Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Stories of India…
Or: Life is Like That!

Father John J. Lombardi

These reflections are about some insights I gained from a two-week pilgrimage in January of 2009 to India-my third trip there, to Calcutta and Darjeeling. After returning to the United States I thought that many of my own experiences in India-whether about trying to pray while buzzing thru Calcutta streets or practicing patience during flight delays or bargaining with animated street vendors --were applicable to others and to life in general, and not just my pilgrimage, and so-perhaps you'll say after reading some these stories "Life Is Like That".

Now, a brief "ratings-synopsis" of my pilgrimage:

Funniest time: ten of us pilgrims stuffed into a tiny taxi cab (slightly larger than a VW beetle) thru the harried Calcutta streets for a half hour. It was painful fun -just like life.

Strangest time: It was a kinda purgatory waiting for our return plane to America, which never came because of too much fog and pollution in Calcutta…Life is filled with strange times, curveballs.

Peak moment: Seeing Kanchenjunga, the world's third largest mountain, majestically-resplendent towering a hundred miles away from Darjeeling. "It's worth the trip".

Most poignant moment: praying at night to Mother Teresa's Motherhouse, with all the pilgrims solemnly kneeling, reflecting near her tomb…She was the "real deal"

Most embarrassing moment: two of us pilgrim-swimmers getting kicked out of the pool (didn't' have swim official trunks) at the ritzy Oberoi Hotel-even overseas we could persona non grata!

Going so far away brought me close to home: to my self-my true, inner, deeper self-both good and bad. I discovered-yet again-how irritable and yet social I am; how attached I am to my possessions and yet so open to new experiences; and how much I love travelling and my world back home. Sometimes you do have to go far away "to discover yourself" and sometimes not. And there are many other things you learn on pilgrimage that you would not by vacationing in your back yard. One of our college pilgrims Kevin said it's strange you have to go so far way to learn something so simple-like about God's grace, the call to service, the practice of the presence of God, etc. But, Kevin said, it is precisely the "contrast experience" that helps reveal in ways that the repetitious-familiar will not.

Here's some other lessons…So poor and yet so rich: One of my favorite memories of India-great land as it is-is of a person, Francis, a middle-aged Indian, who was a "servant" in Calcutta church . He was always smiling and deferential; ready to help us and yet he hardly spoke to us (he conversed in broken English-short sentences, maybe he was a little embarrassed or shy to talk at length with us) He had a family-four children and wife. Amidst his many assignments for work-he never looked gloomy or showed signs of distress and was always congenial-and yet so poor-money wise. After a while we pilgrims "forgot" Francis and others were "servants" and we heartily befriended them. There was nothing magical or mystical about Francis, but everyone thought he was a magnificent man -probably because he is a joyful, always-ready-guy, so simple and poor and yet cheerful and obviously pragmatic. While we went to "mission" in India to serve the poor with Mother Teresa's sisters, to tour and see the Himalayan mountains-all "fireworks" we actively sought in our pilgrimage, we also encountered Francis-a beautiful surprise, who was "little face of God" in our midst and who assisted us in the most crucial ways-our daily needs. Often we overlook such "angels in disguise" but God often places such little sparks of light and love in our midst. Now how many people do you know with all those qualities of Francis? They are not a dime a dozen, of course, but everyone's attracted to them when God reveals them to us! Life is like that.

FINDING GOD IN ALL THINGS-- I can't quite put my finger on it-I had a theophany (literally, from the Greek: God-appearance) while driving in a taxi cab thru Calcutta. We were nervously trying to get to the MC motherhouse one night for the beginning of Benediction-I was to be the celebrant --and of course we were running late --after a shopping spree (What else in Calcutta?). We finally hailed a taxi and had to go thru winding streets, narrow-thin streets, thru alleys mostly-cluttered with people, shoppers, vendors, animals, markets of vegetables and tents filled with auto tools and fabrics and textiles. Even though it wasn't a long drive time -twelve minutes, maybe-we finally made it to the motherhouse after a ton of challenges. On the way I noticed-and then observed the Indian taxi cab driver's face: he obviously looked like he was hungry for the challenge and knew we were desperate. Each time I looked during the frenzied ride at him he had a charming grimace, a zealous countenance, as if to imply he was rising to the occasion, he was gonna' do it; he was enjoying this-helping us accomplish our goal under duress. For some reason I thought of his disposition and calm under pressure and solidarity with us foreigners as God's manifestation in that now-what God is showing me-another side of His Being-albeit different, unusual, surprising, shocking even. St Ignatius and Jesuits have the maxim, "Finding God in all things". In other words, never overlooking the present moment or the most ordinary of things and seeing God's Providence unfolding to reveal Himself in each Eternal Now.

Peace and blessings from Mary's Grotto-

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi