Snake Bloomstrand relates how Mother Teresa opened the eyes and heart of Father Bennie.
“I wanted to meet Mother Teresa,” Father Bennie explained. “I was leading a group on a tour of India and decided I had seen the slums of Calcutta as a tourist one too many times. I left my group in the capable hands of a local priest and set off early in the morning on my own solitary pilgrimage.”
I was interviewing Father Bennie for a book I’m writing. He’s a Roman Catholic priest in a Midwestern U.S. state. I was touched by how gracious and willing he was to make time for me. We had rescheduled twice to accommodate his busy schedule. His phone calls leading to today’s meeting made me feel as if I were his first priority. I felt honored.
Father Bennie had answered the door when I rang the doorbell of the rectory.
He shook my hand firmly and welcomed me into the front room of the two-story frame house. A long oak conference table sat prominently in a large central room. A desk and three walls of bookshelves filled a small room off to one side, and a small galley kitchen in the rear of the “office” promised coffee, tea and a pile of cookies on a large platter.
We sat across from one another at the table. Father Bennie looked like a priest. On the short side of tall and with gray hair, he carried a few extra pounds, adding bulk to what had probably once been an athletic body. He had the solid torso and prominent head so common in men reaching beyond 60. An aging body can make a man take on the appearance, presence and sometimes even the stubbornness of a large boulder.
I couldn’t help staring at his eyes. Deep lines and furrows formed a platform for long, bushy, gray eyebrows. Small folds of skin circled each eye, merging under bright blue irises and forming small bags that rested on top of each cheek.
He looked exhausted.
His demeanour was anything but weary, however. He was cheery and personable and remarkably present and engaged.
Father Bennie was well into his story.
“I knocked on Mother Teresa’s door and waited in the dusty entrance listening to the sound of footsteps approaching from behind the door. An impossibly small nun opened the door, smiled warmly and said, ‘Welcome. We’ve been expecting you.’
“I was caught off guard. I hadn’t made an appointment or set anything up. I wasn’t aware of any formal process for visiting with Mother Teresa. I just knocked on her door. The nun seemed to be expecting me. She ushered me in and said, ‘Mother Theresa will be with you presently.’
“Mother Theresa walked in after a few minutes, greeting me with her hand outstretched.
“I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. Would you like a cup of tea?’
“I was so confused. I accepted her offer and followed to a small hotplate where she prepared tea for us. I was utterly baffled by the notion that I had been expected.
“I explained that I had always wanted to meet her and admired the work she had accomplished over her lifetime. We settled with our teacups and spoke of our ministries and the work we were engaged in. She showed significant interest in the work I was undertaking by serving an old inner-city parish.
“Well into our conversation she paused.
“ ‘Can I ask you a question?’
“ ‘Certainly,’ I replied.
“ ‘Would you agree to come work with me here in Calcutta?’
“The gravity of her offer swept over me like a tsunami. Me, an ordinary priest, work with Mother Teresa? I couldn’t believe my ears. Yet she was sitting patiently waiting for my reply.
“As the tsunami began to recede, my life in Minnesota and my commitment to my parish swam back into focus. It was a flattering offer, but I had obligations. I explained how honored I was that she had asked but that I had to say no.
“Mother Teresa heard me out and replied with sincerity, ‘I understand. However, would you promise me one thing?’
“ ‘Certainly,’ I replied.
“ ‘Wherever you end up, promise you’ll find your own Calcutta?’
“Her eyes became soft and warm as she waited for my response.
“ ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘I promise.’
“I spent over an hour with Mother Teresa and found the experience moving. Such a humble yet powerful person, and so incredibly clear about her mission. I felt like a lucky man as I walked through the streets back to my hotel. I was glowing. Mother Teresa had actually asked me to work with her!
“Yet how she had anticipated my arrival remained a mystery.
“I was still in a strange form of rapture when I met the tour participants for drinks that evening. I shared the story of my meeting Mother Teresa with several people gathered around the bar, and we all speculated on my experience. How could she have known?
“The waiter announced that our table was ready, and the crowd filed into the dining room, drinks in hand. The local priest who had filled in for me that day put his hand on my shoulder and whispered in my ear.
“ ‘You should know. Mother Teresa greets every visitor that way and offers them all a job.’
“ ‘What?’ I replied, suddenly feeling betrayed and appropriately deflated.
“ ‘Yes,’ he continued. ‘She is sincere. She did anticipate your arrival and did make you a genuine job offer. Just not in the way you imagined. Shall we join the others for dinner?’
“He grinned and walked away to join the others in the dining room, leaving me alone at the bar, mystified.”
Father Bennie finished his story and smiled across the table at me. I had been watching his eyes. I’m sure he was exhausted. His eyelids had closed several times while he told the story, as if he were falling asleep. Yet he never missed a beat. Earlier he had explained that he had led seven funerals that week, followed by a big wedding the previous evening. Father Bennie’s schedule was rigorous, yet he still managed to find time for me on Saturday morning.
He made eye contact, and suddenly the weary lines and bags framing his eyes vanished. I recognized deep wisdom and compassion. His eyes had seen duty in Vietnam, tragedies of many stripes, drug addiction, crime and violence. His eyes had shown compassion to countless grieving families and blessed hundreds of younger families just starting out.
I suddenly recalled what was so familiar and comforting about Father Bennie’s eyes. They were the same eyes I remembered from a photo I’d seen of Mother Teresa. Their eyes were remarkably similar. Wise and compassionate. But more significant, they had grown old and wrinkled from looking at life unflinchingly.
Father Bennie made good on his promise. He found his Calcutta, and his eyes reflected the reward he had received.
Photo: naeemcallaway / flickr