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What I learned scrubbing floors with Mother Teresa’s nuns


Camilo Torres/Shutterstock

Cecilia Pigg - published on 04/04/23

Well, honestly, I didn't learn the lesson. But I'm trying to. And asking Mother Teresa's intercession to learn it well.

“Wash the plate not because it is dirty nor because you are told to wash it, but because you love the person who will use it next.” —Mother Teresa

Sweat trickled down my face and my back as I wiped and scrubbed, scrubbed and wiped. Every afternoon at Prem Dan, a home for the elderly who need care in Kolkata, we scrubbed the floors. It was the hardest part of the day, second only to carrying heavy buckets of wet laundry up multiple flights of stairs to hang and dry on the roof. I understood the necessity of cleaning dirty laundry as a never-ending chore. The fact that the sun and I partnered as the dryer for these clothes definitely made me appreciate my access to washing machines and dryers back home, so at least I understood needing to transport the laundry every day. But, scrubbing the whole floor? Of that huge room? Every single day? It seemed like overkill.

I can look back now and realize that my exhaustion was clouding my standards of cleanliness—the daily mopping of a room where many elderly people with limited mobility spend hours upon end is quite reasonable. But at the time, it seemed too difficult and too monotonous a task. It was a burden; it was very difficult and physically demanding, and I resented it. 

After our volunteer shift was over, I would walk back to the motherhouse of the Missionaries of Charity, passing by Mother Teresa’s tomb on my way upstairs to the chapel to pray. I would sink down onto the floor, still sweating, surrounded by the incessant noise of the streets that came through the open windows, and I would collapse-pray. I’d mumble out something like, “Jesus I don’t get it, I’m totally out of my element, this is so hard, why is it so loud everywhere, help me, I can’t do this, I give it to You” and then just rest and sweat (so much sweat!) with Him in His presence.

The next morning, I’d wake up and go do it again. I hated the work. I never got used to it. True, I grew to appreciate and love many of the people I met. But, I was definitely not scrubbing the floor or carrying laundry in a spirit of love or with a willing heart—I was just doing the bare minimum of what I was told to do because someone asked me to do it.

I carried this attitude back into my life in the United States when I finished my time in India. It has been years since that time, and I still tend to ignore or downplay how important it is to do small, everyday tasks well. But recently I’ve been reflecting on how I approach my daily tasks, and realize I need to change. 

I know it is vital to stay faithful and attentive to my vocation in the big picture—heck I spend a significant amount of time trying to clean our house, pray, train our kids, and shower them with love. But, that big picture faithfulness, and surrender to love that Mother Teresa exemplified, also means not cutting corners in the little things—it means remembering why I’m scrubbing the floor, or scrubbing the 100th dish of the day, or scrubbing the muddy child-sized foot when we just had a bath this morning. I should be scrubbing, and scrubbing well, because I love. I love Jesus, who asks us to be faithful in small matters (Luke 16:10), and I love the people in my family who are Jesus in my midst.

Mother Teresa, pray for us! 

Mother TeresaMotherhoodSpiritual Life
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