Indian people as a whole. In India Photographs of Mother Theresa are extremely valuable because people believe possessing an image of her will bring good fortune to them. 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 god -- especially the Hindu's.
The Hindu's believe that their Hindu feminine god "Kali" incarnated in the form of Mother Theresa. To the Hindu's Mother Theresa was just one of "Kali's" many incarnations. The Muslims in India see her as a great prophet; the Buddhist see her as someone who was near Nirvana that chose 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 the current Pope is pushing to have her canonized a Saint.
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 an extremely poor 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 for thousands of years.
I have been to Ecuador too, which is also an extremely poor country. The people living in the hills of Duran in Ecuador live in sugar Cane huts. They have no electricity, indoor plumbing, and they wash with rain water. They eat only what they can gather for that day because they have no way of preserving 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 the poor live in India and Ecuador.
When I look at life in terms of my experiences, I realize how our beliefs are a major part of who we are in terms of 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 their survival. The individual cannot put themselves above the welfare of their community because it is the welfare of the community that is vital for their survival. In America we rely on our rugged individualism. In Ecuador in the hills of Duran where I lived for three months there is no such concept.
The people in Ecuador looked at me with such curiosity and they were the most loving people. I washed my clothes with them, ate with them, and 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 not aware of what they did not have in terms of technology because they were pretty much isolated from the rest of the world. They were content 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 a great deal of my knowledge came from books. What I have read in those books helped me acquire a lot of knowledge, but now I am recognizing that I am learning a great deal more about myself from what I write. I suppose that is one reason why I submitted this column. It is a way of sharing a part of who I am with you 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 that is 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 in the world. Changing and enhancing the quality of human lives cannot be achieved by imposing our will or our beliefs on others. But rather it is achieved by living our life as we would want others to live their lives; 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, in order to learn more about myself, I need to reach out and bond with others.
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 accentuate the positive in people you in turn accentuate the positive within yourself.
For me the inward journey helps me gain a deeper understanding of who I am in relation to others. Greater self awareness can only be achieved when we first gain a deeper understanding of our humanity.