Posted September 16, 2011:
The Scent of Lemon

by Ana Maria Quiroz (former working guest).

Perhaps this article should be called, "How I Grasped the Spirituality of Madonna House Through Cleaning the Outdoor Jons." But that title would be too long.

When we come here as guests, we embrace the same life-style as the applicants and the staff at Madonna House: poverty, chastity, and obedience.

I knew from the start that obedience would be the hardest for me, given that I was past fifty. I had been independent, living on my own for a great part of my life and had pretty much been able to do as I pleased, especially in regard to the domestic affairs of cooking and cleaning.

One Monday morning, when I looked at the list of chores, I was surprised to see that one of my duties that week was to clean the outdoor toilets.

In accordance with the spirit of poverty (which is very different from poor of spirit, as my spiritual director has tried to explain to me), most people at the main house—which number between 50 and 100 people—use these outdoor latrines.

There are about twelve of them, and they are a good reminder of how one fifth of humanity lives today—the one billion people living in poverty all over the world.

I first got a quick training session on how I was supposed to do them and was given the equipment necessary: long brush, short brush, two rags, etc.

MH has developed, over its more than fifty years of community living, detailed cleaning routines that (when explained) make a lot of sense, though they are often not easy to absorb and remember in all their finer details.

I must add that the weather was not being very cooperative. The temperature was minus 20 C and stayed that way all week.

My first reaction was, "I cannot do this—especially after dinner!" I thought about it all morning.

I decided to arm myself with a little bottle of 4711, a German cologne, a remnant of my "other life,"in order to bathe myself in the wonderful scent of azahares (the blossoms of a lemon tree) while I performed my duty. It would also surround me with the spirit of my sisters and mother, since for decades that has been our family cologne.

I asked fellow guests and applicants for tips, and I received lots of sympathy and some very helpful advice. A Singaporean friend told me she was so happy when she did the jons because she thought of all the souls she could save.

Another guest had a useful piece of advice which had been given to her by an applicant: "Think about X." X is a beautiful staff worker in her seventies, who irons our hankies and whose humility and warm tenderness are so inspiring.

My hands fitted tightly in the rubber gloves, which had a pair of other gloves inside them to keep my hands warm. Keeping my hands warm was a number one problem on this job.

The first day, I managed to get the task done without throwing up and to slip in a few short prayers along the way.

The job also had to be done with love, and I kept thinking about all those people who had been doing it for me without complaining for the more than a month that I had been here.

The second day, the call of a downy woodpecker from a nearby white birch tree raised my spirits. It was one of those spectacular sunny Combermere winter days.

My thoughts went to the Untouchables of India, with whom I had been involved for the past year in a bureaucratic supportive way—writing letters and reports and making statements at international meetings.

One of their major occupations for centuries has been to clean human wastes. In fact, that’s why they are considered "untouchable" by other castes.

They cannot drink from the village wells because it is believed that they would pollute the water if they touched it.

And since they cannot drink out of the same cups as other people, they are refused service in restaurants. People in India keep broken and chipped cups in their homes for them to drink from, when they come to their houses to clean.

They are also not allowed in the temples.

My simple little job was giving me a hands-on experience and understanding of their plight. I felt a warm love-connection with the over 100 million Untouchables of India.

Later that week, I read in The Guardian about a huge Mass that has been celebrated in New Delhi, attended by Mother Theresa, in support of the Untouchables (or Dalits as they prefer to be called).

I’d been discussing the nature of sin with my spiritual director. When I revealed to him my squeamishness at cleaning the jons, he remarked: "How do you think Jesus feels about having to wash our sins?"

The Psalm we sang that morning at Lauds was still ringing in my ears: Oh wash me, then I shall be clean. Oh purify me, and I shall be whiter than snow (Ps 51:7).

Adapted from an article in the March 1996 issue of Restoration.



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