Such joy. It was the spring of 1985, and President Reagan had just given Mother Teresa the Medal of Freedom in a Rose Garden ceremony. As she left, she walked down the corridor between the Oval Office and the West Wing drive, and there she was, turning my way. What a sight: a saint in a sari coming down the White House hall. As she came nearer, I could not help it: I bowed. “Mother,” I said, “I just want to touch your hand.” She looked up at me—it may have been one of God’s subtle jokes that his exalted child spent her life looking up to everyone else—and said only two words. Later I would realize that they were the message of her mission. “Luff Gott,” she said. Love God. She pressed into my hand a poem she had written, as she glided away in a swoosh of habit.
I took the poem from its frame the day she died. It is free verse, 79 lines, and is called “Mother’s Meditation (In the Hospital).” In it she reflects on Christ’s question to his apostles: “Who do you say I am?” She notes that he was the boy born in Bethlehem, “put in the manger full of straw…kept warm by the breath of the donkey,” who grew up to be “an ordinary man without much learning.”
Donkeys are not noble; straw is common; and it was among the ordinary and ignoble, the poor and sick, that she chose to labor. Her mission was for them and among them, and you have to be a pretty tough character to organize a little universe that exists to help people other people aren’t interested in helping.
That’s how she struck me when I met her and as I watched her life. She was tough. There was the worn and weathered face, the abrupt and definite speech. We think saints are soft, ethereal, pious and meek. But some saints are steamrollers, and great saints are great organizers, great operators, great combatants in the world.
Once I saw her in a breathtaking act of courage. She was the speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington in 1995. All the Washington Establishment was there, plus a few thousand born-again Christians, orthodox Catholics and Jews, and searchers looking for a faith. Mother Teresa was introduced, and she spoke of God, of love, of families. She said we must love one another and care for one another. There were great purrs of agreement.
But as the speech continued it became more pointed. She asked, “Do you do enough to make sure your parents, in the old people’s homes, feel your love? Do you bring them each day your joy and caring?” The baby boomers in the audience began to shift in their seats. And she continued. “I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion,” she said, and then she told them why, in uncompromising terms. For about 1.3 seconds there was complete silence, then applause built and swept across the room. But not everyone: the President and the First Lady, the Vice President and Mrs. Gore, looked like seated statues at Madame Tussaud’s, glistening in the lights and moving not a muscle. She didn’t stop there either, but went on to explain why artificial birth control is bad and why Protestants who separate faith from works are making a mistake. When she was finished, there was almost no one she hadn’t offended. A U.S. Senator turned to his wife and said, “Is my jaw up yet?”
Talk about speaking truth to power! But Mother Teresa didn’t care, and she wasn’t afraid. The poem she gave me included her personal answers to Christ’s question. She said he is “the Truth to be told…the Way to be walked…the Light to be lit.” She took her own advice and lived a whole life that showed it.