“Hey, CO!” yelled the inmate clothed in an orange county smock from behind the thick glass of the cell door between him and the young corrections officer making his rounds. “What’s up?” asked the officer as he paused on the walkway. “I need to talk to you . . . somebody . . . anybody. You see, CO, I have things weighin’ on me—dark things. Things that bother me. No one listens. I feel angry inside at people and at myself. I don’t know what to do.” The officer looked at the inmate and simply asked, “Would it help you if I listened to what it is that is bothering you? I can only spare a few minutes, but I will try and offer to you what I can if it would help.” The inmate gestured with the nod of quiet desperation. The officer did a quick scan of the cellblock and leaning on his law enforcement training and even more on his Catholic faith, he stood opposite the inmate at the thick cell door and listened as the broken man—wounded from the awful crimes he had done and the sinful life he had chosen—poured out his heart and lamented those things and where they had inevitably brought him.
The first several seconds seemed like an eternity, but the young officer persevered through all the things weighing the man down. The long back-to-back shifts in the jail, the fatigue from being on constant high alert and ready to go at any minute to protect and maintain security, the inmates always badgering him for something or trying a game of manipulation, the heartache of being away from his dog and his family, the fact that he would not be able to go to Sunday Mass because the jail was in dire need of shift coverage—oh yes, the officer had his own woes to lament too. And yet, he found himself before this inmate—a man justly sentenced for crimes he had knowingly committed—listening to him pour out his heart.
The officer’s mother’s words in many sacrificial situations came to mind, “There, but for the grace of God, go I!” Suddenly, he became keenly aware of another individual who had often done the same in her life and religious vocation, someone now in heaven among that blessed communion of saints. The memory of her and her incredible example suddenly flooded the young officer’s mind. He found he was not so weary and fixated on his troubles, but sensitive to the ones of the man before him. He looked to this saintly woman of faith—this small but zealous nun in a white and blue saree, holding her Rosary beads and repeating in the most genuine and heartfelt of ways, “I will pray for you!” This young corrections officer in a navy-blue sheriff’s uniform and duty belt made the decision to take up the example of St. Mother Teresa of Kolkata and enter the slums—not of India but of a jail and into the heart of the criminal standing before him. With Mother Teresa’s example, this young officer made the resolve to show the love and mercy of Our Lord Jesus Christ by simply being present and offering what he could to this troubled and tormented man in a jail cell. As St. Mother Teresa reminds us, how often have Jesus and his mother been there to hear us, comfort us, love and encourage us? The answer: always.
The gift of presence is the game-changer. Mother Teresa knew this, for she learned from the best of the best—Our Blessed Lord. Jesus is the prisoner found in every tabernacle and monstrance of the world, so madly in love with us and bound to us in the Blessed Sacrament—His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Most Holy Eucharist. Jesus knows how starved we are for his divine presence, and this is why he utters from the altar-wood of the cross on Calvary, “I thirst!”—the very words St. Mother Teresa heard in the cries she could not and would not ignore from the poorest of the poor.
I was that young corrections officer once upon a time. All of this occurred, and St. Mother Teresa was fast in my heart and mind, beckoning me to learn from her and be Christ to one of his poor ones. She begged me to present the priceless treasure of Jesus’ love to a tormented soul in the sure and certain hope that he might know peace one day. When I go before Our Eucharistic Lord in Adoration, I cannot help but think and reflect on the quote from the film A River Runs Through It: “The poor without Christ are of all men the most miserable. But the poor with Christ? Princes and kings of the earth!”
I ask you, how will you respond to Christ’s call to be present to others? Will you simply share a smile on the sidewalk? Maybe utter a “hello” to a stranger in the supermarket? Not lose your temper when someone on the road cuts you off or takes your spot in the crowded parking lot? Or offer a heartfelt “I will pray for you” to someone in dire need of Christ’s loving presence as St. Mother Teresa of Kolkata often did?
Let us learn from Mother Teresa, for she is a great teacher. She knew that the slums of the poor dwell all around us—those souls burdened by physical poverty, bodily illness, loneliness, addiction, indifference, slavery to immorality, and spiritual drought. Like that great saint who gave everything up so that others might know the Kingdom of God, strive to be present to each soul placed before us with the same love and attention he shows us. For if the poor—all of us—have Christ, they then become as kings!
I leave you with these words of St. Mother Teresa:
Let us ask Our Lady to be with us; let us ask her to give us her heart: so beautiful, so pure, so immaculate—her Heart! So full of love and humility—that we may receive Jesus in the Bread of Life. That we might love Him as she loves Him, and serve Him in the distress and disguise of the poor. Let us ask Our Lady to be with us!
St. Teresa of Kolkata, pray for us!
Painting by Samir Mondal.