Pilgrimages are journeys to shrines, but the devotees who make them aren’t as interested in seeing a temple or a birthplace or a pile of stones by a pond as they are in making a connection with something larger than themselves. Call it God or being one with everything or just a feeling of awe-it’s that intangible something they’re seeking.

Chris Pateros-Nowak, a nurse who works at Dominican University and in private practice and lives on the north side of Oak Park, began a pilgrimage to Kolkata (Calcutta), India on March 12 with some anxiety and not knowing what to expect. She just knew she had to go there.

In a sense her journey began almost 40 years ago when, as a 7-year-old, she choreographed and performed a dance to the soundtrack of Jesus Christ, Superstar for her parents and their friends. “I’ve always had a world view,” she said. “I’ve always understood the world in terms of spirituality.”

But she couldn’t integrate her intuitive vision with what people around her were saying was the real world-that is, until she began stepping out of what might be called her Western Cultural Box. At her graduation from the Edgewood School of Nursing in Madison, Wis., the faculty honored her as Student Nurse of the Year, but when she and members of her family became sick, the answers she got from Western medicine just weren’t working. It was from an acupuncturist and homeopathic remedies that her family received relief.

Likewise, she was hired as a pharmaceutical drug researcher reviewing clinical reports before they were passed on to the FDA. To friends and family it seemed like the ideal job.

“I was making good money, was working from home so I could be with my daughters and had a respected, challenging job,” she said. “But I was unhappy. I missed the clinical side of nursing, being with people.” What people said was a good job was not allowing her to practice the kind of holistic nursing to which she was drawn.

Having had a positive experience with Tibetan Buddhism in college, she nevertheless enrolled her daughters in religious education in a Catholic church, as her parents had done when she was a child. However, when one of her daughters came home from her religion class one day and started talking about what a bad person she was, she immediately pulled them out of the class. “That was a huge turning point,” she said. “That’s when I accepted that I was looking at spirituality differently.”

Another step on Pateros-Nowak’s pilgrimage was taken a year ago when she attended a conference sponsored by the American Holistic Nurses Association. “The message there,” she said, “was that we are healers. They blessed our hands. I was so struck by that day. It validated everything I had done.”

She began to simultaneously practice meditation in a disciplined way and felt drawn for some reason to Mother Teresa. So when her college-age nephew was at her home for Thanksgiving last November and talked about going to India in January to study and work for an NGO, she immediately replied, “I’m going to visit you.”

Family members laughed and dismissed her statement as impulsive. When she showed she was serious by starting to make definite plans, they thought she was crazy.

What was I thinking?

On the first day, there were times Pateros-Nowak herself thought her journey, if not crazy, was at least ill advised. For one thing, she has an intense fear of flying. For another, her flight schedule got totally changed as she ended up in London’s Heathrow Airport waiting for a connection. The plan was to fly from Chicago to London, then get on a flight to Kolkata. What happened was she was diverted onto flights that went first to Bangalor, then to Hyderabad, and only then to Kolkata.

On top of that, her baggage wasn’t on the plane-and she lost her jacket and cellphone in Bangalor.

“I was stripped of everything,” she recalled. “I had nothing. It was the middle of the night. I had jet lag. As I got on the plane in Bangalor, I didn’t even know where that city was in India. I was so scared.” After arriving in Kolkata, she took a rickshaw, then a cab, then two buses and another rickshaw before arriving at the NGO (Non-Government Organization) which she thought was giving her a place to stay-only to discover that the plan wasn’t going to work.

“I was faced with obstacles from the moment I left,” she said. In hindsight she sees the whole experience as “a way to challenge me,” but standing outside that NGO all she could do was start crying.

At the worst point of aloneness, however, “angels” (her term) began to appear. On the plane from Bangalor, she found herself surrounded by two Indian businessmen and a woman traveling on her own from Switzerland who shared stories with her and made her laugh. As she was crying outside the NGO, two young adults-Sarah from the UK and John from Singapore-who had been volunteering with the NGO, took her under their wings, found her a hotel and even bought her some clothes while she slept.

Feeling somewhat refreshed in the morning, she found a taxi driver who knew the way to the location where Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity were doing their work. She and the other volunteers received their assignments and off they went-to wash, by hand, clothes and linens that were soiled with “stool, urine and vomit.” Hundreds of destitute women, dying of Third World diseases like malaria and malnutrition shared the same building.

“I was scared and overwhelmed with the situation and the smells,” she said and remembered thinking, “Who do I think I am that I’m going to help these people?”

That, as it turned out, was the very thing Pateros-Nowak was hoping to learn on her pilgrimage-a definitive answer to the question, “Who do I think I am?” Later that day she received part of the answer.

When the sisters found out she was a nurse, they took her away from the task of doing laundry and brought her to the patients. There she felt drawn to a woman who was burning up with a fever caused by malaria. She began doing what she calls craniosacral therapy on the woman who was incoherent and couldn’t open her eyes.

“The sisters thought they were losing her,” she recalled, “but after I had worked with her, the woman was able to sip some water and sit up. That was profound. I still didn’t have my suitcases, but it gave me the confidence I needed for the rest of the time.”

A turning point

The next day, however, the nurse-pilgrim from Oak Park received more of what she was looking for. The location was Kalighat, one of the eight sites where Mother Teresa’s nuns minister. Making her rounds, Pateros-Nowak noticed a woman struggling to breathe. The sisters had put her on oxygen, started an IV, propped her head up with a pillow and left to care for other patients. Everyone in the large room knew she was ready to “transition,” the Hindu term for dying.

Pateros-Nowak could feel the others’ tension as she sat down next to the dying woman. For the next hour she gave the woman cranial sacral therapy and sat with her. “The woman was suffering so much,” she said, “and I was able to give her some comfort. She died/transitioned there with me. It was so peaceful and so beautiful. I considered it such a privilege to be there with her.” Even though she had been a nurse for 20 years, she had never actually been present when a patient died.

The experience had a profound impact on this nurse from the other side of the world. For one thing, it confirmed her ability to “feel energy” in a person, an important aspect of her work as a holistic practitioner. “When I touched her, I could feel her going,” she said. It validated the way she was nursing.

More importantly it put her in touch with something much larger than herself.

“I realized,” she said, “that what we know here is such a small piece of who we are. I knew one of the reasons for my being in this city of 15 million people was to be with this woman. She allowed me to be there with her. It was her gift to me. It was really, really, really amazing to be there with her.”

Many medical professionals would have looked at the woman’s death as “losing a patient.” According to Pateros-Nowak, that’s not how Mother Teresa framed her ministry in the slums of Kolkata. “Her call wasn’t to end being poor. We all need to take care of each other, to give love.”

The experience helped her continue reframing her vocation-from being a nurse who follows orders given by doctors to being a healer in a holistic way.

Pateros-Nowak acknowledged the irony of an ex-Catholic-turned-Buddhist having a life-changing spiritual experience in a mission run by Mother Teresa’s sisters. On the one hand, she didn’t see those who ministered to the destitute and dying in Kolkata as being specifically Catholic. The volunteers there come from the whole spectrum of religious beliefs.

“We are here to take care of each other and spread love,” she concluded. “All the rest is smoke and mirrors.”

On the other hand, she said, “[Mother Teresa’s sisters] are there dedicated to taking care of the dying poor. If that is not real, what is? I ended up at the purest place. If that is what Catholic is, that’s wonderful.”

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...