Mother Teresa: A saintly friend

Meeting Mother Teresa is something most Catholics would have considered an incredible honor and a blessing. But Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle, a U.S. author, blogger and retreat director, through a turn of providence spent years in friendship and spiritual direction with her.

In her new book, “Mother Teresa and Me: Ten Years of Friendship” (Circle Press, $14.95), Cooper O’Boyle offers a close-up look at Mother Teresa, her work, and a side of her that few people knew.

Cooper O’Boyle, author of “Catholic Prayer Book for Mothers” (OSV, $6.95) and “Grace Café: Serving Up Recipes for Faithful Mothering” (Circle, $14.95), recently spoke with OSV about her friendship with Blessed Teresa, which was built on one phone call, a dozen meetings and 22 letters from the saint of Calcutta. 

Our Sunday Visitor: I love the scene in your book where you’re not expecting to meet Mother Teresa, and then there she is with you at Mass. I think you capture how any one of us might feel if we realized a living saint was in such close proximity. But what happens later is almost too good to be true. What was it like? 

Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle: She walked right past me, and I almost couldn’t believe it. The feeling was a combination of almost disbelief, a peace that filled my soul and ecstatic joy. I could never have imagined that we would have any exchanges with Mother Teresa in any way. First was the beautiful warm hug that she gave [my daughter] Chaldea, and then, after Mass, she came directly to me and asked me about my littlest one, Jessica. I was astounded and at the same time overcome with incredible peace to have her so near. I had no doubt that she was a saint.

OSV: How did you go from that moment in Washington to a correspondence and then friendship? 

Cooper O’Boyle: After we left the convent and headed home to Connecticut, I pondered all of the blessings. I wanted to write Mother Teresa a letter of thanks, but I didn’t want to take up her time. So, I contacted the mother superior when I got home to ask her. She told me to go ahead, and I took that as God’s message to me. That’s how the correspondence started. 

OSV: Another one of my favorite scenes is when you are in Harlem (in New York) preparing a meal for the homeless. I love the moment when you are peeling a bruised pear, keeping the good parts, and a Missionary of Charity hands you back the piece you had discarded, signaling there was more that you could salvage. That scene seems like it took you out of your comfort zone. How did the relationship affect your day-to-day life? How did it change you? 

Cooper O’Boyle: Yes, I love that moment too. It was so profound, yet so simple. I realized how much the sisters relied on Divine Providence for everything and would never waste even a crumb or a portion of anything. My relationship with Mother Teresa impacted my daily life in that I was striving to live the Gospel message as she did — but in my own walk of life. I became a lay Missionary of Charity and encouraged others to do so as well. I was striving for a deeper holiness still. How did my relationship with Mother Teresa change me? I think by calling me to an even deeper relationship with God. By keeping me on task, if you will. 

OSV: Most of us think of Mother Teresa with a sense of awe. To imagine her taking the time to talk with and write to a mom here in the United States tells us a lot about her. 

Cooper O’Boyle: She believed totally in the one by one by one, which is how I try to live my life. Each person that you encounter, everything that happens, there are no coincidences. Whoever God has put you with, that’s where you work out your salvation. He sanctifies those moments of interaction and exchanges, depending on how we respond. Do we respond in love? Through prayer and love. I feel that that’s where the sanctification happens.

Mother Teresa, she dealt with each person as they came. These people that God put into her life, she treated as Jesus in the distressing disguises of the poorest of the poor. She loved each one as Jesus, and that’s where all the amazing transformations happen. 

OSV: What is the greatest lesson you learned from her? 

Cooper O’Boyle: That’s hard to put into words. But I think the most important ones are to love, to respond in love and to treat everyone as Jesus. The greatest lesson is to love. 

Mary DeTurris-Poust writes from New York.