A priest once asked St. Teresa of Calcutta what she would do when she was no longer Mother General.
“I am first class at cleaning drains and toilets,” Mother Teresa answered, as told in the book Where There is Love, There is God.
“Take the time to do humble works,” Mother said, “…to wash and clean, to show your love for Jesus in real, loving action.”
Cleaning is one of the most undervalued jobs on earth. It is grueling work, so often unappreciated, so quickly undone.
And yet, it is also work that bears spiritual fruit long after quitting time.
The Disarming Humility of a Stranger
Earlier this summer, my family and I went on a pilgrimage. At the end of a long day of traveling, we pulled into a roadside motel where we had reservations. It was dark and late, and we were all ready for a good night’s sleep.
When we got to our room, however, we were greeted by a giant spider web—with a huge spider in the middle of it—that stretched across the front doorway. I ducked under it and looked around the room with a sinking heart. More webs loomed large in the ceiling corners. A visible layer of dust coated the furniture. The smell of cigarettes lingered in the air of the non-smoking room.
Completely exhausted from our travels, I struggled to hold myself together as I told the people at the front desk about the state of the room. They quickly apologized and said they would take care of it right away.
Within a few minutes, a gentleman with a broom was standing outside our room, smiling and apologizing profusely. We welcomed him with tired smiles and thanked him for coming. He and another maintenance worker vacuumed, swept, and dusted the room. When they were finished, we felt much more confident that we could stay there without spiders descending upon us while we slept.
“It’s totally my fault, and I take full responsibility,” the gentleman with the broom said to us as he was getting ready to leave. “I’m not trying to make excuses, but today was a crazy day. I was supposed to get off at four, but they just kept having more stuff for us to do. That doesn’t excuse my negligence, though, and I am truly sorry you had to deal with this.”
By now it was nearly 10 o’clock. This gentleman was overworked and must have been ready to drop. He could have brushed us off and blamed others, but instead he went out of his way to take personal responsibility and to try to make it right. We assured him that we completely understood, that we know how hard of a job it is to clean—especially for such long hours—and that we appreciated his help. In truth, his sincerity was a balm to my own weary soul. This man’s disarming humility was lifting my spirits even more than the newly cleaned room could.
“My name is Isaiah,” he said. “Just so if you want to write a bad review about me on the internet, you can use my name. I would totally deserve that.”
“We would never do that!” I said, stunned. It would never have occurred to me to post a bad review, but here he was offering his name to be publicly criticized because he thought he deserved it. I marveled at his humility and wondered why, even though I had never met him before, he seemed so familiar.
Then he looked down at my son, who was wearing a baseball cap that a priest friend had given him, with the words “Jesus is my boss” written across the top.
“I like your hat,” Isaiah said, smiling at my son. “Jesus is my boss, too.”
Suddenly, it all made sense. His humility and sincerity were otherworldly because their Source was eternal. The reason he felt so familiar to me was that, even though we were strangers, we were siblings in Christ. And through my son’s hat, the truth was revealed: Isaiah didn’t just work for the motel, he worked for Jesus!
Humility Both Serves and Reveals Jesus
In the book My Life for the Poor, Mother Teresa tells the story of several of her Missionaries of Charity sisters who used to work with shut-ins. The sisters found a poor man who had been “left in a terrible condition.” He never spoke a word while the sisters cleaned his room, washed his clothes, and gave him a good bath.
The sisters came back for two days, giving him the same care, and he remained silent. At last, he said to them, “You have brought God in my life, bring father also.”
The sisters brought the parish priest, and the man made his first confession in sixty years. The next morning, he died.
In Mother Teresa’s words, “He had a beautiful death!” And what were the acts of mercy that led him there? The sisters cleaning his room. Washing his clothes. Giving him a bath. Those humble works—the ones that Mother said show our love for Jesus—brought the light of Christ into the heart of a dying man and prepared him to enter heaven.
Cleaning may seem insignificant, but it holds far more value than meets the eye. On the outside, it may appear as if the only thing being accomplished is the removal of visible cobwebs, dust, and grime. But on the inside, the grace of humility polishes far more than windows and walls. It removes the interior cobwebs, dust, and grime from hearts and souls. It is not only a way of showing Jesus our love, but of showing others His love, too.
In his humility, Isaiah thought his name deserved to be used in a bad review. But clearly, he deserves the opposite. The name Isaiah, in Hebrew, means “God is salvation.” How fitting for a brother in Christ who shares in the same salvific work of love as Mother Teresa and her sisters: showing the world how brightly Jesus shines in the humility of a servant’s heart.