On Sunday, September 4, 2016, Mother Teresa, who devoted her life to helping countless numbers of abandoned, sick, poor and dying people in Calcutta, was declared a saint by Pope Francis in the Vatican.
Early in the December of 1993, I spent time with that remarkable woman, sitting with her, just the two of us, conversing in a leisurely manner, whilst we held hands. I was in a state of awe and wonder. A peak experience in my life.
This is not a complete description or testimony about my time with her; that will be for another time perhaps, but here I recall with you just a few aspects of that experience, a telling of some of the profound moments and of the wisdom that she shared with me on that tranquil afternoon.
The words she spoke, which struck me the most, expressed the same philosophical attitudes that I believe and attempt to live by in my daily life. They are also seen in tenets of the Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) approach, the pioneering cognitive approach in psychotherapy that I practice with clients, write about, and teach at universities. I am not Catholic, and I am not talking about religious principles. I am referring to Mother Teresa’s words of wisdom, which were fueled by her caring heart, and applied with her extraordinary determination and actions throughout her life.
I was in Calcutta, as it was called then (now mainly referred to as Kolkata), to present at a major conference organized by the Indian Board of Alternative Medicine in association with the World Health Organization. When I was told I was being honored for my work with a gold medal, I could hardly believe it when I heard the names of other recipients that year who were similarly being honored for their work. One of them was the physician to the Dalai Lama, and another was: Mother Teresa. She was not able to attend the award ceremony, but I was in awe to simply be named on the same page as she was in the program!
After the ceremony, a doctor approached me, a man who was helping to organize the building of a hospital for her mission, and spoke in a remarkably casual manner, given what he was about to ask me! He said that the next day he and his wife were visiting Mother Teresa to discuss the hospital, and did I want to come along and meet her?
This is not a question one commonly receives.
Entering the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity, the building in which she also lived in a modest room, I seemed to be entering a place created from the merging of a Hindu Temple and a Catholic Church. I was struck by the incense fragrance, the clean stone floors, the custom of removing one’s shoes or sandals before entering (which is typical in a Hindu Temple), along with statues of the Mother Mary, pictures of Christ, and the Chapel area for worship - smaller than, but akin to, that seen in a large church. The doctor, his wife and I entered a simple room, and sat as we waited for Mother Teresa. She entered, tiny, delicate, and yet with demeanor and aura of calm, steadiness and tranquility that literally seemed to fill the room.
She looked radiant. No creams or treatments that some women rely on these days to create looks of vitality and youthful glow could ever, in my view, come close to creating the translucent shine I saw radiating from her. I apologize for any fumbling and cliché-like words contained in what I write here, but they are as close as I can get in my attempt to describe her.
First Mother Teresa spoke with the couple, and then they called me over and introduced me to her. I bowed, and she indicated that was not necessary. She was very down to earth.
“Come over here with me” she said, and we sat on a bench away from the others. She looked down at my bare feet, and said “Go put on your shoes; look I have sandals on, put yours on or you’ll get a cold”.
I thanked her, and I think I then babbled something about my being fine, and our time together began. Don’t ask how long we sat there for – I could not tell you for sure, it was for at least 35-45 minutes, perhaps longer. I truly was in the moment with her, and time seemed to move differently, more slowly, and impossible to estimate in her presence that day.
The intensity of my wonder and astonishment in her presence was a surprise to me. Certainly I had been hugely looking forward to meeting her, I knew much about her work and had enormous respect for her and for what she did. But I wasn’t like a star-struck fan who idolizes a movie star and puts them on some sort of pedestal. I simply felt delight and excitement at the prospect of meeting someone who I found to be an inspiration in dedicating her life to helping others.
However I was blown away by the magnitude of awe that I felt when the time came, whilst we were casually sitting on the bench holding hands in a loving way. Sometimes she would stroke my hands.
I answered questions she asked me about my life, I listened to her views about things that came up as we spoke. It was a joy, an intensely elevated joy, just being together. It felt like sitting with a Grandma who had known me always and loved me deeply.
We talked about my goals of helping others through practicing and teaching psychology. She told me that it was very good that I had chosen that path. We talked about family members, about India and Australia, about her mission, and other things. She spoke encouraging words to me, saying I was very loving and kind, and other things. What a gift.
At some point towards the end of our conversation I said: “Oh Mother Teresa, what you do is so amazing, so difficult, so extraordinary”; and then awkwardly said: “I could never do what you do – though I’ll try my best to help as many people as I can with what I can do”.
Her response was strong and swift, almost with a reprimanding tone, albeit a loving one. She said: “No, no, no! What I do is important, and what you do is equally important. I do the work I do. You work in your area of psychology. What each of us does is of equal importance. The main thing is to keep love alive inside your heart, and to share it with everyone you meet”.
That statement has become a mantra for me. I do my best to apply it. I may not always succeed at applying it – especially when people act in ways I find difficult or unconscionable. When I don’t succeed – I am nonetheless highly aware of that failure, and usually intend to make greater and better efforts at doing so going forward.
As I stood up to leave, she asked me how many people were in my family, as she wanted me and each of them to have a gift. I couldn’t think of the number at that moment! Smiling, she gave me a gift of 7 medallions – as it turned out, the exact number allowing one for me and one for each of my family members.
As we walked towards the door, my colleague who had brought me there, asked Mother Teresa to write a message for me. As if I wasn’t already blown away! He gave her a piece of paper. She started writing the word ‘Love’, but before continuing her message she said the pen was not working well. Another pen was found, she turned the page over, and wrote the message that you see in the accompanying photo. We hugged and kissed good bye.
As I indicated earlier, there is more I could say about that time with the now Saint Teresa of Calcutta, but in the interest of keeping this brief, I’ll leave it there.
I would like, in conclusion, to highlight the aspects of the wise words and attitudes that were presented in that encounter that have much in common with the REBT approach, and with other philosophies, approaches and religions.
1. Her call to share love with others that comes from the heart .
This is akin to the REBT encouragement to practice unconditional acceptance. The words are different, but the intention, impact and the outcome from applying either could be the same.
2. The emphasis on ‘doing’ and on taking action, to help others.
This is another essential aspect in REBT. Good intentions are not enough: We had better put our good intentions into actions.
It is fortunate when we have role models in our lives who demonstrate what is possible in terms of good deeds and behavior and, by their example, remind us to do so. For some people such models may be inspirational and famous people, such as Saint Teresa of Calcutta, or Nelson Mandela, and/or others. For many - including me - my late husband, Albert Ellis, was such a model, albeit he expressed a most colorful use of language at times, that in all probability neither Mother Teresa nor Mandela would have used as much (if at all!).
For some of us, role models may come in the form of our parents and /or other family members, or teachers, or neighbors, or friends.
With gratitude for them, and for the life lessons we have learned through our own experiences and benefitted from, let’s enhance our moments by doing what we can to contribute in positive ways to as many people as possible.
Doing so may not make us Saints, however the deep fulfillment and satisfaction that comes from thinking wisely and acting with kindness and compassion for others may, simply and wonderfully, be more than enough!