Spiritual Poverty of the West vs. Material Poverty of the East
By Cassidy Bugos
There was a little nun in Tijuana who had very wise eyes. Their glance was sharp and critical, and the eyebrows over them arched frequently; but the light in them was unmistakable. It was the light of eyes used to gazing in love.
She adeptly avoided giving us her name, and as curious as we were about her, we never asked. Anyway, they were all “Sister” to us. This little nun in particular was on retreat for most of our stay there, and so we didn’t meet her until the very last working night of our trip, and then, only a few of us.
My fellow student missionaries Sarah, Mary, Mandy, and I were elected to go with the Sisters out to the coast, along the very cliffs of which Tijauna washes up a second sea of tiny shanties, each stacked against the other haphazardly. We brought with us hundreds of pounds of rice, beans, sugar and soap to hand out in portions to the mamas who lined up with their children outside our van. This was our work for the afternoon; it was not hard work. Most of the work the Sisters had us help them with was easy work, except for the toil of washing barrels and barrels of laundry by hand, a chore that made up our mornings in the house for homeless elderly women—”the Grandmas”, as the Sisters called them—where we stayed. But this kind of work was difficult in another way, because it entailed we young, blonde, wealthy American girls looking into the faces of women who couldn’t always promise their children supper; and seeing only gratitude, and feeling immensely humbled.
This little nun seemed to make up her mind, as soon as she got in the van with us, that she was going to give us something we could take home with us. She did this by sharing her mind with us, by talking incessantly. She spoke her every observation out loud, she told us about her childhood in India, about her family and her discovery of her vocation, about the most nuanced differences of culture—differences she said were impossible to explain to her mother in letters, but which she made wonderfully clear to us, although English was her ninth language. “It was as if she was talking at us,” was how Mandy put it, explaining our encounter with this nun to the other girls later that night.
When I was sitting on the floor of the van with her I felt obliged to respond, but for a time the other girls fell absolutely quiet, reflecting on her words. After awhile I also gave up asking questions, because there was an enormous lump in my throat, although I don’t remember exactly what it was she was discoursing on when I became so overwhelmed. The totality of the picture she painted for us, together with the extraordinary light in that gaze that she occasionally fixed on one of us, before shifting her gaze calmly out the window, was too beautiful for my own words to represent here. There was one question, however, that I thought to ask her, which gained a response worth sharing. “Sister,” I asked, “is there a great difference between, say, the kind of poverty you saw in the East, in India, and what you see here?”
Her eyes widened at me, and she nodded. “Ohhhh,” she breathed. “It is not the same thing at all.” She said that in India, material poverty is much, much greater than anything she’s seen in the West, and so she is never really impressed by what she sees here. Here, people suffer from poverty, but they do not die just from it; there they will die tomorrow if they do not get food.Ã
But, she said, in the East, the soul is different. It is stronger, as she put it, and solid.Ã Whether a person is Christian, or Hindu, or Muslim, or Buddhist, he is a solid Christian, a solid Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist. He will not lose faith because he is hungry, or because he is well-fed. And in India, if people are hungry, they are still happy. The poorest people on the streets, she said, are the happiest. If they have food today, they are happy; they do not wonder if they will have food tomorrow. Their joy, she insisted, is something unlike anything you see on any face in the West.
We could believe it, looking at her face.
She went on. Here in the West, she said, it is different. Here most poor people have enough, even though they don’t understand how little “enough” is. But they are unhappy, she said (and she knelt to look through the rear window at the tired faces of the mothers gathered outside the van, as the other Sister led them in Santa Marias before distributing their food). They are unhappy, because they have no God. That is the real poverty. The farther North you go in America, she added, the more wealth you see, and the less joy you find. Those people, she said, looking seriously at us, the depressed, and the sad people “with no God and a great big house”, are the poorest of the poor. That’s what Mother Teresa meant. It is hard, she added with a sigh, to find Christ in them. Sometimes we must put Him there. And she added quietly, “That, girls, at your home, that is your real mission, no?”
Sister said other things that were terribly funny to hear coming from such a sober little nun, things that made us double up in laughter. She made innocent, wondering observations about things on the street, girls with green hair and the like, and she called occasionally up to the driver, Federico, to tease him in Spanish. She told us about all the hardships of being a Missionary, and the natural rewards, and the many places she has traveled to (she had always wanted to see the world, she said, and God had heard her prayer). And she occasionally spoke about “my Jesus”, and when she did we knew that He had something to do with that incredible light in her eyes.
The only time, in fact, that she grew a little quiet was when one of the girls asked her about Mother Teresa: Sister had lived in the same house with her in Calcutta for four years after her novitiate. What was Mother Teresa like? Sarah asked. Sister shook her head at us firmly. “Words . . . there are no words.” And she really didn’t try. She told us a few stories, stories that showed how all the sisters in the order loved Mother like a mother indeed, and how she knew them all well and didn’t forget them once she met them. But she really didn’t try to describe Mother Teresa. “There are no words.”
Our experience of this little nun lasted but three hours of our week in Tijuana, during which we saw and felt many things we’d never seen or felt before, and tried to let ourselves be molded by our experiences. Sister seemed to understand our frame of mind at the end of such a week, and where we came from, and what we were going back to. She understood us. She wanted to impart to us an understanding of why we had come to Tijuana. As far as Sister was concerned, we had come so that our imaginations could be imprinted with some visible image—like the feeding, and the clothing, and the visiting of the poor—of the missionary work we are supposed to be doing spiritually, all the time, to all those around us.Ã
More than that, she wanted us to understand whom we were serving, when we served anyone’s spiritual or material needs.Ã We were serving Christ.Ã When one of “the Grandmas”, blind and deaf, cried out from her wheelchair, “Agua, por favor!”, on the wall over her head we were bound to see a crucifix and beside it the motto of the Missionaries of Charity, the two words, tengo sed.
(This article first appeared in Christendom College’s student journal, The Rambler. https://www.christendom.edu/images/pdfs/rambler.pdf. Republished with permission from the author.)