Faces of God in Cambodia
They were two faces, two very different individuals, both, I would think, also different from me, yet in that moment I got a glimpse of the fact that there is a spark of the divine in each one of us.
I was on vacation with Pat in Cambodia; we chose to travel there at this time because our friend, Fr. Kevin Conroy, has been serving there for the past 17 years and we wanted to better understand the work he was doing. We had mostly recovered from jet lag & Fr. Kevin suggested we accompany him for mass which he was going to offer at the Missionaries of Charity house in Phnom Penh, a service that started at 6:30 am. Kevin had not told us much about the work these women were doing there, so I was not prepared for those first faces, three babies in tiny cribs, swaddled and clean, trying to take in the world around them. Was the third one’s head too big for the rest of its face? I was hesitant to invade, to possibly frighten, by examining fontanelles; Pat also thought there might be hydrocephalus. But that was not the point here. The babies and children taken in by the sisters may have been taken from their parents, may have been brought by someone concerned for their welfare, or may have been abandoned, found by the sisters as they scoured the streets and alleys of the city.
Even the baby’s hands were swaddled in flannel. I would have guessed it to be about three months old, I did not ask. It looked well fed, so I suspect it had been with the sisters for at least a few weeks. I offered my finger to its left hand, the grip seemed weak, but it was there. Our eyes met, at least that’s how it seemed to me. In that moment, the force of the divine emanated from that face and caught me up in a moment the sacred. I know of no other way to say it. I should have taken my shoes off; it was holy ground.
The other face was that of Sister Jacqueline. She is in this photograph of several of those present that morning, but I will not say which one she is. We were allowed to photograph the group, though not individuals, (just as we could not photograph the babies and children) as there is nothing that is done there that has anything to with the accomplishments of one person. The message of humility, passed on from the founder of their order, Mother Theresa of Calcutta, ensured that the focus was always on serving God through care of the most destitute. But soft-spoken Sr. Jacqueline, who never interrupted, never seemed distressed, who stood while we sat and drank the instant coffee they offered us, combined the pliant humility of a nerf ball with the strength of a granite mountain. I do not think I will ever conflate humility with weakness again.
If you read or follow my occasional musings, you know that I usually write about issues of death and dying, and, yes, sometimes these little ones snatched from the slums of Phnom Penh die. But whether they live or die, they are cared for, they are loved. As I bemoan the avarice, mendacity, and lust for power that seems to be the essence of life in America in 2023, as I, like the ancient Hebrew prophets look for God to somehow come down and fix things, these two faces show me that the divine is active in the world, but that I am looking for it in all the wrong places.