Yesterday I was with a saint. Sister Abegail Nteleto from South Africa came to the Bay Area for a book signing, and since she and I shared a common publisher, North Atlantic Books, I was invited to dialog with her at a local bookstore, where she spoke of her memoir and I of the new version of my autobiography (updated after 18 years).
Abegail’s book is called Empty Hands: One Woman’s Journey to Save Children Orphaned by AIDS in South Africa and though short, is a powerful and must read book. It is an adventure story—but a true one, non-fiction indeed—about this courageous and amazing woman whose mother died when she was young and whose older siblings moved away and left her as a child with her alcoholic father. She was caring for the cattle at the age of six and, being a girl, was forbidden by custom and her father to seek an education. But she was hungry for an education and at the age of 14 broke with her father and started school. Her dream was to become a nurse but she did not graduate from high school until she was 29 years old.
Her accomplishments, once she became a nurse in her fifties, are legion—and the obstacles of poverty and racism and more that she overcame. Adopting more children than one can count, sleeping in two rooms with twenty-something kids, kids traumatized by parents who died of AIDS, resistance from the government and more. But she was steadfast. She got very little sleep, developed a spiritual practice of meditating at 3AM in the morning while the kids slept, learning to receive, to let go, to forgive, to practice “empty hands.”
My response to her book was to cite Thomas Aquinas who said the greatest miracle of all is a virtuous life! Hers has been a virtuous life (she is now in her eighties). The Dalai Lama, among others, has recognized this by bestowing on her a special honor called the “Unsung Heroes of Compassion Award.” So I told her and the people gathered that Abegail is a Miracle. She has a new name now—Sister Miracle. She smiled in her humble but strong and knowing way.
Read her book. Know her story. Do what she did in your own way and in response to your own calling to serve those around you . Visit YouTube—Kulungile Care Centre. Drink in her book, Empty Hands, and be grateful that we share the earth with a soul so sturdy and real.
Joanna Macy cancelled an engagement to join us yesterday evening and I was thinking this morning how many women saints I have been blessed to know and work with in my life: Abegail, Joanna, Dorothy Stang, Sr Jose Hobday, M. C. Richards, Mary Ford Grabowski, Sr. Joan Chittister, Anita Roddick, Debra Martin, my own mother and many more.
It is a good time for women to rise.