The Saint Who Walked in Our Midst
Photo of Saint Teresa of Calcutta when she visited Naga City upon the invitation of Archbishop Leonardo Legaspi, OP, DD. Ranilo Hermida, is the man on the right with eyeglasses.
I once read a book that deeply moved me. I cannot remember now exactly when it was—either in high school or college—but no doubt it was while I was in the seminary. It is entitled If that were Christ would you give Him your blanket? It is authored by Richard Wurmbrand and the title was taken from this story recounted in the beginning of the book.
Two Chinese Christians shivered with cold in a cell. Each had a thin blanket. One of the Christians looked to the other and saw how he trembled. The thought came to him, “If that were Christ, would you give Him your blanket?” Of course he would. Immediately he spread the blanket over his brother.
All these years I always thought this was the title of the stirring biography of Mother Teresa written by Malcom Muggeridge. It was only while preparing this piece that I found out I am mistaken. Something Beautiful for God is the real title of that biography written by the “former left-wing radical who became a stridently religious anti-communist.”
I am sure though that anyone who has some familiarity with the life and work of Mother Teresa would not fault me for thinking she uttered the line, “If that were Christ, would you give Him your blanket?” It is so typical of her to look at another human being, especially the “poorest of the poor,” and see in their face Christ himself. She once said, “I see God in every human being. When I wash a leper’s wounds, I feel I am washing the Lord Himself. Is it not a beautiful experience?” On another occasion, she remarked, “Each one of them is Jesus in disguise.”
Mother Teresa always comes to mind whenever I use the following story for my philosophy classes. It is an old Hasidic tale and it is called “The Rabbi’s Question:”
The rabbi once asked his students: “How can we determine the hour of dawn when the night ends and the day begins?”
“When from a distance you can distinguish between a dog and a sheep?” answered one student. “No,” the rabbi said.
Another student volunteered, “Is it when you can distinguish between a fig tree and a grape vine?”
“No,” the rabbi replied again.
“Please tell us then,” the students begged their master.
“It is,” said the wise teacher, “when you have enough light in you to look at human beings in their face and recognize them as your brothers and sisters. Until then, darkness is still with us.”
Mother Teresa reminds us of what the French philosopher and Nobel laureate for literature, Henri Bergson, referred to as the “open morality” that is embodied in and exemplified by outstanding persons like heroes and saints. It is a morality that is driven by an inner vocation and not merely by adherence to societal norms and conventions. It makes a great difference in our world because despite its “sham, drudgery, and broken dreams” and “lives of quiet desperation” the openly moral persons like Mother Teresa see “a new social atmosphere” and work to create “an environment in which life would be more worth living.”
I first saw Mother Teresa in the Medicine Auditorium of the University of Santo Tomas when she visited in 1977. I was then in second year philosophy at the Faculty of Philosophy and a seminarian at the Central Seminary. She looked frail and diminutive in her blue and white sari but when she ascended the stage and began to speak her presence more than filled every nook and cranny in the auditorium. I was seated very near the front of the stage and I could not take my eyes off Mother Teresa who seemed to radiate some brilliance. Perhaps this is the aura of saintly people.
Much has been made of what she expressed about not feeling the presence of God in her soul during the last fifty years of her life. Like other saints Mother Teresa was not spared “the dark night of the soul.” And yet she persisted. I think that is because of what she declared about fidelity to her mission: “Our purpose in life is not to be successful but to be faithful!” That statement has left such a profound impression on me.
In December 1986, Mother Teresa visited Naga City upon the invitation of Archbishop Leonardo Legaspi to establish a mission house in the archdiocese. She came a few days after Christmas with some members of her congregation. That house now stands in Concepcion Grande—the Gift of Love Center— beside the Holy Rosary Major Seminary and on the same side as the Carmelite Monastery.
During her visit, they stayed in that house just outside the gate of the Carmelite monastery. That house still stands today. I had the privilege to have an audience with her together with some students from the Ateneo de Naga. We serenaded them with Christmas carols.
When Mother Teresa came out of her room to meet us in the sala, she went straight to me and held my hand. I was wearing a wristband and she must have thought I had a sprain. She massaged my wrist and, if my memory serves me right, removed the wristband. It never occurred to me to keep that wristband—looking back, I must have thought it is enough that I have the wrist that the saint held and healed. If ever I kept that wristband, I have long forgotten where I kept it.
There is one thing though that I have not forgotten and I continue to carry with me today. At the end of her short talk, she said she would share with us a beautiful prayer. That prayer I wish to share with you today: “Mary, Mother of Jesus, be my mother now!” She said we should recite this prayer when we are in some fix and need immediate intercession. She also said we should recite it with such urgency as if we were commanding Mama Mary. I have been reciting this prayer ever since and in more than one occasion the assurance of Mother Teresa that the Mother of Jesus will come to my aid did really happen.
Mother Teresa came to Naga City and we are blessed with a special visitation by a saint who once walked in our midst!