On Tuesday, Pope Francis announced she'll be canonized on September 4th. March 15, 2016. (CBS Baltimore)
I witnessed Mother Teresa's many moods, her gritty mysticism and, as she is declared a saint Sunday, a kind of "magic" which continues.
One hot summer day in 1993, when I went to Calcutta, India, to work with Mother Teresa and her sisters, the Missionaries of Charity, she approached me, weeping. One of her nuns who was hit by a train was in a nearby hospital, still suffering. When I offered to travel with her to visit and pray, her heavy mood instantly turned to hope and she manifested a slight smile.
Another time after trekking through humid Calcutta, I stopped by her convent and encountered her outside. She looked up at my sweating, bald head, glaring in the sunlight and asked with a grimace: "Father, will a little holy water help you there?"
On a tour of Mother's various centers through Calcutta in an SUV, I saw her get upset at a sister who apparently didn't follow through with one of the future saint's requests. The disciplined sister demurred and bowed for a blessing, and I learned: Saints are humans, displaying a wide range of emotions, and sometimes they call us, tough love style, to higher levels of living. Yet she said often: "We are about joy, Father. Joy is a special promise we take."
Tenacity is the word I use to describe Mother Teresa and her work. The word comes from a Latin verb meaning "to cling" — and she certainly did cling to the poor, to spiritual poverty and simplicity amid international honors. And she was tenacious in the daily, somewhat arduous rounds of early morning mass, prayers and constant requests for help and media interviews.
And we now know from her diaries that she experienced a "dark night of soul," for many years not doubting God but unable to feel his presence and consolations. And so I keep reminding my egoic, roller-coaster self, feelings aren't everything in life or in our service to others. Rather, when it comes to our haphazard prayer lives or service to the poor, to paraphrase Nike: "Just do it." It was a duty precisely because it was divine.
She prayed much, getting up at 4 a.m., often staying up past 10 at night after appointments. I can still hear within me her gentle taps on the chapel floor, signaling the sisters to begin or end prayer. She sat and kneeled on the floor just like the other hundred sisters there. At night dozens of youth from all over world prayed with her and witnessed her tenacious devotion amid struggles.
She was old-school-humble and eastern-esque in lacking ego. I interviewed her once and asked her questions about her personal preferences and favorite saints, and she continuously veered back to serving the poor and God and, her most hoped for wish at that time, getting to visit China. (She was unsuccessful; however, her sisters are present there now.) Also, after a bad fall, when she was almost 80, she cracked three ribs and told us, with that slight smile, that she never offered up a sacrifice to God-the-trinity before, so she was finally glad to do so.
Then there was her "magic." One day when she jumped out of our SUV into Shishu Bhavan, an orphanage, dozens of children and others came to greet her and knelt before her, Bengali-like, swiping her gnarly feet and then bringing the blessing upward by touching their foreheads. She held an orphan baby crying there, and sang in Bengali a lullaby; the baby stopped, for a moment. When I originally arrived at that orphanage I met a youngish Indian lady who gave me a tour. At the end she said that she was literally thrown away as baby into a city garbage heap. The Missionaries of Charity found her, raised her and sent her off to school, and she began attending a London school to become a medical doctor so as to dedicate her life in service. She returned every summer to serve and remember other poor children and Mother Teresa and her sisters.
The Bengali newspapers, along with the other billion Indians, considered her affectionately their own by calling her, simply "Mother."
Her magic, that sparkle you sense or feel in the presence of a holy person, continues within so many to this day. She was the real deal. Deep and dedicated and, yes, as the Hindus of India would describe her, divine like.