(The belen, at our neighborhood church, is almost done. Misa de Gallo started Thursday. More kids belt out off-key-carols at our door. It brought to mind an earlier column on an Advent touring a slum hospice — JLM)
Mid-Advent found me me driving down a humid Tondo side road to reach a hospice. What’s that got to do with Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel: “A Christmas Carol”?
We were to hand over a letter for a Missionary of Charity sister. Many call them, “Mother Teresa nuns”.But in their star-lantern festooned front yard, one bumped against Dickens’ world of Christmases past, present and yet-to-come.
About 25 kids, from 3 to 8 years of age, milled about. In blue-lined sari-habits, three nuns filled medicine bottles thrust forward by scrawny, prematurely-wrinkled mothers.
“Tuberculosis,” Sister Rose explains. “Poverty runs deep here.” TB spreads like brushfire in slum homes, on short food rations and shoddy sanitation. Reminds you of Bob Crachit, underpaid 15 shillings a month, by Ebenezer Scrooge.
You can run your finger down statistical tables and note, without wincing, that TB afflicts 450 out of every 100,000 Filipinos. (It’s less than half – or 204 –for Thais. ) But see that statistic etched into a three-year-old’s pinched features wrenches your guts.
“(These are) immortal creatures, condemned without alternative or choice, to tread paths of jagged flints and stones by brutal ignorance” and an avaricious elite, the 31-year-old Dickens told the Manchester Atheneum. By then, he had the novels “Oliver Twist” and “David Copperfield” under his belt.
Yet, “Christmas is the only time I know of, in the long calendar year, when men and women seem, by one consent, to open their shut-up hearts freely,” he wrote. “(We must see people below us as if they were really fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys….”
Dickens wove that theme into “A Christmas Carol”. And it resounded as Sister Carrisima led us through various Spartan wards, scrubbed clean by nuns and volunteers. “No smell, sir, so unlike our public hospitals,” murmured our driver.
“But you should see these early mornings,” the nun replied while gently adjusting the blanket of the comatose patient, picked up earlier from a hovel. “Some wet and move in their beds,” she explained stroking the man’s forehead. “It takes time to clean up.”
Did Blessed Teresa of Calcutta engrain into her daughters the gift of understatement? That formation shapes 19 young women from Korea , Indonesia and Philippines , now novices in this house. As professed nuns, they’d committed their lives to healing victims in a society of padlocked hearts.
In the women’s ward, Sister Carrisima pushed back stray locks on a sleeping aged woman and patted the patient’s hand in the next bed. Iniwan sa kalsada, she explained. “Abandoned on the street.” Three beds away, the woman had her face seared by acid, splashed on by an abusive husband.
In the open space, 20 aged patients were being fed. And in the next room, a woman sat talking to herself, endlessly folding a handkerchief. “She’s a rape victim, so traumatized, she screams when touched,” the nun explained. “We have other victims of violence here.”
In a large hall, three young sisters led students packing Christmas packets of rice, soap, some sugar and food items, praying as they worked. “These sisters just made their vows,” Sister Carrisima explained. “One will be returning to Korea soon,” she said.
In 18 Missionary of Charity houses – scattered from in Dagupan, Cebu, Aklan, Calbayog, to Davao — Mother Teresa nuns go from house to house. They pinpoint the dirt poor who’ll get these small packages. “In every act of kindness, you come face to face with God,” Teresa of Calcutta taught.
As in Dicken’s time, our social order is one where jewels, luxury gas-guzzlers and bank accounts, padded by graft, gauge self-worth. So, these packets are nothing to that illegal logger who lights his cigars with hundred-peso bills. Coco-levy magnates or Leichtenstein bank account holders would sniff at them. Ask Imelda.or Danding Cojuangco.
And what would these efforts mean for Erap, Gloria, Chavit or Ampatuans with their backers, or rouge military? Are they “bound on other journeys”?
“You were always a good man of business,” Scrooge told the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley. “Business?” wailed the Christmas Past wraith, shaking his manacles. “Mankind was my business… mercy, forbearance, benevolence was all my business.”
Christmas today comes, as it did 2000 years ago, to a society where the political, economic and military elite seek only to conserve their loot. Herod and Tiberius Caesar – and Scrooge – did as much.
Few share their creativity, time and possessions to enable those of skimpy means and confined horizons to rise to “sunlit plains” of humane lives.
A thin crust of Scrooges toss up leaders equally blind. Few have the insight to see that the poor have as much right to what is available. They act as if sharing with the less fortunate is “humbug.”
If we “open our shut-up hearts freely,” we’ll discover they’re “hard as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire, secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster,” Jonathan Powers writes in “Scrooge Is Here.”
“Give love on Christmas Day,” the car radio blared on our way back. But Christmas past, present and future blend into one for those who daily serve the crushed and the broken. “And they found the Child, with Mary his mother,” the ancient story goes.