Remarkable people I have met
Murphy’s Law is this, “If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.” I sometimes think I must be related to Murphy – but not always! One weekend, things went right. I was already committed to preaching on the missions at Canadian Martyrs Church in Ottawa and had booked my passage on the train.
Then, a few days before, I heard about the “Fill the Hill” rally, so I went to Ottawa on a bus with 44 other pro-life people. Ten buses went from Toronto. It was an enjoyable four-hour journey. I always find it inspiring to be with people who are so dedicated to the rights of the unborn. Fighting for the greatest cause on earth welds people together in bonds of love and friendship.
I encountered two remarkable people during this memorable weekend. I did not meet Mother Teresa, but saw her from a distance and heard her speak. Mother Teresa is by no means a great speaker. While she is audible, she speaks in a monotone. There are no cadences in her delivery; her language is prosaic and her style is devoid of gestures. She certainly is not possessed with a commanding presence. In fact, she would have been almost invisible if it were not for her white sari, which showed up against the dark background.
Yet, this wee wiry wisp of a woman packs a more powerful punch than all the ranting rhetoric in Parliament and most of the eloquence that flows from our pulpits. She defies all the natural rules of public speaking and yet, the audience bursts into spontaneous applause when she makes the most ordinary statements. Almost everything Mother Teresa said on Saturday I have said dozens of times – probably with more force, eloquence and dramatic gesture. Yet, the audience remains unmoved and I cannot imagine anyone flying me over from India to say them! What is the secret of her success?
I think the secret is in the source. Mother Teresa’s very presence exudes simplicity and sincerity. I am not going to say that she is a saint in the canonical sense of the word. That is a judgement that must eventually be left to the church. However, none can doubt that she is completely dedicated and committed to God and the things of God. The word sincerity is appropriate.
The reason I choose that word over others is that it has a very interesting derivation – I’ve just looked it up! It comes from the Latin words sine, meaning “without,” and “cera,” meaning “wax.” Apparently, when the old Romans found that a statue had flaws in it, they filled in the holes with wax to make the marble statue look smooth. It looked smooth, but lacked complete integrity. So, when they wished to describe a person whose character was flawless in the sense of being a person of integrity, they described him or her as being sine cera, “without wax.”
Many people are sincere, but there are degrees. Probably few of us are totally sincere. In fact, the only people who are completely sincere are the saints. The rest of us are sincere to the extent that we are committed to God and the things of God in the ordinary circumstances of our lives. So, sincerity and sanctity, if they are not identical, are first cousins. The saints are as totally sincere as human beings can be – there is no sham about them.
And that, I believe, is the secret of Mother Teresa. The world is starving for sincerity and when it meets it face to face, it is irresistible. She seems to have a special attraction for young people – the teenagers. She certainly does not look like them or dress like them or speak like them. So, why does she attract them? I am sure it is for this reason. Young people today accuse our generation – their parents and uncles and aunts – of being “phony.” And phoniness is the exact opposite of sincerity. So, when they meet a 78-year-old person who is totally devoid of sham and possessed of crystal-clear sincerity, they have no defence or the need for any. They thirst for sincerity and here they find it. Mother Teresa doesn’t have to prove that she is sincere. She just is! In a world of unreality, Mother Teresa is real.
The second remarkable person whom I encountered was Frank Mountain. I spent about an hour with him on Sunday afternoon. For the past five years or so, every Sunday, Frank and Margaret, his wife and their five young children have been picketing outside one of the abortion-committing hospitals in Ottawa.
About three months ago, when they were on their way to the hospital to picket, the car flipped over and Frank was pinned underneath. Margaret and the children escaped with minor injuries, but Frank’s spinal cord was crushed. He was totally paralyzed from the neck down. He is just now – the past few days – in a wheelchair. He can move his fingers a little, but that is all. He can speak perfectly. He never complains. Both Frank and Margaret are people of strong faith. They do not say that God made this happen, but that He allowed it to happen and theirs is not to reason why!
I believe that the circumstances of our lives bring to the surface some of the virtues that might remain hidden in normal times. The two virtues that were apparent to me in observing Frank were trust and peace.
For a schoolteacher with a wife and five small children – ages nine down to two – to be struck down by a seemingly meaningless accident can certainly be seen as a tragedy. Frank does not view it as such. It is a complete change of life for him and Margaret and the family. But he sees it as a challenge and he has risen to meet it. He has no doubt about the fact that it is his faith that has given him the courage to accept what has occurred. And two of the corollaries of faith are trust and peace. When I was leaving, Frank asked me for my blessing and expressed himself as being grateful that I had taken the time to visit him. But, as I left, I felt it was I who had benefited most from a visit to a remarkable man.
I forgot to mention that Mother Teresa paid Frank a surprise visit on the day before the rally. He may forget my visit, but he won’t forget hers!
Originally published in The Interim November 1988.