I met Mother Teresa when I was just 16. Here’s what she taught me
I was 16-years-old and holding my breath as I backed up against a narrow corridor in a convent in New York City. The door opened and a tiny woman in a sari with blue stripes on the edges was being helped up the stairs and into the building.
When Mother Teresa got to me, she took my hands in hers, looked up at me and into my eyes and asked me when I was coming to Calcutta. I nervously lied and said, “soon, very soon.” That was more than two decades ago and I have not gone to Calcutta. I still can’t believe I lied to Mother Teresa.
I hope she forgave me. I would still love to go to Calcutta and help her nuns, the Missionaries of Charity, to care for the poorest of the poor. But since that time when I met the saint as a teenager, Mother Teresa and her life have been a constant fixture in my heart as I cannot help but be enamored by her selflessness and her life of constant prayer and wanting to help others. It’s something that has deeply affected me and I always recall her with special remembrance on September 5th, the day she left this world for the next.
I started volunteering with her sisters in New York City when I was in high school. I don’t remember how it happened but I grew up volunteering in soup kitchens so helping her nuns in their duties to care for the lonely, hurt, and suffering wasn’t a stretch.
These sisters were amazing. They lived in very simple quarters, wore the same clothing daily — a sari – and had chores like washing the floors, doing the laundry (by hand), making meals, changing sheets, and cleaning rooms, just like I did at home sans the laundry by hand. The difference was that they performed all their duties without complaining and often prayed together while working.
When we would go out into the street with the nuns to feed the homeless, they never shied away from any person. Like Mother Teresa, they saw Jesus in every face, no matter if the person was dirty, vulgar, sick, or disrespectful.
I volunteered with the nuns during college in Washington, DC, where I helped them care for the sick and dying and deliver meals to the community.
I wanted to be around these women and learn their secrets. How did they make the world a better place? I learned that it was through their love and passion for self-giving and sacrifice.
For all these years, I have thought of going to Calcutta but what if my own Calcutta, those who need help, are right here where I live?
A wise physician I know also met Mother Teresa and she asked him the same question she asked me. He figured out that it was by helping those closest to him, the hurting and lonely and poor, that he was serving Calcutta.
I’ve volunteered at many places where I’ve been able to do just that and it does give me comfort that maybe I didn’t wholeheartedly lie to Mother Teresa.
She once said: “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”
Of all the hours I’ve spent serving sandwiches to homeless people, cleaning toilets with the nuns at their homes for the dying, or folding donations of clothing at maternity homes, it’s those closest to me that I have the hardest time showing that love that Mother Teresa demands we show if we really want to grow in holiness.
Why? Because those closest to me are my family and sometimes it is really hard to constantly show them love when I’m annoyed, in a bad mood, or most especially, feel underappreciated.
I was able to screen the upcoming film, “Mother Teresa & Me,” which will be shown as a one-day event in theaters in October, and the passion and love that Mother Teresa showed others, especially those who were not appreciative, has stuck with me.
Why can’t I do that? Why can’t I just serve without expecting anything in return? Why can’t I be as passionate about my vocation as Mother Teresa was about hers?
Love is a choice. It’s one that I, as a mother and wife, need to make on a daily basis. Love is self-sacrifice, seeking the good of others instead of yourself, and yet is so freeing.
That’s what I’m hoping and praying I can exemplify and in my own way and life, follow in the footsteps of Mother Teresa.