Editor’s Note: Missioner Janice Smullen starts her new blog series by reflecting on the transformative power of unconditional love.
Sister Marita found a small baby bird, brought it inside, and began to feed and care for it. I was able to help by “bird-sitting” one weekend while she was away. We were manually putting a mushy mixture of oats, flax seed, and egg into its beak and holding it lovingly. It grew and Sr. Marita placed it outside often, either on the ground or an low tree limbs to try to encourage it to fly. The bird did fly eventually, but it still often returned through the open lobby doors looking for Sr. Marita. It could pick out her feet or head even when she was standing and talking with other people.
One of our evening daily Masses was attended by a visiting group of volunteers. I looked over to the side of the church near the open garden doors that evening and saw the now-grown bird sitting quietly on a young volunteer’s shoulder.
I have recently finished reading Bat Mitzvah Girl: Memories of a Jamaican Child by Beverley East–her memories as a child, splitting time between Jamaica and England. She retells the first 13 years of her life and her experiences traveling by herself to England in the early 1950s from her grandmother’s home in Jamaica to be united with her mother, father, and sister. Her life in England became centered in the house across the street, where four Jewish sisters lived. They adored and cared for a Beverley for the next few years while her mother and father worked hard to save money. The home of her “aunties” was a place of total unconditional love. The author described “a total blending of both families: my parents the tea, my aunties the milk and me, the brown sugar that sweetened their lives.” To those who commented that she was spoiled, her father always responded, “Only milk spoils.” The aunties refused to negotiate taking any money for the time and care they freely offered but did accept Beverly’s mother’s skills as a dressmaker to provide them with summer holiday dresses.
After I first arrived here in 2016, I was helping the Immaculate High School campus minister plan and accompany groups of students in a day of recollection that included community service. We visited nursing homes and healthcare wards but the most difficult place for the girls to be was Bethlehem House – a home for children with disabilities run by Missionaries of the Poor. There were always a couple of students who would be in tears after first walking in and seeing the cribs or the children scooting by various methods across the floors. We would begin our time there by helping to feed lunch to the children and then have time to play and interact.
Each group always marveled at how happy the children were. One day, on the bus ride home, a student offered her reasoning for the children’s smiles: “Of course they are happy. They only know helpful people. They are fed and kept clean and have a variety of people in their day that are only there to care for them.”
How potent is the power of unconditional love? Yes, as a mother, I made rules. Yes, I know that success depends on hard work. Yet I also know that the moments when I felt–or gave–forgiveness, or the moments when someone took time to patiently explain a situation or guide me to a destination, are the moments that I treasure and “feel” forever.
Walking and lost one day here in Jamaica, a young (30-ish) man offered to walk with me; he was going in the same direction. Many people are aghast that I would follow him into the unknown, yet we had a great conversation and his smile will stay in my memory. Another day, as people stepped off of the bus that I needed to take me home, I saw one man, in poor health, groping along the side of the bus. Although I knew that I would miss this bus if I helped him, his struggles through the crowds and along the edge of the hot bus that was soon going to pull away prompted me to lend an arm for him to lean on. He could tell me the general direction to go and I asked several vendors in the market if they knew where he lived and then one of those vendors took over to lead the man to his home. He probably could have done it on his own but I felt wonderful to know that I could offer assistance.
The bus was still waiting when I got back!
What if the whole world operated with unconditional love? The same kind of love that, we are taught, is the Love that God has for us. Like the bird raised by Sister Marita, receiving love opens us to other people; it is always there for us to come back to when we need it.
Reflection question: How have you given or received unconditional love recently?