Friday, March 14, 2014

Meeting Mother Teresa in 1971

NOTE:  In late 1971 Aubrey Menen traveled to Calcutta and met Mother Teresa as part of his covering the aftermath of the just-concluded Bangladesh war for the New York Times.
      Menen recalls that visit in his very last book, written in 1988, as he was dying of cancer. The book,
It is All right, is about his enquiry about the nature of death, and whether need to fear it. Penguin India published it in 1989, bundled with his previous autobiogaphical essay The Space Within the Heart.

(S.A. March 21, 2014)


Excerpt from
It is All Right

(Issued as part of Space Within the Heart pp: 190-192 -- Penguin India 1989

I WALKED ABOUT A QUARTER OF A MILE and then at last saw a battered notice. It had an arrow which pointed down an alleyway. I followed its direction and, sweating, knocked at a door. The paint was peeling from it in the heat but a plaque over the letterbox showed me that this ws the right place. After a wait the door was opened and I saw the first of those so-called ‘blue-nuns’ who are now so famous. This one wore a grubby white sari of the cheapest cloth and the blue stripe around its edges was tattered.
     I named the newspaper for which I was writing and I was allowed in. I was shown to a tiny room of which the only decoration was a large framed document with the Pope’s heraldic shield. I was told that Mother Teresa was at this moment at the airport and she would be home in about thirty minutes.

     There was nothing to do except read the notice. It was in ecclesiastical Latin and I slowly pieced out its contents. Very reluctantly, and with a marked lack of enthusiasm, the Vatican had agreed that Mother Teresa (although it gave her no such romantic title) could organize a charitable gather gathering for the relief of the suffering pending a proper confirmation at a later date.
     A voice behind me broke the silence of the room.
     ‘They don’t like me very much, do they?’
     I turned. I got up. It was Mother Teresa and she was smiling, both at me and the document.
     She was good deal less striking than she has subsequently become.  Television cameras put one’s shoulders back and chin up. I found her no more impressive at first sight than a southern Italian peasant woman. She was short. Her complexion was olive and her face lined. Her shoulders were bowed. But her eyes were such that no peasant woman ever possessed.
     In colour they looked like pieces of agate. I do not know what is that makes the expression of a human eye. I suppose it is a question of muscles, liquids and light. However that may be, the expression in Mother Teresa’s eyes was thoroughly disconcerting.
     I had expected kindliness and Christian charity to beam from them. Mother Teresa’s eyes were very much like those of a cat. I have read in books that when a cat stares at you it means it loves you. It always seems to me that the animal is calmly assessing you and although with the best will in the world, you cannot be made to add up to much.
     We sat down on two hard chairs, a battered plastic table-top between us. My editor back in New York had read that during the recent war in Bangladesh, girls had been raped as they almost invariably are in wars. But in this case, young men from Calcutta had offered to marry the girls as an act of pure charity, although the girls in question were completely unknown to them. My editor wanted to know more about it.
     Now I had been told in the Vatican that this was the idea of Mother Teresa, the becoming saint. So I asked her, as she surveyed me silently with her extraordinary eyes, if this were true. She said that it was. Some young men in Calcutta, dismayed at the news of the rapes, had asked her what they could do to compensate for the horror. ‘Marry them,’ Mother Teresa had said. And they agreed.
     I told Mother Teresa that I thought this was a wonderful thing. She nodded. ‘It was,’ she said. Then, after a pause: ‘But wait until the babies arrive. Then let us see how many boys live up to their promises.’ And those strange eyes silently signaled to me that she thought none would.
     Many years have passed since then. Not one boy had married an unknown girl. Mother Teresa was right. But when I first heard her prophecy I thought she was a cynic. After my long, hot journey to discover her, I was disappointed. It was as though having climbed the hills to Assisi and finally met St. Francis, one found him deeply immersed in casting up the Brotherhood’s financial balance.
     I talked to her of that other activity of which I had heard about – the consoling of the dying when they are poor, neglected and abandoned. I asked them if she gave them the consolation of religion.
     ‘Consolations?’ she said with a little smile. ‘Dear me, no.’ She nodded her head towards the Vatican document on the wall. ‘They would be very cross with me if I did that. I leave that to the priests, if I can find one. Besides, how do I know if they believe in any consolation? When you are dying of malnourishment or a neglected disease or sheer old age and loneliness and despair you don’t think much about theology. You don’t think much about anything. Not when you are dying. Moreover, the one who is dying may be a Hindu, or a Buddhist, or a Sikh, or a Muslim. How do I know?’
     ‘You could ask.’
     She smiled ‘Dying is enough, without being asked to talk about it,’ she said.
     ‘Then, what do you do?’
     ‘Very little. We do what we can to ease any pain, but there again, there is not much we can do. We are not doctors, we are not nurses, we have no money for drugs. But at least they are not alone. There is someone beside them who is thinking about them. Just them.’
     ‘How do you mean?’ I asked, ‘Just them’?
     Her features relaxed a little. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘when your nearest and dearest are beside you when you are dying, they don’t; really think about you. They think about themselves. About what they are going to do when you are gone, how much you are going to leave behind you, and of course making arrangements for your funeral and whom to invite. All that is very natural. As for us, often we do not even know the name of that person who is dying. The best we can do is just be there.
     ‘Someone has said,’ I remarked, ‘that a good Christian should live every day of his life as though on that very same day he was to die and face his Maker. What do you think of that?’
     ‘I think it was said by someone who had not tried dying yet.’
     ‘You mean,’ I said, ‘that dying is a very terrible thing?’
     ‘No. Oh no. Not to the ones who are dying. Some of the people we pick up might be afraid of living. But of dying, no. There is,’ she said slowly, ‘some sort of mercy about it.’
     ‘You mean, it is a mercy for those poor people who have nothing to live for?’
     ‘That too.’
     ‘Is there something else?’
     ‘Maybe. Maybe death is a mercy for all of us. But who am I to judge?’
     There was silence between us for a long minute.
     ‘At least,’ I said at length, ‘when you die, you will be immortal. The Vatican assured me that you are certain to be made a saint.’
     I expected her to brush off that remark. What she said was utterly unexpected. She nodded.
     ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘If I behave myself. But I don’t suppose that I shall.’