Linda Schaefer certainly has had her share of remarkable experiences — detailed to us in a recent interview.
Linda, you may remember, is a professional photojournalist who had an extraordinary encounter with a mysterious stranger on an airplane as she flew to Calcutta to spend time with Mother Teresa. The stranger on the plane had “gray hair and twinkling eyes and a little gray-silver beard,” Linda had said.
The trip itself was a result of a previous remarkable experience (Mother Teresa coming right up to her through a crowd when the famed nun deplaned; you can see that account below) and as we suspected was not the only such experience.
In fact, Linda — who has just come out with a gorgeous book of photographs and narrative called Encounters With Mother Teresa (an excellent candidate for a Christmas gift) — can be described as somewhat of a mystic in her own right.
“When I was 23, I was living in New York City and totally, stone-cold broke,” she says (this was in the 1980s). “One day I was walking down 23rd Street — I didn’t even have the money for a bus — when suddenly, just there in front of me, I saw a roll of money on the ground. There was a man with gray hair and a beard and I wondered, who saw the money first, him or me?” relates Linda. “And he said, ‘You saw it first.’ There was nearly a hundred dollars, and when I looked up he was gone! Then I went on the bus and there was a wet five-dollar bill on the step! I showed it to the driver and he said, ‘That’s yours.’ I knew God was there for me and He showed it in an interesting way. These men with gray hair and a gray beard show up now and then.”
The next year, when she was 24, Linda, who lived on 19th Street, before moving to Mercer Street (in Soho), says, “I was in my loft one day and I heard all this commotion out my window and I wondered, what’s going on here? I wasn’t practicing any kind of religion. My parents had been Protestant and when I was little we lived in Portugal, but we did go to Fatima and I sort of attribute Fatima to a crooked leg I had that straightened out. I don’t know if it was from there or just growing out of that, but from an early age I had some fundamental teaching on Catholicism. And then we lived in Rome when I was 11, 12, and 13 years old and I became entranced by Michelangelo.”
“Anyway, I’m in my loft and I heard this commotion and I opened the window and right at that moment, Pope John Paul II was below my window with his arms outstretched and looked right up at me.
“I felt this like, boom, this energy entering me, like what I felt with Mother Teresa [years later]. I went back and sat cross-legged in my room and thought, ‘That was the Pope!’ He was on the popemobile and standing so he was very high. He was holding up his arms and looked up directly into my eyes.”
This also happened with Mother Teresa — who, as explained, in the previous story — came right through a crowd to Linda at the Atlanta airport (where Linda was covering the event as a journalist for the archdiocese) and said, “Come and see” — leading Linda to that trip to Calcutta and now 23 years of mission work.
Schaefer, who currently lives in Oklahoma but is a world traveler, says that another instance occurred when she had gone to Coney Island looking for subjects to shoot photographically. “I was sort of miserable, at a job that was not my future,” says Linda, who in her spare time had been taking pictures of the homeless in the Bowery (even back then she felt a calling to the homeless).
“It was cold, middle of winter, snow on the sand, and I remember my father when he was young went to Coney Island on the weekends,” recalls Schaefer, who once worked for television outlets such as CNN. “I wanted to explore my father’s roots. I knew something there was waiting for me.
“But when I got there I saw nothing to photograph. I was just about the only person there.
“As I was going back, a man with a gray beard — a kindly, beautiful man — stepped up to me and asked if I had found anything to photograph. This was in the early 1990s and half the park was burned down. I was completely alone. It was like February. I didn’t see anyone and this old man stepped out from nowhere and looked so sharp and elegant.
“He was dressed in a designer suit in this burned-out area. I asked if I could photograph him and we went to an alley and there were these men there sunbathing and drinking and this became a two-year project — documenting the people who live around this mythic place.” It was the third bearded-stranger encounter, each a somewhat different look, “but with the same sense of joy.” “This will be about surrender.”
Then there were the dreams.
In one, says Linda, “an angel was standing next to me overlooking a cliff and he said, ‘Jump,’ and I said, ‘I’m not going to jump!! I’m going to die!’ He knew I liked to be dared and so he said, ‘I dare you’ and so I jumped — and before I hit the bottom, these two hands caught me.
“It was all about surrender. It’s hard not to be in control. I knew then what surrender was!”
When Linda’s mother died (five days after 9/11), “I knew she was going to be okay. The morning she died, this golden light came into the window and I saw it enter her heart. A few minutes later the gold light went back out through the window.” Instead of paralyzing grief, there was joy.
The morning of September 11 itself, Linda, like many, had dreams of planes crashing into the Twin Towers.
“One night I was dreaming and it looked like the angel Gabriel — very tall, brownish golden wings — and his whole figure was bathed in this luminscent gold. They always came when I was feeling insecure. He looked at me and all he said was, ‘Linda?’ And I woke up and thought, okay, everything is going to be okay.
During her first husband’s terminal illness — a rare soft-tissue cancer that had entangled his jugular vein and was not operable (possibly the effect of the chemical Agent Orange) — the dreams made it possible to get through that horrendous experience.”Right after he died, I had extreme insomnia one night, and when I finally fell asleep had a dream in which I heard a helicopter landing on the roof and these two men said, ‘Come,’ and we went to this place somewhere in the heavenly realm and in this room was like a panel of judges in kind of Western clothing and this woman spoke to me and said, ‘You have passed the biggest test. You have learned how to love. You have a few more lessons to learn. Now go back.’“
There’s the big takeaway: the biggest test was love.
“I have never seen anything — any suffering — that doesn’t have meaning,” she says. “You have to find meaning in suffering. And you have to ask, what do you encounter in your suffering? If you learn love in your suffering, if you come out a better person, you have learned the lesson. Even with cancer, you should send love instead of hate. How can you dissolve something in your body with hate? I always learned from my dying husband to see the journey had meaning — instead of, ‘poor me, I have lost my husband.’ On a deeper level there was meaning for him and for me. We had this encounter with love. In the grander scheme, if we can live one moment with greater meaning, maybe we get to a greater place.”
One last plane experience.
“I was coming back from India and I had had this horrible food poisoning the night I was leaving and I was on this flight going back to the U.S.” says Linda. “I was so sick I don’t know how I got on the flights, and finally I was on the flight from London to Atlanta. I had three seats and thought I would be able to lay down. Then this woman plunked down. I asked this woman if she could sit somewhere else because I was sick, and she said, ‘No. You didn’t pay for these seats.’ Then she settled in the seat and drank vodka, reading tabloids. I heard very clearly and audibly, ‘Send her love.’ I thought, ‘No, I’m not going to love this woman I hate her.’ And then I heard the voice a third time and imagined love from God to her and suddenly she began twitching and was gone and came back and said, ‘I am so terribly sorry. I’m going to move now’!” The seats now vacant, Linda was able to stretch out and sleep all the way to Atlanta. When she woke up, she was fine.
Most recently Linda was on the way back from San Diego when, she feels, Mother Teresa spoke to her, “loud and clear and said, ‘I want to write another book.’ I said, ‘No. No one cares about you anymore.’ And she said, ‘Yes, this is how it will be,’ and in a flash I saw the whole book.”
“Why do we have to suffer?” asks Schaefer (who for a long while now has been a practicing Catholic). “In following Him, we have to bear our own crosses, because that is part of our journey. At the core of our being we must be pure human beings and it comes often through suffering”
[resources: Encounters With Mother Teresa]
Who was it, sitting, during a long flight, next to photographer Linda Schaefer?
Let’s back up, for it started — this mystery of a stranger on a transatlantic plane — when Linda met Mother Teresa in Atlanta on June 15, 1995. At that time Schaefer, a former CNN editor and photojournalist, was covering the famous saint’s arrival at an airport, at which time, strangely enough, “[Mother Teresa] came right up to me, through the other people, took my hands, held them up to her heart, looked deeply into my soul, and I heard her say, ‘Come and see,'” recounts the former journalist.
That was all. Come and see. But coming from Mother Teresa, that was enough!
Two months later, unable to shake those three words, Linda found herself on a Lufthansa flight to India, headed for Bombay, Bangalore, then Calcutta.
At the time, Schaefer was “not in a very good place.” She had lost her first husband to cancer and was having trouble in a subsequent relationship. It seemed like a good idea: to get away and think things through — at Mother Teresa’s convent. She had no idea what to expect — why she was going. She was planning to return to Georgia in four months, though her visa allowed for a six-month stay. When she boarded, she was happy to see two empty seats next to her (meaning she’d be able to stretch out).
Just before take-off, however, a “small man” boarded and sat next to her. “He had gray hair and twinkling eyes and a little gray-silver beard, very well-dressed in designer blue jeans and a blue blazer,” she says. As the plane taxied, he said, out of the blue, turning to Linda, “You had a very difficult week last week.”
Linda looked at him and said, “I had a very difficult year.”
He had a slight Indian accent and — elaborating on her difficult year — somehow knew she had nearly lost her father.
“Now I’m looking at him like, ‘what?‘” says Linda. “And he said, ‘Yes, your father’s heart, but your prayers saved him.'” Her father indeed had heart failure and a close call. The stranger then said, “Don’t worry. Your husband will be there in six months.”
“I’m not planning on being [away] for six months,” replied Linda, with a hint of irritation. “I’m planning on about four months.”
“No,” insisted the short man. “It will be closer to six months.”
The conversation, recalls the photojournalist, went on for about three hours. “He told me everything about my past, about my present, and things that would happen in the future. He told me about her relationship and not to worry about it, that it would be fine. To test the man, he asked him her husband’s name and the stranger, appearing to struggle a bit, then said “his first name begins with an ‘R’ and his second name with a ‘C.”
As it happens, his name is Ron Campbell!
The stranger was playing a little cat-and-mouse here. He told Linda she had a hole in her heart but that it would soon be filled with the birth of a child. In less than five months, she was pregnant. Ron came to India and she returned in January of 1996. The stranger had told her that she was about to embark on an “important journey,” and that she could never ever stop it — that sometimes she had embarked on projects before and then stopped due to her own insecurity.
“Sometimes you get a little angry, but you have a very good heart, a very good heart,” the stranger told Linda, smiling at another person and adding, “But you must always be like me, sweet. You see, they bring me chocolates.”
The flight attendants had been bringing him Swiss chocolates and hovering over him — as if drawn magnetically.
In the end, when she asked him what he did, he said he was in the fashion business. And he certainly looked the part. Asked what his company was, he said, “I work for a company A To Z.” When she later tried to call such a company, she found it didn’t exist. He also told her not to worry, that the next leg of her flight had been arranged. When she went to purchase a connecting flight, her ticket — which she had never purchased — was waiting for her.
Is it real? Was it good? Would an angel fudge his work place — and look like he was into fashion?
We have no idea. There are many similar accounts of well-dressed strangers that vanish after miraculous events — and pretend they are from this world but are from somewhere else. Linda is now a Catholic speaker and author of Come and See.
Angels. By their fruits you know them. In this case, it was peace for a troubled woman in Atlanta.