Brief Encounters with Mother Teresa (and being sent to Confession by a Saint).
When Mother Teresa was in residence at Mother House, she’d take her place for mass against the back wall, just inside the first entrance to the chapel, and on Sundays would make herself available afterwards, often serving chai to visitors in the small room downstairs.
When I saw someone requesting the same, I asked Mother if I too could have some of the blessings, which she wrote on slips of paper that had obviously been printed to fulfill never-ending requests for mementos.
The slips of paper had a picture of Mother and a quote from Isaiah, and I came away with perhaps four of them.
I can’t recall who else I gave one to when I got home (other than my Parish Priest), but I did keep one for myself, which I took everywhere tucked inside my Filofax.
Whilst covering the Miami Open tennis tournament in the early 1990’s, I did an interview with former world number 4 tennis player Mary Joe Fernandez.
I’m not the world’s best interviewer; mainly because I enjoy unguarded, two-way conversations, and sports-player interviews are generally choreographed PR handouts.
If you hadn’t noticed, sport is evermore ruled (and being killed off) by money, and to be (re)used and (re)sold before the expiry date, the human product has to be schooled in the bland art of chatting pointless fluff – of what not so say – lest they take a costly shit on their own nest egg (you rarely have to dig deeply to find the human cost of parceling people up as products).
In contrast, a young Mary Joe was refreshingly unguarded, in spite of her stated belief that ‘I’m not good at this sort of thing,’ which latterly I’ve taken to mean she still hadn’t been schooled in how to chat fluff.
I knew Mary Joe was a Catholic, as more than once I’d seen her at Sunday Mass on Key Biscayne and just as she started telling me of her admiration for Mother Teresa, I got the ‘your time’s up’ nod from the WTA person within spitting distance.
As we stood to go our separate ways, I took the slip of paper from my notebook, on which Mother Teresa had scribbled a ‘God Bless You’ – I told Mary Joe where I’d got it and that she could keep it, and for the first time in the interview she was speechless.
The most enduring memory from my time in Calcutta occurred at Mother House. I’d been at Shishu Bhavan in the afternoon, and by the time I got to the chapel, Calcutta had been given a makeover by one of the regular electricity blackouts. After evening prayers, as a few remaining Sisters finished chanting the rosary, I decided it was time for supper at the Blue Sky café off Sudder Street.
Before I could get to the top of the stairs, to put on my sandals, Mother Teresa appeared on the balcony and took hold of my hand.
She had an ulterior motive, of course. After singing the praises of a visiting priest, Mother withstood my considerable efforts to wriggle free of an impending forgiveness and bundled me along the courtyard balcony and into the Confessional.
These days, the confessional is the least visited part of most churches and Confession a seldom sought cure for a sullied heart. But I’ve spent countless hours down the years, developing the seeds of this encounter into a relevant apology for the Sacrament of Confession, as my fictional protagonist sweats it out in the spiritual sauna of a dark Calcutta night, before a Priest drawn from the words of Saints Francis de Sales and Augustine – but that longer, intense rendering will keep for another time.
By chance, the next morning Mother was serving Communion at mass, so not only have I been sent to confession by a Saint, she also administered the complementing Host.