by Maria Mondello
I recently finished my final semester of college, which was spent during an internship at Little Sisters of the Poor in Mobile, Alabama. This internship experience was beyond anything I could have foreseen in my earlier years of college. The internship was full of learning experiences and an opportunity for personal growth and maturity. As my internship was winding down, I discovered I was tired; tired but full. Tired because the internship tested me beyond what I thought I was capable of but full because it had been a semester of giving and receiving love. This love, unworthy of it, still came and found me, in the form of the beautiful elderly poor. After spending my summer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at the Little Sisters of the Poor Home located there, I faced the truth that I wanted to do/give more, not just with the elderly population but with the Little Sisters of the Poor. When I fly out of Pittsburgh on a very early, slightly overcast morning, I felt sad because I was leaving and did not know what God had in store for me. Little did I know…. When it came time to look for an internship placement for the spring semester, the first and only place that immediately came to mind was Little Sisters of the Poor. The only problem was that the nearest Home was in Mobile, Alabama, which was over three hours from my home and college, and I did not feel like leaving the comfort of my home, family, and friends for my final semester of college. In preparation for the internship, my professor kept saying over and over again, “don’t be afraid to push your comfort zone.” So, I looked over the ledge, took a deep breath, and jumped into the deep end. As I am writing this, I am thinking of a quote by Saint Pope John Paul II: “The world promised you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” This quote summarizes well my experience this past semester of working and living with the Little Sisters of the Poor.
I made my home at Little Sisters of the Poor in Mobile this past semester. As I was serving the elderly throughout my internship, making them happy and comfortable in their own Home, I knew that their Home was also my home. This connection allowed me easy access into the heart of service, and gave me a more loving and merciful heart, allowing me to become a part of the Little Sisters of the Poor’s family. No longer was I outside the circle of belonging, but I became a part of the inner circle of belonging, acceptance, and friendship and my heart rested in this knowledge, which gave me the gift of peace.
This gift of peace surpassed superficial feelings of fleeting happiness and pleasure that is only found in the midst of our secular world. Instead, this gift was a gift from above. It was a gift of peace, yes, but the gift of peace also brings greater trust, the spirit of unceasing prayer, and an interior joy that cannot be shaken by the passing emotions and fads of this secular world. As a young person, I had always interiorly struggled with the idea of believing and hoping in a God whom I struggled to see in my daily, everyday life. I also seemed to always come up lacking in my personal relationship with God; nothing I did ever seemed good enough for God. I had an experience that filled the void within me and gave me the gift of unceasing prayer and this experience was feeding a Resident her breakfast. As I was feeding her, I was brought to the thirst and hunger of Jesus Christ, as he lay dying on the cross. The thirst/hunger for love of Jesus Christ on the cross was more than a physical thirst; it was a deeper thirst, a yearning for people to love God by trusting Him with their lives. By loving and trusting God and loving/serving others, we can alleviate the thirst of Jesus on the cross. By taking the time and care to feed a Resident daily, I knew that I was not just giving food and water to someone who needed it but also alleviating the thirst of Jesus Christ for love and trust. I believe that prayer, our daily, intimate encounter with Jesus, should be about fulfilling that thirst by our trust in Him and believe in His merciful love. Prayer, service, and recreation all become one because they all sought to glory God and alleviate His thirst on the cross.
As I was in Mobile this semester, I befriended a lovely female Resident, Nina, who had terminal cancer and was bed-ridden. She knew she was in the process of dying. Instead of fear or anxiety, she was filled with peace and she freely accepted everything that was happening and unfolding in her life. From getting to know her and spending time with her, I learned two keys to living a joyful life from her: redemptive suffering and complete surrender. Nina’s last few months were filled with physical pain from terminal cancer, but instead of complaining, she trusted. Only God knows what the gift of her suffering gave to this broken and lost world. Her complete surrender to God while she was dying gave me encouragement in my own life, as I hope to enter the Little Sisters of the Poor in October as a postulant. Two days before I was set to leave for home, the Sisters invited my mother (who was visiting at the time) and myself to pray night prayer with Nina. Nina was getting closer and closer to dying and finally seeing her final reward. The next day, my last full day at the Home, I woke up early to pray, eat, and have time to prepare for my final presentation. I was slightly anxious and was instead, running around in literal circles around the large Home. Sister Ellen Anne finally found me and told to immediately go to Nina’s room; Nina was dying. Nina died an hour after I arrived in her room. In that hour, the Sisters, employees, Residents, and friends all crammed into the room to pray. A normal morning for me that was busy and rushed became an opportunity to witness heaven reaching down to earth. From Nina, I learned that death is not scary or something we should fear. It just takes complete surrender to God to find the light in the darkest of moments, peace in the midst of anxious fear, and the solid foundation of truth in the midst of the unknown future.
Yes, this past semester stretched me, tested me, and gave me plenty of moments to grow and mature. Even though I was very tired sometimes, and felt my own cup being emptied for the sake of others, my cup literally overflowed every day with the gift of peace: peace from the constant presence of Jesus in the chapel, peace from the way all the elderly Residents always accepted me into their lives, and peace from how the Little Sisters of the Poor truly love with a merciful heart, and how their actions of mercy impel a world to look deeper into the recesses of their own heart and ask themselves, “How can I show the face of Jesus Christ, which is the face of Mercy, to the world that is in desperate need of it?”