Helping Others
Janine Canan

Justine woke up before dawn. She meditated cross-legged on the bed until the light crept in under the door and through the window, and she heard the tea tray being placed on the floor outside her door.

After drinking the whole pot of tea, she gathered her shawl and descended several flights to the waiting car. The early morning traffic was already thick. Bumper to bumper they drove south to Kalighat, the oldest temple to Goddess Kali, originally located in a small village where Ramprasad composed his awesome songs to Her. Later on, as the capital of Imperial India, Kalighat had become, as the British pronounced it, Calcutta, city of the poet Tagore and poetic filmmaker Satyajit Ray.

Justine’s taxi stopped at the temple entrance. An elderly scholar wrapped in a brown wool shawl stepped forward to take her in. Some festival was underway. Thousands of worshippers waited in a crushing line to see the black Goddess. Justine was ushered directly to the inner sanctum, to a narrow side entrance. But she felt too guilty to bypass all the peasant women who had come from so far away to see their beloved Mother. She stood back and watched. I’m just a spiritual tourist, she thought wistfully—seeking, still seeking.

She wandered slowly around the crowded temple grounds and observed the
sacrificial area where every morning a goat was slaughtered, offered to Kali, and cooked for all who were hungry. Then she returned to the car, asking the turbaned driver to drive on to Mother Teresa’s House. He nodded knowingly, turned into a wide boulevard, and in just a few minutes had stopped in front of a large plain building. As Justine opened the door, a group of boys rushed toward her calling, “Mother Teresa?” She nodded and they pointed around the corner, running alongside her, herding her up to a simple brown door. It doesn't feel
right to knock on such a private looking door, she thought. One of the boys, a thin boy with large brown eyes spoke up, “OK, Mother Teresa, you knock, OK.”  So, lightly, she knocked.

Immediately the door swung open. A smiling young nun stood before her. “My name is Justine, I’m a writer,” she ventured, “and am wondering if it might be possible to visit the Mother House.”  “Yes, please come in. Mother is upstairs. You can go right up.” Justine froze. She hadn’t planned on seeing her in person, not face to face. She had hoped to get a glimpse from afar, but what could she possibly have to say to a real live saint? “Just take the stairs up,” the nun continued encouragingly.

At the top was a balcony, which surrounded a courtyard several stories deep. There was nobody in sight. She walked to the right and found an open door, that lead in to a prayer room. Entering, she found Mary in her blue and white robe, gazing upon her with gentlest compassion. Justine knelt. She closed her eyes and began to pray. In a couple of minutes she opened her eyes again. There was someone in the corner of the room, kneeling on the floor, also praying—an old woman in a blue-bordered white cotton sari. Oh, my goodness, she gulped, it was Mother Teresa! But looking closer, she realized that she was, disappointingly, not Mother Teresa, just an older nun of the order.

Wandering out of the prayer room into the open hallway, Justine stood at the rail, looking down into the yard below. A woman in a blue and white sari stepped into the courtyard. Justine gasped, Mother Teresa! but immediately realized that the hefty woman was certainly not Mother Teresa. She continued to stand on the balcony, absorbing the purity of the atmosphere. It was so peaceful here. In the midst of this city shrouded in unfathomable layers of dust and dirt, the Mother’s house was clean and clear.

Now Justine noticed, straight across from her, two nuns leaning over a small woman seated in a chair. Mother Teresa had, she knew, a very serious heart condition. She had frequently been advised by doctors to stop working but had always refused. Could this possibly be the old saint, who had spent her life serving the poorest of the poor? The nuns pulled her to her feet, and she shuffled out of her room onto the balcony, where she called out a greeting to Justine, waved with her whole arm and a big smile, as if she had been expecting her forever. Then she continued around the balcony and disappeared into another

Justine followed in the same direction, until she came to some benches where there sat a young western woman. “Are you waiting for Mother Teresa?” she asked. “Yes, I work in one of the hospices for the dying. I have some personal problems and have some questions to ask her. I’m from New Zealand. Where are you from?” she asked. Justine sat down and they talked until the door opened, and out walked the beautiful old woman in a white cotton sari. The saint smiled at both of them, her wrinkled face emanating a dazzling radiance. Slowly she moved toward them, and Justine stole a glance at her ankles, greatly relieved to see they were not swollen from heart failure.

Justine introduced herself. The Mother walked around to a cupboard and opened it. “Here,” she said as she walked back, “I’d like to give you my card.” With a chuckle, her eyes twinkling mischievously, she handed Justine a yellow card with the words:

The fruit of SILENCE is Prayer.
The fruit of PRAYER is Faith.
The fruit of FAITH is Love.
The fruit of LOVE is Service.
The fruit of SERVICE is Peace.
                         —Mother Teresa

Into Justine’s hand she then poured several tiny silver medallions. On each stood Mary, Light streaming straight from her hands, surrounded by the words, Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse
to thee.

How kind, thought Justine, her heart utterly melted, to give me enough to give to others too. The great soul bent over her and said, “You could come and work with the children.” She looked deep into Justine’s eyes, as if reading her destiny, and then added, “But you don’t speak Bengali.” Pure compassion lit her eyes. Then she padded softly away.

A lovely dark-haired nun came to talk to the troubled young hospice worker, and Justine listened attentively as she transmitted Teresa's teachings. “Mother says we should always try to…” were the last words she heard, before she drifted off into the ineffable light of real goodness.

As Justine descended the wooden steps, the American ambassador was just coming up. Behind him a long line of people stood waiting to meet the living saint who devoted her whole life to helping others.

Janine Canan, poet and psychiatrist, graduate of Stanford and New York University School of Medicine, resides in Sonoma, California. She is the author of a dozen poetry collections, including In the Palace of Creation: Selected Works 1969-1999 and Changing Woman. She translated the German poetry of Else Lasker-Schüler in Star in My Forehead. She edited the award-winning anthology, She Rises like the Sun: Invocations of the Goddess by Contemporary American Women Poets, as well as The Rhyme of the Ag-ed Mariness: Last Poems of Lynn Lonidier, and Messages from Amma: In the Language of the Heart. Janine’s stories, Journeys with Justine, illustrated by Cristina Biaggi, will soon be out. She is currently poetry editor for Awakened Woman, and you may visit her at Contact Janine. 

a Women Writers' Showcase