Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Harsh Beauty

Father John J. Lombardi

Dorothy Day's favorite quote of the Russian writer Dostoyevsky, was: "Love in reality compared to love in dreams is a harsh and dreadful thing." I learned this while studying in the seminary at Catholic University, and re-learned it on a pilgrimage to India two weeks ago. Dorothy Day, convert from communism and atheism, knew and loved this truth not only because she "jibed in the blood" with the writer, but she lived in the thick and tumultuous reality of New York City feeding homeless persons, and also because she fed and loved Jesus in the poorest of the poor-a harsh-yet-beautiful thing.

On our pilgrimage to India-Calcutta and Darjeeling, we experienced harsh and dreadful things-and beautiful things, too. The following is from a "Return Home Pilgrimage Homily" at the Grotto, June 24. The Chaplain and 13 men (mentioned below) worked with Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, prayed at her tomb and also recreated in India's outbacks (white water rafting after Darjeeling tea was extra fun!). Readings from that Mass were: Is 49:1-06; Acts 13:22-26; Lk 1:5-17.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist. His life and martyrdom was harsh and beautiful. Harsh because he lived in a desert in poverty and beautiful because he was beheaded for defending marriage and purity, foreshadowing the King of Martyrs, Jesus Christ. In each and every Mass, too, we experience harsh beauty-the beauty of Christ's very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Eucharist, re-presented to us because of His harsh Death. That's another reason to frequent Mass-because harsh beauty is what life is about-as Dostoyevsky and Day realized-- and when we attend Mass we learn not only what life is, in essence, but also how to accept and live it like a Savior and hopefully a saint!

Since we have been back, it seems like a dream-to be back in comfort zones after so much struggle, dehydration, sickness and suffering, so, you may ask: --What did we just experience? And, since it was such a big trip: What does it mean for the future? Experiences? I recollect the common sight on the Calcutta hot streets, the man on the sidewalk washing himself at a public wash station with several others. The bus I was on came fifty yards from him. I peeped thru the window slots of the bus-amidst a seeming thousand guys standing sweatingly next to me!-- to the street, and this particular man looked at me, while washing, lathering up, rinsing, and I looked at him. In the seeming Still-nowness of eternity, with the hot Calcutta sun, God allowed this human convergence, or, perhaps, even arranged this experience. Of all the billions of souls on earth, we two "met"-eye to eye. I, a seeming rich Westerner, was sweating profusely on this bus, trying to survive-and had no power over the elements and conditions of life. Meanwhile, this seeming poor Indian guy was smiling, cooling on the curbside, his face radiant, transmitting a soft and endearing smile which seemed to say-Look, it is not all bad. Even though poor one can be rich, be free... The bus stayed a few seconds longer, he continued to smile and wash vigorously, and gleam in the sun. Though Calcutta was steaming hot, time was frozen. I continued to sweat, and stare, with the streetside subtle sermon impressing within my heart and soul. I later coined a saying to spontaneously unlock this memory-sermon for times of dis-ease, upset: Man on the street/ smile so sweet/ Transmitting peace. Just as St John's birth was a manifestation of God, this surprise epiphany was a manifestation of God to me. For me it is priceless.

In the Gospel, "matters were discussed and taken to heart" (of the Baptist's birth and miracle). So, let us too, discuss, remember, and take to heart, impress within, the harsh and beautiful things of God we learned in India. Sure, as novice-Westerners in a foreign land we sometimes (often?!) got hungry, tired, upset, thirsty, beleaguered, and, like the Gospel, perhaps it was by your prayers-friends and family, your vigils, sacrifices and contributions of money to help us "feel the hand of the Lord upon us" when we ourselves did not feel, experientially, God's presence. For that is what intercessory prayer is-linking the in-between-ness of souls in the Mystical Body when we couldn't ourselves.

We went not as tourists, gawkers or sightseers but as pilgrims: clumsily-yet-Christ-caringly we wanted to bring a light to the Nations, as the First Reading, Isaiah states it. Pilgrim means, literally, "to go thru." What did we just go thru--What was that Light that manifested around us?

Well…There are always subtle surprises on pilgrimages, especially to the pilgrim who is looking for "fireworks" and "mystical revelations". Thus: a pilgrim can sometimes miss what God is revealing right under your spiritual nose as you look for bigger things. To wit: Malcolm, an Indian with a beautiful smile, was our cook for a week, working in a 5 foot by 8 ft kitchen, amidst sweltering heat. Little did we know: I asked him the last night of our pilgrimage: "Where do you live?" He replied, non-plussed: "I live on the street. My house collapsed on Good Friday. I have no where to live and my landlord says I need money, 2,000 rupies (fifty dollars) , to repair my house." He never told us this previously , but kept cooking, smiling, wanting to please us. I could have fainted-last-minute realizing that this guy was feeding us only after coming in off the streets, without a home or family. Just at that moment Fr Colin showed up with an envelope of rupees to help Malcolm. Malcolm never mentioned money in the slightest, but God provided. Malcolm said: "Let us pray for each other…We all need prayer", beaming with a smile. So subtle, ironic, harsh and beautiful Life appeared not just at Mother Teresa's Tomb or in our serving the poor, but right in the kitchen heat of our "daily noses".

We experienced the Light to Nations when "Dr. Mike"- our traveling dentist, pulled teeth of MC sisters and beggars and they hugged and prayed with you. One case was exceptionally difficult, at Kahlighat, "Mother's First Love"-her Home for the Dying. You were trying to pull a tooth of a poor patient on a stretcher, with inadequate tools and lack of Hindi speech to communicate, and things weren't working well. You asked everyone to pray--all the dying patients around this woman, and also some volunteers nearby, and it seems that attention was riveted upon this scene. You 'went back at it, and, eventually, the tooth came out. The lady-patient cried and smiled and then made the Sign of the Cross and blessed you. That's a Calcutta ghetto sermon of Light, of priceless ness, of Harsh beauty. Can't get that anywhere else.

Adrien, we experienced a Light to the Nations when you gave hours and patiently and painstakingly bandaged, on your first visit to Kalighat, with your French friend from Switzerland, the guy who barely had skin on his bones. Harsh beauty of selfless service.

Wally we experienced a Light when you spoke about climbing and admiring the shining mountains of Darjeeling and experienced the majesty of God. Michael you were a light with such a glimmering smile all of the time, and especially brimming with joy when playing soccer in the hot Calcutta sun with other volunteers and some street kids. Tom, when you befriended the Muslim boy on the street outside our rectory-home, and when you spoke of once seeing a Mother Teresa Film of of Kalighat, where you would and did work, realizing what a beleaguered soul in the documentary said-"I came off the street like an animal and now will die like an angel." Harsh beauty.

Ben, you should receive the record-medal for perseverance! Even though sick you still got up, went out and served at times, and even carried the beleaguered bodies of men from the trenches of the wash-bathroom at Kalighat back to their beds, sweating and languishing in heat. That was harsh beauty-like Jesus in the Eighth Station of the Cross: though wounded He still helps and heals others.

Fred we saw a Light when you stroked the man's forehead at Kalighat for hours as he lie dying, sitting at his side, so patiently, while life teemed by. It seemed like there was no other reality for you, him.

Nicholas provided a kindly, charitable and semi-comedic light when we came upon a road crew in front of our rectory, chipping away with a tooth-pick- like axe, at big cobblestones, and carrying the broken heavy gravel in a salad bowl-like container. You worked with the men there, and a crowd gathered-to see you, a very white-Irish American, amidst dark-skinned Indians, hacking away, laboring, as the work piled up and so did the admiring-curious crowds.

Emmit elicited the Light upon noticing and reporting with drama and solicitous concern, that workhorse-like guy on the bicycle-rickshaw, somehow suctioned into, and swarmed by, the thronging, transfixing and throbbing street traffic of busses, cars, taxis and pushcarts-trying unsuccessfully to get some leverage and speed, while everyone and everything around him was frayed upon him to move. The universe stopped, it seemed, there, as the man could not get momentum. You just wanted to get out there and give him a push, and yet. Charity amidst the Mystical Body, sometimes more mystical than bodily connected when you couldn't' help him physically. Your desire and memory were a spiritual-solidarity of Harsh Beauty.

John was a Light for reminding us when you visited Mother Teresa's tomb and prayed by her saintly body: I made it!, I arrived, you said. Recall, too the MC sister who daily and delicately decorated the stone-top of the tomb with beautiful fresh Indian flowers. You may recall Mother Teresa's counsel before she died: I'll be more alive and can do more help for you from heaven.

In Paul's letter to Romans we hear of the Salvation that only comes from Christ-Who is the Savoir of the world whom St John the Baptist foreshadows. Christ radiates light and salvation-from Him alone do we catch the Divine Brilliance and Mercy. Paul ,perhaps, in a way you longed this "Calcutta Irradiation" when we all traveled to Darjeeling (finally cool!) and said, of all things, you missed the MC Calcutta Motherhouse! Perhaps it was all the graces channeled by and spread from that sacred altar and the beautiful singing of the nuns you loved to see and hear so much. Didacus-reminded us of this "Christly-Irradiation," when you wondered about many of the volunteer-workers, many seeming non-believers, and hoped for them, not just to be social service workers but salvifiic instruments of the Suffering Lord.

Yes, amidst the sweltering heat, the tormented bodies, the twisted traffic, there was life-harsh beauty. All this and more, much more, was so impressing upon our souls, deeply within, it will be a long time before it seeps out: one cannot remain neutral to India, Calcutta, the Missionaries of Charity mission of serving the poor. And, like any trip, though, of course much differently, we may ask… What are some ways to "carry on"-extend-- the Pilgrimage?

How to Respond?-:Cultivate memories-i.e., Don't forget. One of my most vivid me spiritual snapshots is the little boy, who miraculously appeared, on the Darjeeling train. He had one leg-and one stubbly hand-must have been with leprosy. He was cute, soft smile and not begging, just sitting here catching the breeze in the morning, passing time. We talked to him and then gave him a holographic holy card (!) of the Virgin and St Bernadette (the kind when you turn it, it manifests a different image). He smiled sweetly, delicately put the card in-between his stubbly fingers and held it, looked at it, caught the breeze from the train's friction with the Indian air, and glimmered in thankfulness. Simply silent, with, I suppose, a ton of joy and sorrow beneath his breath, unrevealed. I will not soon forget how tenderly and poignantly he held and looked at that holy card while the sun rose, the train blasted into the future of joys and sorrows and he was all alone. Harsh beauty.

What is this Trial of mine in light of what I just saw and experienced?: We will all have troubles and sufferings-sometimes overwhelming. But--Calcutta and what we just saw and experienced was overwhelming in ways we'll never experience again. We were there for a reason. For Small and Big Revelations-to see and experience, in a new and deeper way, suffering, Harsh Beauty. . So, Recall, for instance, when you have any trouble, the story of the Jesuit headmaster Fr Van at North Point in Darjeeling, , who helped save 30 people threatened by communist insurgents in the 1980's, by hiding them in his school basement for days, surviving on barely bread and water-and love-in-action, dreadful compared to dreams-- and all the tension they must have lived with during and after that subversive, suffering experience. Blood shed was averted by that man's spiritual savvy. So, when you suffer, Don't forget what God allowed you to learn about.

Gratefulness: Remember those Tibetan kids -their smiles while playing basketball with us? Orphaned and estranged, a simple b-ball game with strange, white foreigners thrilled them-that was the greatest excitement of their ho-hum, boring and bland week. So simple a joy for them, yet so huge. Judging from their joy, we must have seemed like an athletic "dream team" -however clumsy!

Be Holy Where you are-this was the message from Mother Teresa to Fr Aibello, one of her spiritual directors, to tell all the volunteers. I.e., The Calcutta's may be right where you live-look under your nose. Be saint right where you are and solve world problems in your global backyard. Serve Jesus in the poor of your marriage, your spouse, your children or parents, or neighbors. There, right there.. But: Don't stop there-keep looking deeper and further for Him in the poorest persons.

Serve the Poorest of the poor-this is the message I got on the plane back home-God saved one "Last Big Lesson" for the way home. Fr Colin gave me a little prayer book on the Corpus Christi Movement of priests, which said: pray, make Holy Hours of Eucharistic Adoration, and Serve the poorest of the poor-go out of your way to find, embrace and serve Jesus in them .It may be easy to serve in general, and to serve poor persons-but what about the poorest of the poor? Bottom line: seek the bottom. No ego gratification; sweat, give until it hurts. Find Jesus there. When you're broken down by sun, dehydration, lack of adequate foods, stricken by sickness, wondering why you're in Calcutta or the nursing home or soup kitchen, then ask: God, give me grace to serve and love.

In TS Eliot's poem "The journey of the Magi" -the three sages who encountered The Christ went back home by a different route: transformation. So, men, let us do the same-let us go by way of a different Route, and may we live this Route as answer be our lives.

Remember, now, the Harsh Beauty of St John the Baptist, and the MC sisters still serving sweltering Calcutta, and also the Harsh Beauty of the Lord's Mass-live all Thru Him, with Him and in Him…

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi