In 1986, I was traveling with some friends in India. Since we were passing through Calcutta, we wondered whether it might be possible to visit Mother Teresa and her Sisters of mercy, who ministered to the poor of the city. I wanted to see her both for my own sake and because she had long been one of my wife’s heroes.
We thought it might take months to get an appointment but one phone call was sufficient. Off a busy, dirty street where children played in sewer water spewing by the roadside, we came to a modest building marked by a simple sign on a brown wood door: “Sisters of Mercy”.
We rang a bell and waited. In a moment, one of the sisters welcomes us shyly and asked us to wait in an area curtained off with blue drapes from the rest of the house. Around it were posted inspirational sayings such as “I am eternally grateful to Jesus”.
When Mother Teresa came in, she was smaller than I had expected, a bit less than five feet tall. She wore a blue and white habit and thick glasses and was barefoot, with a large bunion on one foot.
She apologized for keeping us waiting. “I have to fly to Delhi in a little while,” she explained. “They have asked me to talk to some rich people about helping the poor. Can you imagine them asking me?”
We talked about the dying poor with whom she and the sisters ministered as they were brought in from the streets of that teeming city to live out their final days. Many lay on pallets near us as we spoke.
“How do you keep going” I asked “with so much poverty and death and pain all around?”
“We do our work for Jesus and with Jesus and to Jesus,” she answered, “and that’s what keeps it simple. It’s not a matter of praying sometimes and working others. We pray the work.” She also told us how she and the other sisters sought to see Christ in the face of each one they served.
I went away from that brief encounter more than strangely moved.
Years later at a prayer breakfast in Washington, D.C. I heard her say “Don’t misunderstand our work. We are not social workers. We do social work. But we are contemplatives in the midst of life.”
Jeanie has often reminded me of another of Mother Teresa’s sayings: “We cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.”
That love is at the heart of contemplation. To see whomever we meet with the eyes of Christ. To do whatever work we do as the hands of Christ. To be a “contemplative in the midst of life” is the attitude God wants to renew in us every day and every hour of our lives.
Adapted from The Attentive Life (2008, InterVarsity Press)
Photo cred: biography.com