The Real Presence


I was walking through the streets of Calcutta on my way to Mother Theresa’s Home for the Dying where I would be helping out for a few days.  These streets were vibrating with so much life that I actually lost contact with my nervousness about where I was going and what I was about to do.

After having breakfast with Kashi, Christopher, Madhu and my other friends in the l’Arche home where I had been staying for the past week, I step out of that joyful and peaceful house (at least for that morning)  into the tumultuous atmosphere in front of the Sealdah train station through which pass daily over 800,000 people.

Besides the constant flow of business men, labourers, families there were many porters shuffling along with huge burdens on their heads: great baskets full of bananas, apples and other fruits and vegetables; huge sacks of rice or whatever, other materials and large boxes full of who knows what.  The red loin clothes and red bandanas worn by these porters highlighted their dark sinewy bodies glistening with sweat.

I watched four of them straining to lift a great round basket full of eggs which they lowered onto the head of a fifth one who had stepped under it.  He took a moment to steady himself then started off with a rhythmic trot right into the flow of busy traffic.  Others pushed and pulled at wagons loaded with tons of coal, cement, lumber etc., etc.

Still others squatted in clusters to rest their weary bodies and perhaps create a place of inner quiet amid the constant clamor of voices and vehicles: the shouting of rickshaw drivers, the roaring buses and cars with their constant honking horns. The dust and the exhaust fumes dulled the intensity of the sun’s brilliance but not its oppressive heat.

Many poor families were obviously making the station their home.  I saw women with their cooking pots, women nursing babies or playing with their young children.    Miraculously, it seemed to me that a spirit of peace some how dominated over the external chaos. I still hold a clear image of one young boy cradling in his arms and lovingly rocking an even younger child who I presume was his brother.

As I moved away from the station the intensity of the movement and the noise diminished somewhat as it flowed out into the various streets. In all the heat, the dust, the noise, the smells there were women moving with quiet grace in their bright saris, like brilliantly coloured fish swimming effortlessly and gracefully in this river of humanity.

As I approached the Home for the Dying, a former Hindu temple that had been abandoned in favour of a larger temple built just next door, I sensed an atmosphere of relative quiet in the surrounding street. Stepping inside I was struck by a tidal wave of human suffering.

In one large room there were rows of cots filled with sick and dying men.  A similar room next to it was filled with women.  It wasn’t long however before the extraordinary peace of the place began to seep into me.  This edifice was indeed still a temple where the presence of God was almost palpable.

When I wasn’t responding to the feeble cries from fever ridden men for “pawney”, water, I was carefully spreading ointment over the festering skin of those tormented with scabies. One morning for an hour or so, an eternal moment, I held in my arms a Tibetan man, gently stroking the parchment- like skin of his tiny skeleton like body, letting him know that he was not alone as he reached the end of his earthly pilgrimage.

Why was I a Catholic priest from the other side of the world given the privilege of shepherding this Buddhist in his passage into the fullness of  life?  For me it was a Eucharist moment with an echo of the words of Jesus, “This is my body given up for you.”

My strongest memory of these few precious days is not so much the suffering and the deaths but of one particular man by the name of John Rodriquez.  The Sisters had me attend to John because he was one of the few if not the only man there who could speak English.

Having held cups of water for him to drink and occasionally helped him role over on his cot from one side to the other, I took time just to squat next to him, hold his arm and listen to his story:

“Years ago I came to Calcutta from Goa. I have been living here in the streets for a long time.  A few weeks ago I woke up one morning unable to move my arms or my legs.  Some people brought me here to Mother Theresa’s.   I don’t know what happened to me and I don’t know what is going to become of me.”

Then his face lit up with a courageous smile and he said with such conviction, “But I know that everything is in the hands of the Almighty”.

That was many years ago, and I’m sure John that you are now with the One in whom you placed all your trust.  I can still see your great smile and hear your steady voice, and they challenge and encourage me in my own times of struggle or doubt to believe as you did that everything is in the hands of the Almighty.

Bill Clarke, SJ, is a member of the team of spiritual directors at Loyola House of Ignatius Jesuit Centre of Guelph and continues his commitment to L'Arche.

  • graeme quinlan
    Posted at 01:56h, 05 August Reply

    Upon reading this story,filled with so much poignancy, emotion and sensitivity that with tears in my eyes I just sat and pondered Why have I not been able, or failed, to reach out to others. I feel ashamed at my lack of awareness of the less fortunate around me. I pray for the gift of giving more of myself.

  • Paul Baker
    Posted at 07:20h, 05 August Reply

    Bill, what a well written, beautiful, moving story of your memories of many years ago in Calcutta. Thanks. I am reminded of my own memory of being with an elderly Jesuit who was dying. It was in my early years of formation as a Jesuit. With this visit I was given the extraordinary grace that I could not be more present to the death of Jesus at Calvary than at this moment! A Eucharistic moment? I think so. I remember this experience when I ask myself where is my Jesus.

  • Marianne Ostermann
    Posted at 07:36h, 05 August Reply

    Thank you…I was transported to Calcutta…so descriptive. I’ve had the privilege of caring for dying patients in my past life…memories were brought back. Thank God for the gift of faith!!

  • Charles Pottie
    Posted at 07:40h, 05 August Reply

    Thank you Bill. That brought back many memories of my time in Calcutta and in Siliguri in the early 70s. There are still vivid memories of that year in my head and heart. They say that one is changed when one visits India and meets the people there. Your article expresses the experience that you had and that I and others have had.

  • Charles Pottie
    Posted at 07:43h, 05 August Reply

    Thanks Bill, your reflection certainly resonated with my experience of being in India and meeting the people in Calcutta and Siliguri.

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 08:36h, 05 August Reply

    Thank you Bill!

  • Rosemary McGinn
    Posted at 09:54h, 05 August Reply

    Thanks Bill for the wonderful compassioate story, of what it means to truly listen to one,who is being called into Eternal Life.Gratefully Rosemary McGinnCSJ.

  • Paul v
    Posted at 11:10h, 05 August Reply

    Thanks Father… i read your story I remembered the smells, the noise on the street and the festival of life amidst the deep poverty in the streets of Calcutta… it was a great privilege that burned His presence into my heart…..

  • Dodzi Amemado
    Posted at 11:44h, 05 August Reply

    Thank you, Fr. Bill! Vividly moving, and truly life-changing testimony! Many “Eucharist moments” indeed around us… maybe every day in our ordinary lives. Thank you very much for sharing this powerful experience.

  • Lorraine Majcen
    Posted at 12:12h, 05 August Reply

    Thank you Fr Bill for your moving description of life and humanity in Calcutta. As a native of Calcutta, I was transported by your words, to what I was very familiar with, and to what I took for granted. We are presented with the Eucharistic presence of Jesus wherever we are. It took your travel across the world, to have the experience of the living Christ. Thank you for sharing with us, your powerful and reflective moments in Calcutta.

  • Grace Colella
    Posted at 13:39h, 05 August Reply

    Thank you Bill. Your experiences of compassion are inspiring.

  • Eric Jensen, I'm not quite a robot
    Posted at 13:48h, 06 August Reply

    Thank you, Bill. A beautiful reminder that God is compassion.

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