One holy person I’d touched while alive etched such a deep and lasting impression on me: Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta who is going to be canonized on Sunday (Sept. 4, 2016). Let me tell you why.
I met the future saint when she was simply “Mother Teresa,” on her third visit to the Philippines in March 1985. I had been for sometime serving as a regular volunteer at the Home for the Dying Destitute — that place in Tayuman, Sta. Cruz, where the Sisters would bring all the old, sick and unwanted old people they would pick up from Manila’s streets. I’d be there a day each week, hanging laundry, bathing patients, trimming their hair and nails, feeding them, talking to them, giving them a back rub, cheering them up. Thus, I was no longer a stranger to the Sisters who then informed me of Mother Teresa’s forthcoming Philippine visit.
I had read so much about this gutsy diminutive Albanian nun with the “unspeakable” name of Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu, and about how she’d pick up the sore-infested old folks practically rotting away in Calcutta’s streets and care for them so they would die with dignity. In this day and age someone like that would be a rarity, so I naturally dropped everything to meet her, though I must admit that half my eagerness was out of journalistic curiosity.
After meeting her, I almost forgot about journalism. I heard and saw her speak to the crowd — she impressed me. But I didn’t want to interview or photograph her, write a story, whatnot. I sensed that she would be more than just a scoop for me, so I simply asked to be blessed by her as I took her hand in that Filipino gesture of respect — “Mano po!” She obliged and then gave me much, much more: she held my hand, and as we walked through the Home’s garden filled with people she spoke to me as though nobody else mattered at the moment but me. I got hooked.
Since then I wanted to see her again and again, wherever and whenever possible, so I could dissect her mind — how could this busybody be so focused on a person? Having been inspired and touched by her, I even wrote her Mother House in Calcutta to apply as a volunteer there for a month.
Enclosed in my letter were copies of the photographs taken as we were holding hands walking. My application was politely declined, with a handwritten note that I stay and continue to volunteer in Manila where I was needed more. The note said the Calcutta house was already crowded with volunteers from all over the world, while there were not enough in Manila. The photos came along with the note, with one bearing Mother Teresa’s autograph. As time passed, I slowly understood (in God’s mercy) why my offer of volunteering was turned down — it had to be so.
I did not really need another encounter with Mother Teresa, after all, in order for her to live on in me. That first impression created at the Tayuman Home was to last, forever offering me new insights and inspiration in my own journey to union with God. I recalled that in her talk, not once did I take my eyes off her as she addressed the crowd. It was simply a marvel how that little nun, physically unattractive by any standard, could hold her audience spellbound by simply talking about Jesus.
There was nothing pretty about Mother Teresa. Small and slightly hunched, she had a face so badly creased, a peasant’s hands, and a nose so big it could be a caricaturist’s delight, yet when I was with her there was nothing else else I’d rather look at but her — there was nobody else more beautiful.
She was so saturated with Jesus’ presence that when she’d speak, Jesus would come alive through her words — Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus, as though even she herself did not exist at all.
Her blue eyes were simply out of this world. I noticed that most of the time she was speaking they seemed focused on some distant horizon, with their blueness reflecting the sea and the sky. Those eyes were so pure and piercing, like a laser beam cutting through your flesh and bone to expose your very marrow. You would not like those eyes to look at you because they possessed a meekness that could strip your soul bare — it seemed impossible to hide anything from them.
That initial meeting where she held my hand and spoke to me like an intimate friend uncovered for me a kinship between us that was to go beyond a celebrity-journalist connection. Reading up on her mission all the more convinced me that we shared something more than just our name. Looking back now, I see that my fascination with Mother Teresa was rooted in the fact that we had been pursued by the same Lover.
The great difference was Mother Teresa’s was already totally His, while half of this Teresa’s heart was still inhabited by lesser loves. Although we were both “world citizens” our world citizenship diverged where heaven began. As she would say, “By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.” There she was, already strolling with Jesus while I was still attempting to rise, on wobbly knees, from crawling. Thus I looked up to Mother Teresa and appointed her as my “spiritual nanny” — second only to Mother Mary, of course. Needless to say, Mother Teresa was not aware that she was one of those teaching me how to walk. By her witness and example conveyed to the whole world by media, I gradually absorbed lessons on walking with Jesus.
On detachment from worldly goods: Mother Teresa and her Sisters had only rickety pickups serving as ambulance. It is reported that a wealthy man took note of this and gifted Mother Teresa with a limousine for her personal use. The humble nun raffled it off and with the proceeds bought ambulances. The raffle winner in turn raffled it off again and donated the proceeds to Mother Teresa’s poor.
On seeing Jesus in every person: she saw, respected and loved Jesus in each of them; thus it was easy for Mother Teresa to embrace the poorest of the poor. She was happy to dress their wounds and clean up their mess because in her mind it was her Lord Jesus she was doing it to. By doing so, she was in my eyes personifying the compassion of Jesus who was surrounded by lepers and attending to the sick.
On the value of discomfort: In all of Mother Teresa’s houses, chapels have no pews or comfortable seats; instead the floor is lined with native mats (banig) where the Sisters would sit or kneel on at prayer — the better to stay awake with Jesus Crucified who cries “I thirst!”, and to offer to Him their discomfort as their share in His suffering.
On trusting in Divine Providence: One day, the Calcutta community’s coffers were empty, and so was the pantry. There wasn’t even enough bread for the day’s last meal; they were sure the morrow would be a bigger headache. Undaunted, Mother Teresa calmly led the Sisters to pray that the next day might be better so as not to starve the patients. That very night, a truckload of bread arrived unsolicited from a bakery chain. Little miracles like this have become commonplace in Mother Teresa’s houses that you can’t help being reminded of the day Jesus fed over 5,000 people from five loaves and two fish.
On simplicity and contentment: Mother Teresa’s Sisters (Missionaries of Charity) wear no shoes, only cheap rubber thong sandals — the kind you can buy for 25 pesos a pair in Divisoria. What the poor can’t have, they do not want to have. Imagine what can happen if only all the rich and famous who populate the Lifestyle Pages in Philippine print media would give up at least one pair of their Manolo Blaniks for Jesus’ sake!
On time management: With the demands of her work among the needy, you would think Mother Teresa would have no more time to waste on “doing nothing.” On the contrary, this “idle time” is Mother Teresa’s trysting time with God, and she would exhort her nuns to faithfully keep their appointments with Jesus day and night. Sitting still and emptying themselves at prayer time is fundamental to their mission. It is when they fill themselves with Jesus, quenching His thirst for company and compassion, giving back to the Author of Time a fraction of the time He has given man.
On joy being the fruit of the Spirit: In all the years I have served as a Mother Teresa volunteer, I have yet to see a Sister lose her cool. No matter how difficult a patient is — and unwanted, sick and old people can be unnerving, mind you — the Sisters would be not only calm and collected but also amazingly cheerful. Not a trace of impatience or irritation in their countenance — an enviable fruit of unceasing surrender to Jesus that forms a vital part of Mother Teresa’s legacy to her daughters and to the world.
Over 31 years have passed since Mother Teresa held my hand and whispered to my soul. Did she see the leper or the bleeding woman in me? Yes, but she also saw Jesus, and that was what brought tears to my eyes, tears that only Mother Teresa saw.
I had wanted to be in Rome to witness Mother Teresa’ beatification on Oct. 19, 2003, but a reality check prevented me from wanting to be there — it is a luxury a simple writer like me could ill afford. But as circumstances would have it, a previously planned working trip to Rome was cancelled at the 11th hour, leaving me in possession of a Schengen visa with nowhere to go. And then I got an assignment to Rome. Whether it was fate, luck, coincidence or Mother Teresa herself responsible for my uncannily timed assignment, I did not really care to know. It was enough that at St. Peter’s Square — as her huge portrait was unveiled dramatically during the beatification ceremonies — I finally beheld her smiling face, stunning in its radiance.
This Sept. 4, Blessed Mother Teresa will be declared a Saint. My friends tease me, “You’ve held hands with Mother Teresa, so now you’re already a second class relic! Aren’t you going to Rome?” Although I am grateful for this, I have no desire to be at St. Peter’s Square to personally witness this great woman’s elevation to Sainthood.
However, I’ve promised her that I’ll once again serve her poor dying and destitute in Tayuman on that day — something I have not done for a long long time — as my simple way of celebrating her canonization. I know she will be just as happy because her spirit will also be there among her beloved unwanted old people of Manila — and her piercing blue eyes will once again smile at me. (Teresa R. Tunay/PNA)