[Mother Teresa and I] were deeply engaged in this intimate conversation when we were interrupted by a scuffling noise and loud voices coming from down the hall.
First I smelled them, then I heard them: a middle aged Indian couple, a man and a woman, both very tall, very large, very heavily perfumed and clearly very rich. The woman came first, pushing ahead of her husband, moving aggressiely toward our small meeting table. She had diamond studs in her ears and one in her nose. Her arms were covered in lavish bangles, many laced with precious stones. She was heavily made up and was wearing a blue and white sari covered with opulent gold and silver brocade and embroidery. She was very overweight and her flesh bulged through the open midsection of her taut sari.
Her husband was bigger, wider, and flashier than she was. He wore a turban with a topaz set in the center just above his forehead, and a white brocade kurta. He had a ring on every finger of both hands. In the quiet of this hallway, they seemed to me like monsters as they barged into our tranquil and intimate scene.
With no greeting at all either to me or to Mother Teresa, the large, loud woman shoved a camera into my hand as she and her husband pulled Mother Teresa from her chair and situated her against the wall between them. Then they pushed in like giant, grotesque bookends on either side of Mother Teresa and demanded a photograph.
"We didn't get a picture. We need to have a picture!" the woman complained loudly, and she motioned for me to snap a photo with her camera. I was livid. The beauty of my moment with Mother Teresa shattered in the rage I felt now at these rude and opulent intruders. As I snapped the photo, the tall woman fussed at Mother Teresa to look up toward her for a second shot. Mother Teresa was bent over at the neck from old age and osteoporosis, but without hesitating the woman put her hand under Mother Teresa's chin and forced it up. Shocked that anyone would treat Mother Teresa that way, but wanting them gone, I snapped the second photo. The woman then snatched her camera and she and her husband, without so much as a "thank you" to Mother Teresa or to me, disappeared in a noisy rush back down the hall and away.
Mother Teresa returned to her chair by the table and continued as if nothing had happened, finishing her thoughts on the topic of our earlier conersation. But I could hardly hear her, I was so full of anger and outrage toward this couple. I could feel the blood coursing through my veins; my palms were sweaty. It was time for our meeting to end. Tearfully, I said good-bye. She kissed both my hands, and I kissed hers, we embraced, and we parted.
I walked out through the nursery to my waiting car, and settled in for the forty-five-minute drive home. I was perspiring and breathing hard, running over and over again in my mind the dreadful scene of insult and entitlement that had just played out. I recalled the moment the large woman forced up Mother Teresa's chin, and I felt enraged all over again. I thought terrible thoughts about the intruders and felt a seething anger at the bossy, obnoxious, arrogant rich. My body was tense, and hatred ran through me.
Along the way, fifteen or twenty minutes into the ride back to my hotel, I bacame somewaht calmer. I realizd with some shame how I had reduced myself to hatred and prejudice in the presence of one of the most inspiring spiritual beings on the planet. I thought back and realized that Mother Teresa had had no problem with the wealthy couple. To her, they were children of God, no less and no more than the orphans in her care, and she had treated them with love and respect and then calmly returned to her meeting with me.
I had always thought of myself as open and compassionate with everyone everywhere, but now I saw my own bigotry and where my compassion stopped. I saw my own ugly prejudice, a prejudice against the rich and powerful. These were not my people. These were people I could not embrace and include in my circle of love. They were rude. They were ugly. They were disgraceful. I also could see now that this chance encounter with this wealthy couple, behaving as they did, enabled me for the first time to confront and know my own prejudice. I could not have imagined the power this lessson would come to have in my life.
It was dark and late when I returned home to my hotel, exhausted from the day's roller coaster of emotions, from the moment I learned of the meeting early that morning to the actual moments of being with her, then the upsetting interruption, and my rage, then my realization and my shame. I lit a candle and sat down to write Mother Teresa a letter. I told her everything, including the unbridled rage, hatred, and resentment I had felt toward her visitors. I shared how shocked I was to meet my own prejudice and the limit of my own compassion, even in her presence. I asked for both her forgiveness and her counsel.
Weeks later I received a letter from her in her own hand. In her reply she admonished me, saying that while I had expressed compassion for the poor, the sick, the faint, and the weak all my life, that would always be a place where my self-expression and service would easily flourish. The vicious cycle of poverty, she said, has been clearly articulated and is widely known. What is less obvious and goes almost completely unacknowledged is the vicious cycle of wealth. There is no recognition of the trap that wealth so often is, and of the suffering of the wealthy: the loneliness, the isolation, the hardening of the heart, the hunger and poverty of the soul that can come with the burden of wealth. She said that I had extended little or no compassion to the strong, the powerful, and the wealthy, while they need as much compassion as anyone else on earth.
"You must open your heart to them and become their student and their teacher," she said in her letter. "Open your compassion and include them. This is an important part of your life's work. Do not shut them out. They also are your work."
--Lynne Twist (excerpted from The Soul of Money)