In Search of Sisterhood: How Mary Johnson Found and Lost Her Faith
Two weeks after I arrived in the South Bronx, Sister Carmeline announced that soon we would have a visitor—Mother Teresa!
I'd been waiting for this since the day I'd spotted the nun with the watery eyes on the cover of Time. I'd skipped French class to read about how she rescued babies from garbage heaps and nurtured them to health. As I read, I felt God calling me, too. I addressed my first letter to her: Mother Teresa, Missionaries of Charity, Calcutta, India. (It went unanswered.) Though my parents told me I was too young for the convent, as a high school graduation present they sent me to the International Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia, where Mother Teresa would speak.
Mom and I packed ourselves into a friend's station wagon. I urged them to drive faster, but even so we missed Mother Teresa's first speech. Once there, I scanned the crowds. Mother's image hung everywhere—smiling on posters and key chains and at souvenir stands, hugging babies on mugs and plates—but I couldn't find her anywhere.
Then, the next morning, I leaned against the wall of a packed auditorium where an archbishop stopped his speech to kiss the hands of a small woman in a white sari. Everyone rose, clapping. I could hardly believe it—I was in the same room as Mother Teresa! She stepped behind the podium and disappeared. Someone brought her a box to stand on. Finally her strong voice hushed the room. "God loved the world so much that he gave his son, Jesus—the beginning of Christianity, the giving. And Jesus kept on saying, 'Love one another as I have loved you.' Every human being created by the loving hand of God has been created in his image to love and to be loved."
My throat tightened. Her simple words came straight from her heart, with unwavering conviction. While everyone stood and applauded, I pushed my way to the front, where I told the two men blocking the stage that I had to speak to Mother. "You and 8,000 other people," one of them said brusquely.
Back home, I sent another letter to Calcutta. Three months later I finally received a response—an invitation to meet the sisters in New York. I slammed the mailbox shut and rushed onto the streets of Austin. Envelope in hand, I sang as I ran past couples holding hands and around the fountain in the park.
Now, half a year later, I felt my excitement give way to unease. While the sisters went to fetch Mother from the airport, I worried. What if Mother didn't like me? If she was a living saint, perhaps she would have supernatural knowledge, like Padre Pio, the Italian priest with the stigmata, who read people's souls. If Mother knew how I used to lie to get myself out of trouble, or if she suspected how often I thought critically of Sister Carmeline, she might send me home.
Even worse than Mother not liking me, suppose I didn't like her? What if she wasn't who everyone said she was?
Suddenly, the door to the convent opened, and I watched an old, bent woman press through a crowd of sisters straight to the chapel. "I must say hello to Jesus," she said. Mother reached for the holy water and blessed herself. She genuflected and bowed, chin resting on her chest. Though the boom boxes thrummed outside, in the convent the world stood still—as if existing only for this moment. I was ready to be a better person than I had ever been before, and all Mother Teresa had done was appear.
When she emerged barefoot from the chapel, Mother placed her wrinkled hand on the head of the closest aspirant. In a deep, throaty voice, she intoned, "God bless you," then she smiled at the rest of us. As we lined up to stand before Mother, I searched frantically for something to say—I want to be like you, or Teach me to be holy. Finally, I looked into her eyes and said, "Welcome, Mother."
"Very good," she replied, placing both hands on my head. "God bless you."
Sister Carmeline ushered us to the refectory with its long tables, backless benches, pictures of Jesus, Mary, and Mother, without frames, covered in clear plastic. Mother bowed and began grace in a commanding voice: "Bless us, O Lord, and these, thy gifts."
"Isn't she cute?" someone whispered.
"I mean she's so small, and so old, and she's in charge of everything, and she's not making a big deal of it. She's eating soup just like everybody else, and the way she holds her spoon—it's just so cute."
I could see her point, though I would have described Mother as focused, eager, humble. I was pleased that she ate my soup with what seemed like gusto.