The day I was touched by an angel

Published 6:03 pm Friday, February 4, 2022

The setting was a large meeting room filled with row upon row of metal folding chairs. There was no stage, but along one wall was a raised platform standing about twenty inches off the floor.

The room was on a military base in Japan and I was about to hear a lecture. I arrived early in order to get a good seat and was glad I did, for a large audience was gathering. Still I was able to get near the front with an unobstructed view only a couple rows from the platform.

I seated myself just in time to see a lineup of men march onto the platform and sit down. They were high ranking military officers with chests full of colorful striped ribbons and shiny brass medals that boasted to the world of their accomplishments. I couldn’t help but think that their collective ramrod countenance looked like they’d been dipped in Niagara starch and then ironed. It was an impressive, though stiff, sight.

This dignified scene was one with which I was very familiar. I greatly admired those men sitting there in dignified silence as they had earned my utmost respect. Their noble bearing exhibited power, ability and security. Representing different branches of the military, to me they were the epitome of what leaders should be … the very kind of warriors who kept me and my country safe. I cannot stress enough the brute force of strength and virility that they portrayed. I could almost hear the “Star Spangled Banner” playing in my head even though the room was completely silent.

The audience continued to sit in reverent solemnity, as we waited for the meeting to commence. Then one of the officers walked up to the podium and began his introduction. When he finished, all the men arose. One of them then moved to the edge of the platform and assisted a person over to the podium.

That person was Mother Theresa.

It is not possible for me to fully explain my initial reaction other than to say that the dissimilarity between her and the wall of military might behind her was alarmingly conspicuous.

Walking bent over, Mother appeared to be only half as tall as the resolute postured officers and when the men sat down, the top of her head was even with their shoulders. It struck me that that solid row of men was like the giant blade on a Minnesota snow plow with Mother Teresa out in front, looking like a shrunken, weary bunny rabbit. Correction: make that a shrunken, weary, but powerfully unyielding bunny rabbit.

Her attire was as far from a military uniform as fashion could fathom. She wore a white, soft, homespun sari with a navy blue band around the hem. On her shoulders was a navy blue cardigan sweater, the kind an old gentleman might wear. Her head was wrapped in a white cloth and on her feet were sandals. Nowhere on her drab body were there ribbons or medals to show the world of her achievements. Rather they were evidenced in the deep wrinkles on her face and in her very tired, over-burdened composure. That uncomplicated simplicity spoke volumes.

Like an indomitable magnet, she instantaneously drew the audience to her. No one had to tell us that we were in the presence of greatness.

Mother began to speak in a heavily accented English that was both soft and gentle. As close as I was to her, I had to strain to hear her words. About a third of the audience was made up of Japanese guests and I knew her words were unintelligible to them. But, you know what? No one in that room needed to comprehend her exact words. The intent of her message was her. She was the message.

The audience was spellbound.

As I sat there listening to her tired voice, it occurred to me that I was witnessing two extremes of salesmanship, each with a different sales pitch. One was the men, a forceful gathering of military commanders, the other was the calm, but emphatic urging of only one tiny, aged woman. Clearly her immeasurable reserve of faith and courage were what a spine of steel was in a human being. She was like a velvet covered rock.

With chutzpah and bravado, the military’s purpose was to harm those who wished to harm us, while Mother’s was a plea to simply do no harm. No harm to anyone. Period. The military’s goal was to win. Mother’s was to have compassion.

How, I wondered, could any of us sitting in that room with our warm clothes and full stomachs possibly comprehend the India that Mother Theresa spoke of. I did, however, have an inkling because my daughter had recently volunteered to work in one of Mother’s homes in Calcutta. Her stories told me of the dire need there and of the impossible undertaking that Mother had taken on.

One day a young nun commented to Mother that her mission was like emptying an ocean. To confront such a formidable task was overwhelming. It could never be achieved. To this Mother replied, “The ocean begins with one drop.” And drop by drop she was emptying that ocean.

Thirty minutes later, Mother finished her talk. She walked to the edge of the platform and stood there. Something totally unexpected happened next. The audience—most of them Japanese—surged towards her. I, being at the front, was caught in the midst of the commotion. I’ll never forget the looks on those people’s faces. They were like an urgent, all consuming hunger.

Then they did something even more unexpected.

Their hands reached out … dozens and dozens of them … to touch Mother Theresa. They were desperate to place their hands on her. As much as it startled me, I don’t believe Mother was surprised as this probably happened to her all the time. No one tore at her clothing. Instead they gently stroked her sari, as if in touching her garment, Mother was blessing them … and perhaps just a bit of her strength might rub off on them.

Mother Theresa died a few years later. The memory of this woman—this tiny behemoth of goodness—will remain with me always. No one will ever know the number of people Mother helped. There are no records of her successes. But she knew. Drop by drop she was emptying that ocean.