What struck me the most about Mother Teresa when I saw her for the first time was her diminutive size and the rounded hump on her back. It actually startled me for a moment. I had not known she was so short. I immediately attributed the hump to her constant stooping to care for the poorest of the poor and the dying that lie on mats in her Homes for the Dying. I remember thinking; here is this world-renowned peacemaker, lover of the world’s poor and a Noble Peace Prize recipient – a GIANT – but in the body of someone not much taller than my young daughter! God sure does lift the “lowly.” And, I mean that with the utmost respect for dear Mother Teresa.
It was about twenty-four years ago when I first caught sight of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta in the Missionaries of Charity convent chapel when she came in for daily Mass. My family and I had been visiting the sick and dying at the MC convent in Washington DC and the Sisters invited us to come back for their private Mass the following day.
In the Presence of Holiness
When we arrived at the chapel door, we took off our shoes as was the custom, and filed in quietly. Well, as quietly as we could with three children; one who was under two-years-old and a little squirmy. We knelt down and bowed our heads to say our prayers before Mass. I kept one eye open to make sure my children were on their very best behavior. It was truly a remarkable experience to be there, about to participate at holy Mass with a chapel filled with holy nuns. But, then to top it all off, in walked Mother Teresa! I actually felt her presence as she quietly walked right by me. Blending in with her Sisters, she unobtrusively took her place to kneel on the bare chapel floor. We celebrated holy Mass together, an experience that is intensely etched in my memory.
By the grace of God, I was given a privileged opportunity to converse with Mother Teresa after Mass when she came over to me because of my children. She had seen my daughter, Chaldea genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament and was touched to see a child remember to bid “good bye” to Jesus before leaving the chapel. She gave Chaldea a big hug and then focused her attention on my lively daughter, Jessica who was in my arms (staying out of trouble), while my oldest child, Justin stood nearby taking it all in. Blessed Teresa handed each of us a blessed Miraculous medal, after kissing them, and spoke to us about the poor that she cared for, about the blessing of families and about her love for life. We stood talking with her for quite some time. When it was time to part from one another — she, to go back to her work — we, to head back to Connecticut; we gave her hugs “good bye” and Mother asked for our prayers and promised us hers.
It was an incredible and blessed conversation! I felt as if I was standing with Jesus Himself, if I am allowed to make that analogy. Incredible love and joy radiated from that petite saintly woman — and so much peace — like I had never experienced before. Yet, I felt as if I had always known her. I recounted these remarkable moments in my book Mother Teresa and Me: Ten Years of Friendship. I feel that the blessings I received are meant to be shared.
That blessed meeting with holiness led to a correspondence between the two of us that spanned almost a decade. I became the happy recipient of many letters from and meetings with a living saint. I believe I have learned remarkable insights and wisdom from that humble little holy woman who continues to teach me even after her death. I do my best to weave her nuggets of wisdom into almost everything I write and speak about.
Mother Teresa’s courageous, “Yes” to God in the way she lived out the Gospel has changed the way the world views the poor and awakened our responsibility to care for them. It also reminds us to step up and give our own “Yes” to God. Mother Teresa taught us that the poor are not only those who are hungry for a piece of bread, but are also those who are hungry for love. She stressed that people even in affluent areas of the globe are starving — starving for love.
“God has identified himself with the hungry, the sick, the naked, the homeless; hunger not only for bread, but for love, for care, to be somebody to someone; nakedness, not for clothing only, but nakedness of that compassion that very few people give to the unknown; homelessness, not only just for a shelter made from stone but for that homelessness that comes from having no one to call your own,” Blessed Teresa has told us.
Finding and Caring for Jesus in One Another
Through the exemplary example of her life of love, Blessed Teresa has opened our eyes to look for the poor right in our midst and urges each one of us to do our part to help the poor in our own lives. She said that we can find Calcutta all over the world if we have eyes to see. She reminds us again and again about Jesus’ message to us in the Gospel of Matthew (25: 31-46) and the need to see and find the poor so that we can care for them — physically, spiritually, and emotionally.
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” This remarkable woman has truly lived this Gospel of Matthew and teaches us to do the same.
“Today, the poor are hungry for bread and rice — and for love and the living word of God. The poor are thirsty — for water and for peace, truth and justice. The poor are homeless — for a shelter made of bricks, and for a joyful heart that understands, covers, loves. The poor are naked — for clothes, for human dignity and compassion for the naked sinner. They are sick — for medical care, and for that gentle touch and a warm smile” she has told us.
God calls all of us to live the same Gospel that fueled Mother Teresa — to open our hearts and seek out and the poor in our own midst. We must ask our Lord to open our eyes to those in need in our own homes and neighborhoods; our own Calcutta. Is there someone there who needs us? Are we trying to help in other places and neglect to recognize that we are really needed at home? Is there someone starving for our love there? Could it be a teen that is experiencing difficulties and needs us near? Or, a sometimes grumpy spouse who needs our tender touch and soothing voice to tame the savage beast? Is it the neighbor who never smiles and you can smile at her anyway and whisper a prayer for her?
Our Lord calls all of us in all of our states of life to serve Him in one another. When we begin to see Jesus in our family members, neighbors, and co-workers and respond to Him with sincere and even sacrificial love through every circumstance, we will be pleasing Our Lord, and helping to carry out Blessed Mother Teresa’s work.
(Originally published September 5, 2011)