I am speechless as I read the following e-mail (and others Katie has written before it). I think that through this e-mail describing Katie’s experiences… in some small, minute and miniscule way, suffering has begun to take the shape of a face. I know that unless I experience Katie’s experiences I will never understand. I can not even begin to understand what it would be like to hold the hand of a woman who was being treated for maggots in an open wound. This is too far beyond my own reality. So for me, this kind of suffering does not necessarily have a face…but it might just have the outline of the possibility of a face…and that is more than it once was…I have a hard time even asking God to allow me to understand this reality. For one, I know that here in America I really can’t. Two, I don’t know that genuinely do I want to understand it, for to understand it I would have to experience it….just being honest…

The following e-mail comes from our friend Katie Nolan who is serving in Calucutta among the poorest of the poor…I strongly encourage you to read this e-mail…if you don’t feel something…well, you will….

She writes…

“I will always remember today. Hell was unleashed at Kalighat. I emerged from it changed. It changed God in my eyes. Today suffering took on a face for me.

I lacked my normal spark for being at Kalighat. I was tired, full of my own thoughts, and unwilling to give of myself. I was contemplating going to do laundry duty so I could do something mindless, but I ended up sitting down with a woman receiving medical treatment. Her foot was grotesque. It was swollen and rotting. Half of it was gone–eaten away by maggots. Her second toe was about to fall off and out of the mass of flesh poked three bones where her other three toes used to be. Two Sisters, armed with tweezers, scissors, and a scalpel, dug around in her foot cleaning and fishing for maggots. I sat with the woman for an hour and a half. It was my job to hold her down as she was crying out in pain. Other times I comforted her as she threw her arms around me and sobbed. So many thoughts raced through my head:

“I feel like screaming. I feel so helpless. This woman cries–all I can do is hold her hand. The young woman in the bed next to me is taking her final breaths. The head nun is called over. She sprinkles holy water on her forehead and begins to say the ritual prayers. Before she is finished the patient’s chest has ceased to laboriously rise and fall. She is lifted from the bed, wrapped in a white shroud, and carried out. Another woman is brought in on a stretcher, quickly bathed, and now lies in the vacated bed. The dead woman seems to be forgotten by all. The woman in bed 50 has soiled herself and it needs to be cleaned. Time to get the plates ready for lunch. Life goes on . . . other things to do. Here there is no time to reflect on death. Here you can’t grieve over everything that deserves to be grieved about… Shouldn’t there be grief? I feel grief. The woman is squeezing my hand in pain as another maggot is extracted. Within the span of twenty minutes a woman dies and another is placed in her bed. How is this a normal part of life? It isn’t normal for me.”

I want to run from the place. I don’t want to deal with the reality anymore. But I see my friend Sundha across the room. I need to feed her lunch. The woman in the other bed beside me scoots only halfway off of her bed and pees on herself and my foot. She needs me too. I can’t leave. I can’t cry. I have to stay.

When I finally do leave at the end of the shift I am full of curses and tears. “God, do you cause suffering? In moments when I can’t look at this woman’s foot my eyes slip up to a column adorned by a wooden crucifix. Jesus do you care that these woman are suffering?”

My theology has always been one that believes God is in control of everything. In my mind to say He is not makes Him not God. But today my theology of God explodes in my face. Is God loving? Yes. Is God in control? Yes. Is there suffering? Yes. Did God cause suffering? I don’t want to answer that today. Love and suffering don’t coexist in my mind. But what gives? God’s control or God’s love? I can no longer be okay with not understanding how God can be love and how there can be suffering–suffering has a face. It is no longer people starving in Somalia or people dying of genocide in Eastern Europe: suffering has the
face of the woman I rocked in my arms as they bandaged her feet.

Later, as chance would have it (but I don’t believe in chance–do I?) I met an Indian man. He gave me this advice about Calcutta. He told me, “Go to the flower market and buy some flowers and throw them in the Hooghly River and watch the flowers float alongside the shit.” That picture best describes Calcutta: flowers and shit. I carried that image with me the rest of the night. This morning I woke up early. I jumped on the metro, found the flower market, and threw my handful of flowers in the river. The challenge is, can I look at Calcutta in honesty? Can I see the flowers alongside the shit and call it beautiful? Calcutta is under my skin. I see the ugliness and it angers and frustrates me. But ask me to describe my feelings in one word and I say, “Love.” I can give no rational answer. The only answer is that it is Calcutta. There is a man Jacques (who I think is the French twin of Sean Connery) who works at Kalighat. He came to Calcutta to find God. I could recommend better places, but not a more honest one. Where else is the essence of humanity captured more fully? More real? –wealth and poverty side by side, human frailty and human resiliency, compassion and callousness, hope and despair. It is like watching a child sitting in filth both laughing and crying.

How can I see all this and say it is beautiful? How can I do this and not let myself become callous by what I see? I don’t want suffering and death to become normal to me. At times I will walk down the street and tell myself, “Katie, open your eyes wide, really see this!” But I have only sunk into Calcutta ankle deep. I have been frustrated with myself that I could not jump in headfirst. I wanted to enter here heart and soul, but I have remained guarded. Walking home last night I saw a man sleeping in his rickshaw parked outside a classy restaurant. This rickshaw is his daily rice and his nightly bed. I can only see you, rickshaw wallah. I can’t bring myself to befriend you. I can only handle ankle deep reality for now.

Calcutta has rocked my world. It has rocked my view of God. Calcutta is redefining my theology. In many ways they are the same – full of paradoxes perhaps. God is judgment and mercy. He is an intimate Father and yet God above the universe . . . God and Calcutta alike intrigue me . . . they are mysterious . . . they offer more questions than answers . . . they draw me to them.

For now I am only ankle deep, but for now I am okay with that.

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