I have always been in awe of spiritual leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Teresa, and Thomas Merton. I have had the opportunity and privilege of meeting both Mother Teresa and Thomas Merton many years ago. In both instances I fumbled for my words as I stood in the wake of their auras. Yet when I met them, the pedestals I had them on vanished and there were only humility and love.
Thomas Merton attended the ordination of his 67-year-old philosophy teacher, Dan Walsh at St. Thomas Seminary in Louisville in the 60’s. I was the seminarian organist for the liturgy. As he was leaving the chapel Thomas Merton came over to the organ and thanked me for my role in the celebration. Can you imagine my surprise? Here’s this modern day saint talking to me and appreciating me! I instantly relaxed in Merton’s presence because of his wholesome spirituality and thankful attitude.
Mother Teresa (now St. Teresa of Calcutta) spoke at Bellarmine University in the early 80’s. I wasn’t planning to attend but was asked to take Father John Spalding from Elizabethtown to the presentation. Father Spalding required a wheelchair and someone to assist him. We were honored to sit in the front row. Mother Teresa gave a powerful talk which was a little difficult to understand due to her thick accent.
Afterwards she came down to the first row and talked to Father Spalding and me telling us how special we were. Her assistant told us they always had a hard time keeping her on schedule because she loved to reach out and personally greet folks after her presentations. Mother Teresa told us as she was leaving quoting Psalm 116: “What can I ever do for the Lord in return for all the things He has done for me?” She said: “If we love, we will want to do more than we must. We will want to do all that we can. Love is like that.”
In both of these encounters with these modern day saints I learned that the only way to live is to be free. Save your heart for love and save your love for persons. Don’t ever let anything own you. Don’t let money or fame or power or the pursuit of pleasure put a ring in your nose and lead you around. Love persons and use things. And, of course, that is the only way to live, to be free.
There is a reading I often suggest for couples to use for their wedding ceremony that beautifully sums up the feelings and lessons I learned in my brief encounters with Mother Teresa and Thomas Merton. I don’t know who wrote it but it speaks volumes.
“I love you not only for what you are, but for what I am when I am with you. I love you not only for what you have made of yourself, but for what your love is helping me to make of myself. I love you for passing over all the foolish, weak things that you can’t help dimly seeing there, and for drawing out into the light all the beautiful belongings that no one else had looked quite far enough to find.”