It was on a balmy day in early autumn, some 20 years ago, that I was privileged to meet Mother Teresa personally. She was in the United States making visitations to some of her Missionaries of Charity communities. At this particular time she was at their house on 145th Street in the South Bronx. Actually, I was the guest of the late Eileen Egan (1911-2000), the well-known pacifist and a longtime acquaintance of Mother Teresa, with whom she traveled more than 30 years around the world. Doubleday was publishing Egan’s biography of Mother Teresa, entitled Such a Vision of the Street (which, regrettably, is no longer in print). We left from my offices at Doubleday, then located on Park Avenue, and were chauffeured to the Bronx by the late John A. Hardon, S.J. (1914-2000), who was then a spiritual adviser to the sisters.
Not surprisingly, the convent was situated in a downtrodden, somewhat seamy area. The sisters, however, were never fazed and went about their errands undisturbed. The building was old and furnished simply. I followed Ms. Egan up to the kitchen where I was introduced to the diminutive nun with the large, strong hands. Little did I know then that the living saint, as she was widely dubbed, would indeed be one day recognized officially by the church for her sanctity. We sat at the kitchen table and drank tea. It was peaceful. She shared a bit about current efforts and future plans (a center for AIDS patients was later opened in downtown Manhattan). Mother Teresa eschewed attention to herself, always redirecting attention to doing something beautiful for God (the eponymous title of Malcolm Muggeridge’s book).
In accepting the 1979 Nobel Prize for Peace, Mother Teresa said, in part, I choose the poverty of our poor people. But I am grateful to receive [the Nobel] in the name of the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippledall those people who feel unwantedpeople that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone. If her unconditional ministration to the diseased and the dying was not the Gospel in action, nothing is.
Then we went into the convent’s tiny chapel, removing our shoes (she, her sandals) at the threshold, and knelt on mats before the Blessed Sacrament. It was difficult for me not to glance at Mother Teresa, and when I did she was rapt in deep, quiet prayer. The story of her life and the founding of her own religious order, now spread across every continent, is well known. Over the years, there have been documentaries and many books written about her and the missionaries; a number of the books, including Such a Vision of the Street, contain photographs that often spoke more powerfully than words about the dedication of the missionariesespecially in India.
As the date approaches (Oct. 19) for the beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta in Rome, just six years after her death, there will no doubt be a renewed surge of interest in reading aboutin fact, connecting withthe newly blessed. The newest and perhaps most intimate publication is Come and See: A Photojournalist’s Journey into the World of Mother Teresa, by Linda Schaefer (DC Press, $29.95, 138p). It is a production of the highest quality, with original, never-before-seen photos in full color. A former journalist for CNN and later a freelancer for the Associated Press, Schaefer eventually turned her full-time attention to still photography. The story behind the book, though, is equally intriguing. A resident of Atlanta, Ga., she first met Mother Teresa when the sister was visiting that city in June 1995.
And so began Ms. Schaefer’s earnest pursuit. She had been to India previously but now wanted to travel to Calcutta in the hope of documenting the work of Mother Teresa and the various facilities of her Missionaries of Charity there. But the nun declined her request, saying, I don’t need photographers. I need volunteers. Schaefer obliged and, after doing volunteer work with the missionaries for a brief period, she approached Mother Teresa a second time, whounderstandablyexpressed concern about all the written attention bestowed on her. A second no brought Schaefer to tears. She felt a personal rejection, like a child by her own mother. Then she apologized. Mother Teresa, she tells us, leaned over, took Schaefer’s hand in hers, suggested she write a proposal for what she wanted to accomplish, promised to pray about it that night and invited the woman to return next day.
A three-word handwritten note was placed in Schaefer’s palm. Come and see, it said. That is the name of a program inviting visitors, volunteers and (especially) prospective sisters to experience for themselves the actual labors of the missionaries. Schaefer didn’t realize at first, but Mother Teresa was testing the woman’s sincerity and commitment. That was followed immediately with a written note addressed to the sisters, allowing Schaefer full access anywhere they were. (That handwritten note is reproduced in the book.)
Mother Teresa gave everyone who found the courage to come and see’ the chance to open their hearts through the direct experience of seeing the suffering as well as the joy inside the walls of her homes for the dying, the neglected, the homeless, the sick, and the abandoned, writes Ms. Schaefer. This book is a wonderful testament not only to Mother Teresa’s work but that of her worldwide organization. In an era of dramatically declining religious vocations, the Missionaries of Charity are the fastest growing order in the Catholic Church. In Calcuttta alone, there are nine houses, each run by a different superior. The Brothers of the Missionaries of Charity run a colony for lepers.
Come and See evokes the sights, sounds and smells of another worlda world most of us cannot even conceptualize. Beggars, orphans, vendors, emaciated street dwellers, the young, the old, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians populate the pages of this wonderful book. So, too, the Spirit is in clear evidence in virtually every frame. Mother Teresa inspired, and continues to inspire, her worldwide community of sisters. Many young women continue to accept the call to follow in her footsteps. And to a person they exude joy, compassion and love.
Ms. Schaefer has captured with remarkable clarity everyday life in the streets of Calcutta. It is not an easy life. During her period of volunteerism she kept a detailed journal. One entry, she relates, tells of a volunteer who felt overwhelmed by the death and dying around her and how the mere touch of Mother Teresa’s hand on her head had a calming effect. Although not a Catholic, Schaefer attended Mass and prayed with the sisters regularly. At one point in her six-month sojourn, after an invitation from Mother Teresa, she put the camera aside in order to relate to her mission on a deeper level. She went to work at Kalighat, the home for the destitute and dying. Cooking, feeding, bathing and dressing the female residents, as well as washing their clothing, was daily routine, side by side with volunteers from several countries.
In a recent telephone interview, Ms. Schaefer shared some personal reflections about the sister who chose to adopt India as her own. Even in her growing frailty, Mother Teresa maintained firm hands, able to hold them outstretched while remaining still. The author pointed out also the affectionate side of Mother Teresa and the qualities she modeled. In the author’s view, the role of mother will become stronger in the coming generationwomen once again embracing their feminine essence, which is needed to bring harmony to the world. Mother Teresa evoked these qualities, Schaefer went on, and showed that you could be the woman you wanted to be. Mother Teresa often prayed by herself; she didn’t need anyone to authenticate herself.
As to holiness, Schaefer echoed Mother Teresa’s dominant theme: to see Jesus in everyone. This is very difficult, she said. It makes you be humble and go deeply within your own heart. Even though it is painful, she learned what Mother Teresa practiced: love until it hurts.
Mother Teresa saw the soul of each person, not the boils on their leprous limbs; she saw the souland that’s what she loved.