What is it like to be a friend for life of a Saint? That was really the unspoken question in my mind when I talked with my friend Josephina earlier this year when her friend was about to be canonized. I wanted to recall together the time when she met Mother Teresa and how it changed her life. It was clear to me that the encounter, and what I observed to be an impact that would never end, was singular and that it had shaped and transformed the four lives in Josephina’s family.
Mother Teresa and Josephina
It was perfectly predictable that none of them would be in Rome to celebrate. For they were/are, after all, the personification of the people the newly minted saint predicted she would hope to serve in her afterlife as she had done in life. They are the very dear ones she would recognize as having a home in life’s dark moments every bit as much, or more, than in the times of light. And that was her own experience.
In Come Be My Light, the collected private writings of Mother Teresa, she said, “If I ever become a Saint – I will surely be one of darkness. I will continually be absent from Heaven–to light the light of those in darkness on earth.” As testified by the Missionary of Charity Sisters I met on the eve of her canonization for their saint, the poorest of the poor were not defined by economics but had everything to do with the greatest poverty in the world today. It was to be unloved, unwanted and uncared for. Whether or not Josephina knew it, she had been recruited by “Mother” to find and rescue those threatened with that sort of poverty. The “recruitment” began at their first meeting.
To be exact, it began in 1989. Their meeting occurred when the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital of Ophthalmology was welcomed at a civic reception at the start of a mission to Calcutta. Josephina was, at that time, the up-through-the-ranks President of the organization that brings a volunteer corps of this country’s finest ophthalmologists to places where preventable blindness is endemic. In that role, she was totally committed to moving beyond the “hit and run” school of doing of good. She wanted Orbis to find ways to treat patients while on the ground and then leave behind when they flew on to the next mission, the “forever” benefits: professional exchanges between healers who might otherwise never have met; medicines and state of the art equipment that would open the path to new ways of seeing, of preventing and healing blindness. In short, new ways of seeing.
At that life-changing civic reception Josephina was seated on the dais next to Mother Teresa. Working past the awe of the moment, she asked her if she would consent to come to the plane, converted as it was when on the ground, into a teaching hospital, “to see what we do.” Mother Teresa consented, but only after extracting a promise that Josephina and her team would come to see what Mother Teresa and her “team” were doing there in Calcutta. Josephina remembers that this was one of the times her words were accompanied by a twinkle in her eye that suggested she was used to asking big favors on behalf of the poor for whom she had “signed on” as small but mighty champion.
Mother tore a piece from a note or napkin and writing a phone number, told Josephina to call it to confirm their first joint voyage of discovery. When Josephina rang, she expected to hear the voice of one of the Sisters and was surprised to hear the voice she now recognized, telling her where they would meet the next day.
The Orbis team arrived at the Motherhouse to find Mother Teresa pecking away at an ancient typewriter. (The handwritten note shown above, appealing for her new friend to be an advocate for a young woman threatened by blindness was perhaps more typical of her style.) She greeted Josephina and her colleagues with the statement, “I’m afraid I have nothing to offer you but our lepers.” And then she said with penetrating gaze. “Never forget the poorest of the poor. And do that with utmost respect.”
For two days, they walked among those that clearly represented her treasures. Josephina remembers that the days did not include any food or drink, an absence explained in Mother Teresa’s throw- away comment that to serve the poor it is vital to consume only what they eat or drink. She recalls the first of her life-altering days, as Mother lifted up the people who fell to the ground as they passed, to kiss her feet.
Analyzing what she had experienced, Josephina recalls being overwhelmed with the feeling that she had walked with the most powerful woman in the world. One who said with utmost simplicity, “I like to solve problems.” Her advice included a strong urging to meet beggars by not looking away; by offering to help; by listening; and by giving oneself, not just money. What Josephina learned as she walked with Mother Teresa was that the impact of their meeting and these days would somehow change her life forever.
True to her promise, Mother joined her new friend’s team the next day. The Orbis team arrived at the Motherhouse in their much less than state of the art bus and accompanied by a car to carry their tiny guest. The car was dismissed as Mother mounted the bus with members of the Orbis staff, volunteers and gifted ophthalmologists and they set off from the home from which she and her Sisters welcomed the unwelcomed, and headed for the plane that offered hope to those who would join them in the belief that blindness is often preventable and with the right efforts, many times subject to healing.
On the Orbis plane, local doctors followed every procedure as they were televised to the former first-class section of the converted DC 10, by then transformed into the gallery of a surgery theater. There they observed state of the art surgeries, laser treatments and full spectrum of procedures happening in the various sections of the plane. Mother walked the entire plane taking in every detail.
Researchers agree that fear of blindness is human beings’ most profound fear. Josephina often tried to summon up that experience when she spoke at Orbis events, by asking her guests to close their eyes for a time and imagine that the enveloping darkness would last forever. The two petite women were allied soldiers fighting the battle against fear and despair.
Proof that Josephina and her husband Luke were, from the start, committed to that demanding agenda include their two adolescent children. Both were adopted with special needs. They met Lizzie in a Jamaican orphanage when visiting the island for a family funeral. They were instantly drawn to her. The staff, government and private advisors warned the couple against even considering adopting the tiny 18-month-old who did not speak and whom they were cautioned would likely never walk, or talk or see, or move beyond the prison of her past. But the two kept coming back to the little girl her birth Mother had named Alexine. As the day of their departure neared, Luke asked his wife if she could bear to leave or hope to forget Lizzie. He implied (and lived to prove) that whatever her answer, he would honor and support it. When she searched her soul, and said she could never do either, the three went home to St. Louis. They began in earnest to join in the sort of love that never gives up; the dedicated medical professionals’ commitment to research and the discernment of skills. Somehow, I did not even have to ask whether the decision to apply the Mother Teresa prescription for hope and total respect that she showed to the needy was a factor in Josephina and Luke’s decision.
The new parents searched for and found the therapist at UMSL, Saint Louis’ Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome Center renowned for identifying and treating post traumatic stress syndrome in very young children. They identified the Kaufman Speech and Language Center in Detroit. Lizzie’s rebirth began. Today after dozens of diagnostic procedures, numerous eye surgeries and continued monitoring, the conquest of all the potential roadblocks to healing have been faced down, and a remarkable daughter of remarkable parents has completed her first years in a regular school.
Next, her Brother came to the family. His birth Father was a brilliant young man who was tragically devoting his brilliance to enabling lives of dependence. But the boy, named for a brave Archangel, is avidly seeking ways to ensure that his will truly be a new generation. He is being motivated and helped in every way that love can find, to activate and redirect the genetics of that brilliance. With that sort of commitment, Josephina and Luke continue to believe in living “the miracle” and trust that the boy who shares a name and spirit with a powerful messenger-angel, will discover true power that will make it possible for him to seek freedom and not settle for dependence. He has told them he wants to be an inventor and make “lots of money” so he can help “lots of people.” As he set out on new terms at a school committed to the growth and motivation of extremely gifted children, his parents are equally committed to reminding him that his only goal in that competitive environment is to be the best possible, singularly uniquely loved and lovable young man he is. So, a 1989 inspiration continues to help a US couple face down despair and refuse to take seriously the suspicion that they might consider abandoning a continuing campaign that has its roots on the streets of Calcutta.
Can I guess what was Josephina’s “gut reaction” was when she learned of the canonization that occurred last September 4, nearly three decades after the fateful meeting on a dais in Calcutta? Surely not surprise. It is equally likely that she accepted that the almost mischievous twinkle she saw in Mother Teresa’s eyes will not dim in Heaven. And I feel she is quite sure that the woman her Church has formally declared to have demonstrated heroic virtue in her life and now shares the eternal rewards of Heaven, will do so with a style that will never cease to surprise.
When the jubilant ceremony of canonization of “Saint Teresa of Kolkata” occurred in Rome last September, her friend Josephina, surgeon husband Luke and their two children were not present. But that is quite likely just as the newly-minted Saint would want it to be.
They were in Saint Louis, Missouri, at work in the mission of healing and being healed, that marks this family as four of the lesser known. but profoundly significant miracles that can be attributed to the new Saint. And so, the light she wanted so desperately to light for those in the sort of darkness that darkened her own, burns brightly beneath a Golden Arch, far from The Eternal City, built to symbolize the conquest of new frontiers.
*To honor the privacy of them and the children who are all cherished friends of their family’s “Saint and Friend,” names are used that signify who they are, though not necessarily the names by which their neighbors and patients know them.
Opening photo from Bigstock by Shutterstock; All other photos courtesy of Annette Cunningham