I had met James during my seminary days in Oxford and he and I were ordained as Anglican priests at the same time and went to nearby parishes in Sussex.
I have always had to have my arm twisted to take vacations, and this was no exception. James was planning a trip to India and wanted me to come along.
He had been brought up in India, so when he asked me in 1985 to take three weeks jaunt to India I finally relented–not sure what I was in for.
We went on the tourist trail in Northern India to New Delhi, the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort then took the long train journey across Northern India and wound up in Calcutta. James and I had taken a collection in England for Mother Teresa’s work, so we thought we would stop by the famous mother house to take the check to them in person.
Our driver stopped outside the nondescript building, and we walked down the side alley to the main entrance. Beside the door was a little wooden sign with a slide that indicated if the person was ‘out’ or ‘in.’ The sign said simply, “Mother is in.”
When we were admitted the little nun at reception took our check and asked sweetly if we wanted to meet Mother Teresa. Of course we did! She asked us to wait because Mother Teresa was in a meeting. Fifteen minutes later she came through the door and greeted us with a warm smile as if she had known us our whole life.
She was tiny but filled with an energy and grace that was powerful and real.
“Have you come to give you life in service to God’s holy poor?” she asked immediately.
For goodness sake! We weren’t even Catholics at the time. “We are Anglican priests, from” England,” we explained.
“That’s good. You speak English.We have many people working with us from England. Perhaps you will stay and work for just a few years?”
“We have parishes and people in England we need to return to.”
“I understand. Go in peace, and thank you for coming.”
Another sister then took us on a tour of the house and arranged for us to spend the rest of the day visiting the home for the dying, a leper colony, an old people’s home and an orphanage.
“Do you ever look back and wonder “What if?”
“What if that day I had accepted Mother Teresa’s invitation and torn up my return ticket to England and stayed and worked with the poor? Wouldn’t it have been a splendid adventure?
That didn’t happen, but ten years later I did, sure enough become a Catholic and that meeting with a saint was one of the stepping stones that brought me home. Not only did we become Catholics, but by some crazy miracle I was graced to be ordained as a Catholic priest, build a new church and in the major reliquary under the high altar we have a first class relic of Mother Teresa.
What did she have that the Anglicans didn’t have? Some would say nothing, that there were plenty of good Anglican nuns serving the poor all over the world. They were just not as famous as Mother Teresa.
Well maybe, or maybe not. Mother Teresa was clearly full of the Holy Spirit and self sacrifice in a way I had never met before, and despite all her critics and detractors there was something real, humble and life changing in our short encounter, and not only did I eventually become a Catholic, but the Lord has called me to work in a parish in a location with extreme socio economic challenges. I’m no Mother Teresa by a long shot, but experiencing her work with the poor has opened my heart–even if just a little to the need to be compassionate and see Christ in the face of the poor.
What would have happened if I had accepted her invitation? Life would certainly have been very different, but the memory is a sharp reminder that no matter where we are in life it’s never too late to say ”yes” to God. Today is the day of salvation and if today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts!
If Mother asked me to stay, I would have said, “Yes, maam.” Of course, a religious vocation interests me. However, it’s strange to think you need to travel all the way to Calcutta to serve the poor when you can drive 20 minutes to St. Anthony’s. Or if your looking for a good celebration and a good fight, why leave Greenville. Everything to become closer to God and neighbour is in your own backyard. “This is the will of God, your santification.”
Indeed, and Mother Teresa used to say the same thing, “Don’t come to me in India to serve the poor. Serve the poor in your own community.”
As someone preparing cross the Tiber, I’ve found that the idea of saying “Yes” to God is a very Catholic way of thinking about service. Maybe I’m wrong, but saying “Yes” just isn’t a very Protestant (or Episcopal) thing to do.”Yes, but only if it matches my china.”*sigh*
God shows up in the most unexpected ways sometimes. It really is a challenge just trying to be “baggage free” (emotionally and literally physically) in order to respond with that “YES!” when called upon. I recently got asked to go to France for a few weeks to pray/work with a Cistercian, and instead of jumping at the chance I started going through the litany of reasons I couldn’t.
Wow! Great story, Father.
Great story, Father. Our parish has just received a first class relic of Mother Teresa. Also, our former pastor knew Mother Teresa and served as a confessor for the Missionaries of Charity convent in the Washington DC area.