I’ve never really thought of myself as a person who is overly concerned or even that aware of celebrity or celebrities. In retrospect, it being 20/20, I can see that I’ve been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time on occasion. Once, when I was a little girl, we were on a family vacation touring Washington D.C. In simpler times when there were virtually no security concerns or precautions it was easy for a little girl to wonder into the Speaker’s Office where I was welcomed by Speaker of the House of Representatives, Sam Rayburn, who invited my stunned parents and older brother to come in and meet Senators Everett Dirksen and Charles Halleck. After handshakes and gifts of House of Representatives pens and stationery we continued wondering the halls. I realize now that a little girl who actually knew who those men were is just as unimaginable as a time that existed when that could actually happen. (My Father was very civic minded and talked to me about politics and just about everything else, like I was an adult.)
Once, as my Mother and I exited a performance of Funny Girl in New York, we noticed a crowd gathering across the street. So we investigated and found Ginger Rogers signing autographs. She had just completed her performance in Hello Dolly. She touched my Mother’s face, patted me on the head and signed our Funny Girl program. (Yes, it really happened.)
Teaching in a high school in a small state (Delaware) it was not uncommon to have elected officials visit. Then Senator, Joe Biden lived not far from school and often visited. Besides my memory I can actually document this occasion with a photo…
By far and away, however, the most profound meeting came when I was a novice many years ago. Its impact on me has not waned over time and I can still close my eyes and experience the moment as if for the first time. Cardinal O’Connor had invited Mother Teresa of Calcutta to speak at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Our Mother House was several hours away in Pennsylvania. Assuming that she would speak during Mass, perhaps at the post-communion, we did not attend Mass before we departed for New York. We learned when we got there that she would be speaking shortly but not within the celebration of Mass. She gave a wonderful message, elegant in its simplicity. When she concluded the Cardinal graciously invited all present to a reception in the lower church. We were informed by our superior that we would not be attending the reception since we had not yet attended Mass. We would attend the Mass which was about to begin and depart immediately thereafter for PA. We were, I must admit, not very devout, because we really wanted to meet Mother Teresa. All present, except us, filed out of the cathedral to the reception, leaving us and a few others, to attend our Sunday Mass.
End of story?…oh no. After Mass we piled back onto the yellow school bus and headed out of NYC and onto the New Jersey Turnpike. About 30 miles down the Turnpike one of the novices in the back of the bus called loudly, “Mother Teresa’s in the car behind us!” You would have thought someone had just spotted one of the Beatles. We all stood and looked toward the back and sure enough there she was with a younger sister who was the driver. Mother still had a dozen red roses on her lap that someone had given her at the Cathedral. Just then the driver motioned for us to pull over. So, at the next interchange we did just that. I can’t imagine what the passersby on the turnpike thought. We looked like a scene from the Sound of Music. Can you imagine driving by and saying to your friend, “Is that Mother Teresa in the middle of that?” Yes, and In the middle of all of that one of the novices began taking pictures as Mother Teresa graciously and gently hugged every one of us. She offered her roses to us until they were gone. She said that she was disappointed that we were not at the reception and that she had seen us in the cathedral and recognized out habits. We explained about Mass. We said our goodbyes and made our way back to our Motherhouse in PA.
For me the enduring effect of that meeting resides in the experience of grace. The old Irish speak about the “thin places”. Celtic spirituality holds that the separation between the natural and supernatural is very small and that in some cases very, very small. These places are the thin places. A thin place can be a place. It can also be a person or an experience. In this case, the thin place was Mother Teresa. The experience while vivid is still ineffable, but I can say that I experienced a palpable sense of grace and I felt an urgency to be open to it. I smile when I think of the details of this story, but I pray when I close my eyes and remember the grace.
Susan O’Hara teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.