Mother Teresa: A Mystical Moment in Calcutta
Recently, my niece, Cecely, gave me postcards that I had sent to her when I traveled around the world in year 2000. One postcard stood out. When I saw the beautiful humility of Mother Teresa – the wise and knowing lines on her face and her intense, determined eyes – my heart awakened.
Like so many people on Earth, I am inspired by Mother Teresa’s life and work. She died on September 5, 1997, and I visited her Samadhi or place of resting in April of 2000. Calcutta, today spelled Kolkata, was part of my itinerary because I intended to do volunteer work with one of Mother Teresa’s organizations – the House of the Destitute and Dying or an orphanage. I am neither a catholic nor a Christian but her invitation (even post death) to help, seemed universal and open to anyone who was willing and able.
After traveling in India for two months, I was not prepared for the intensity of Calcutta. The filth and stench, the crowded conditions, the voracious beggars, I was immediately in a defensive and weakened state, yet hopeful I would learn about virtue and selfless service.
On my first morning outing, breathing in a little courage, I took a human-powered rickshaw to Mother Teresa’s House only to discover it was closed. On the doorstep were two women with deformed and visibly ill children. One of them was named Pamela, my Mom’s name, which made me soften. She asked if I could help her buy milk for her children. Normally, my scam-antennae would alert me, but my heart was open and I said, “yes.” I took out 10 rupees and before I could be on my way, they were leading me down the street to a shop and wanted me to buy a large plastic container of milk for 330 rupees.
I said, “No!” They were cutthroat, bringing out every guilty feeling a “rich” westerner can feel. They got 150 rupees out of me.
The next day, I wrote in my journal:
I showed up at Mother Teresa’s wanting to find an honorable and respectful place to be of service, and I got scammed at the door! What message is spirit giving me? How do I feel about the Big Milk Scam? I feel angry & ashamed. I don’t like being taken advantage of. I don’t like being swindled, even by poor people who could use the $3. [150 rupees = $3] I have intense emotional reaction over $3! I want my money back and I want them to suffer. I’m not loving my “enemy” now! How’s that for honesty!
I was worked up into an emotional lather. My desire to volunteer was quickly abating. Three days later, I intended to return to Mother Teresa’s house but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. My journal:
What’s up with this resistance? I’m immobile! Why can’t I muster up the courage and energy to hail a cab and show up at Mother Teresa’s door? What is blocking me? Part of me feels that I don’t want to give up anger. I still feel angry with the women and the 150 rupees. I still want them to suffer. It’s not about the money, it’s about being taken advantage of and the power that has over me. Symbolically, it’s as if Mother Teresa represents a surrendering of revenge. What’s the lesson?
PAUSE POINT: Integrating past experiences requires a pause point – slowing down, feeling into what my emotional state was and analyzing it from a broader perspective. Using Malsow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the masses of impoverished street people were solely focused on taking care of their physiological/survival needs which presents as shameless, in your face, relentless scamming. The model implies that humans’ strive to reach self-actualization but there is a linear progression where a person must satisfy and stabilize their needs at one level in order to move up to the next level. If a person doesn’t eat or have fresh water and a safe place to sleep, they will not be obtaining high levels of self-esteem.
I felt angry and vengeful because people were voraciously pulling at me trying to get my money. In the heat of the moment, it was hard to gain perspective, so I retreated into my barely adequate hotel room and read and watched TV. My desire to move toward self-actualization was having a head-on collision with basic human survival needs. The part of me who arrived in Calcutta to volunteer wanted to make a contribution but once there, could barely cut a path to Mother Teresa’s door, and the door was shut.
Another day passed and I was gaining confidence in the city of Joy. I visited the Kali temple and to my surprise, next door was the House for the Destitute and Dying. I slowly poked my head in to check it out, and in the small atrium, I met a lovely gay man from Montreal. He shared that the day before, someone died in his arms. He was visibly moved. I stood at the threshold, one foot safely in the atrium and the other inside the “hospital.” I could not go inside. I listened to and respected my instincts and counted myself lucky to have met such a lovely man.
Feeling buoyed, that afternoon I returned to Mother Teresa’s House. It was too late to volunteer or see the orphanage, but I could spend time at her Samadhi or final resting place. Imagine a very plain room, maybe 16’ X 20’ with a raised rectangular tomb made of a smooth, white stone. On top of the tomb, it is flat and the sisters’ lovingly spell-out inspiring phrases with orange marigold flowers. That day it read, “Love each other as I have loved you.”
On the walls, there were amateurish framed pictures with antidotes about her life and well-known quotes. When I entered the sacred space, it was blissfully silent and void of visitors. At the head of the tomb, I took a deep bow and soaked in her presence. I slowly walked around reading about her. Many of the quotes were “too Christian” and I was not resonating with the words but was heightened by the energy. I found a place to sit and meditate and pray. I asked her to help me understand my resistance. What part of me cannot enter the House of Death and Dying? What part of me hangs onto anger and revenge?
My heart center was OPEN. I felt vibrations and asked for a sign. I opened my eyes and looked behind me on the wall. Here’s a quote I somehow overlooked. It says, “The Lady learned to ponder her heart. To love and to serve Him, you must learn to ponder your heart.”
That was it! My heart felt so affronted by the voracious begging. I took it personally and my “higher” self wanted a “please” or “thank you.” My “idealistic” self wanted to make a difference and it’s clear that spreading around rupees satiates an immediate need but doesn’t dent the massive problem. I was guided to Mother Teresa’s beautiful house not to wear medical garb and help people die or to change babies’ diapers in an orphanage. I was summoned to ponder my heart.
The message is stronger today than it was fifteen years ago. Mother Teresa was a notoriously tough lady who would challenge people to roll up their sleeves and help. In the midst of the chaos that is Calcutta, I received a gentle summons from her fiery soul – to be of service, open your heart and love. The answer lies in your heart, dear one.