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Stop Praying, Mother Teresa!

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How do you get Mother Teresa to stop praying? Even as I asked myself the question, I knew it had potential implications for the health of my eternal soul. Yet such was my predicament that I dismissed such qualms without a thought. I needed an answer. Fast.

The place was Mother Teresa’s private chapel at the Little Sisters’ Rome house, the date sometime in the summer of 1995. As well as me and Mother Teresa, the only other occupant of the chapel was Diana, the Princess of Wales. We had all three been praying in contented seclusion for about five minutes. 

So far so good: The experience of sharing even a moment of prayer in such company might bring the most skeptical agnostic to the verge of a Damascene epiphany. I was no skeptic and, after five whole minutes and counting, a big part of me was on the brink of ecstasy.

Yet there was the rub. And counting. As Princess Diana’s private secretary, I was responsible for the split-second punctuality of her program — a precision on which she insisted with religious zeal and on successful delivery of which over seven eventful years I had built my reputation as Diana’s most trusted aide.

Yet now the precious seconds were ticking away, and my intricately contrived timetable of private jets, limousines, ambassadors and protocol officials (not to mention security men, media rotas and the omnipotent hairdresser) was unraveling fast. Mother’s prayer invitation was the kind of unplanned spontaneity of which lifelong memories are made, and yet it was eating deep into the contingency margin I had allowed for unplanned magic moments. (Such a margin was essential in Diana’s programs, as she attracted magic moments as a porch lamp attracts moths.)

The trick was to know when and how to bring these magic moments to a tidy and timely conclusion. My courtier’s practiced schmooze was usually well up to the task but now, as I peered through the fingers of my devoutly clasped hands, I could see the slight figure of the world’s most famous nun, still resolutely bent in prayer. My earthly wiles would be powerless against such invincible humility.

Glancing furtively to my right, I saw the kneeling Diana in saintly profile. Her internal clock was famously accurate but perhaps, swept up in the eternity of the moment, it had paused its relentless whirring……..

Feeling my glance, she swiveled a bright blue eye in my direction. Now what? it asked, in unmistakably regal tones.

I suppressed a stab of helpless panic and instead deployed a combat-proven piece of nonverbal communication. At such moments, I learned the extraordinary power of the enigmatically raised eyebrow as a means of averting — or at least postponing — thunderbolts of royal displeasure. So now I cranked up my starboard eyebrow as high as it would go and had the satisfaction of seeing my boss’s one-eyed glare soften into a simple question, albeit one in which a hint of amusement had begun to twinkle (she was Diana, after all).

What are you going to do now, Patrick?  it asked.

My eyebrow replied: You don’t seriously expect me to reach forward, tap Mother Teresa on the shoulder and demand that we pick up the pace?……..

I duly transferred my attention away from the expectant royal eye and back to the frail figure kneeling in front of me. Anybody who met Mother Teresa will tell you of the spiritual power that seemed to radiate from that slight yet wiry body, the force projected by a beady look from beneath that familiar blue-bordered veil. So it was in some trepidation that I resumed my earlier, rather haphazard prayer of thanks that I had been allowed to be even a tiny part in her mission, and of hope that it would be blessed in all its vital work for the world’s poorest and most deserving people. 

To which I now added, please Lord, might this whole unscheduled prayer business stop pretty soon because — as you know — we have a long and complicated program to fulfill this day, and my life is tough enough without an angry princess on my tail. Again.

Some prayers are answered more quickly than others. Hardly had that jumble of hopes and fears ascended from my anxious mind than Mother Teresa appeared to stiffen and then slowly get to her feet. Diana also rose, and the two women moved together out of the dim chapel and out into the golden sunshine of a Rome afternoon. I trailed a couple of paces behind, struck once again by the infinity of differences between them: age, wealth, destiny and what the world sees as beauty. Yet their closeness was real, as I saw with my own eyes, and their divine purpose perhaps not so different. 

I like to believe their closeness continues. After all, they left this world within days of each other, as if in obedience to the same heavenly schedule. 

All in God’s good time, as they say. All in God’s good time.

By Patrick Jephson, equerry to Princess Diana for seven years. Jephson is a journalist, broadcaster and bestselling author, based in Washington, D.C. 

This story appeared in the July, 12-25, 2019 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.  

What would have been going through YOUR mind and heart if YOU had been in the chapel with Mother Teresa and Princess Diana that day? Would YOU have asked Mother Teresa to stop praying so as to keep to the schedule?


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