Charity in Action: A Tribute

Print edition : September 20, 1997

IF Mahatma Gandhi can be characterised, as the historian Sarvepalli Gopal does in specific contraposition to the Hindu communal offensive, as "the greatest Hindu of this century," Mother Teresa was, arguably, the greatest Christian of her age. It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that in the international popular reckoning, this small, frail, bent and gnarled sari-clad Indian woman of Albanian descent was greater than all the Popes, pre-eminent leaders of other Churches and denominations, and Christian theologians and apologists put together. In the fullness of her life and work she blazed a trail as a great humanitarian.

It is another matter that the humble nun was never comfortable with such a label: it seemed like attributing to a full-time professional traits and standards of performance that would make a well-meaning, part-time, gifted amateur proud - except that in this case the professionalism, or rather calling, was unpaid, "Wholehearted", and remarkably constant over many decades.

While speaking to her biographer, Navin Chawla, about the "inspiration" she received on a train ride from Darjeeling in September 1946, the Mother explained the motivations behind, and the character of, the famous Fourth Vow - "to give Wholehearted and Free service to the poorest of the poor" - thus: "The message was quite clear, it was an order... He wanted me to be poor and to love Him in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor... I knew where I belonged...." (It was this idea that one of the senior nuns of the Congregation expressed to Frontline when she described the late Mother as "a wonderful, docile and faithful instrument," between whose work and "social work" there was a world of difference.)

IN Norman Mailer's 1997 novel, The Gospel According To The Son (Random House, New York, $22, Special Indian price: Rs.594), where Jesus, finding a new live voice, looks back on his life and teachings and attempts to set an oversimplified record straight by expressing new ambivalences, anxieties and concerns, there is an instructive little chapter on Christian priorities and contradictions. In the house of Simon the leper in Bethany, a woman comes with an alabaster jar of spikenard of "great worth" which, in worshipful and exhilaration-giving adoration, she massages into Jesus' hair and exhausts in anointing his feet. Some of the disciples led by Judas react angrily: "Why was this ointment not sold by our Master and the money given to the poor? This is waste!" And again: "Why was this pomade not sold?"

Mailer's Jesus looks at Judas' pro-poor anger as more or less just and at his own reactions more than a little self-critically: "The love that had come from this woman's hands had given me a moment of happiness; so at this instant I did not feel like a friend of the poor. Indeed, was I not poor myself? I was certainly living with the shortness of breath that is one's first companion when there is fear of death. The perfume of the spikenard had been a balm to the loneliness in my belly. So for the first time, I knew how the rich feel... I had said that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, yet from the other side of my mouth, I had, if only for an instant, been scornful of the poor. Did I speak with a forked tongue so that I might reach out to all?... I could see how I wanted to be all things to all men. Each could take from me a separate wisdom. Indeed, I thought: Many roads lead to the Lord."

For Mother Teresa, there would never be such doubting of the road leading straight "to the Lord". She would have considered Mailer's Jesus hopelessly confused: Jesus for her was quite literally the maggot-and-rat-eaten woman (whom she tended as her first significant act of charity), the leper, the sick, the homeless, the orphan, the abandoned, the uncared for, the down-and-out, the marginalised, the poorest of the poor in transparent disguise. Given this absolute tenet of faith, there would over half a century be no wavering, no ambivalences, no blurring of focus. For Mother Teresa and the unique Congregation she founded and built into one of the wonders of a get-rich, consumerist world, observing the Fourth Vow was the way to serve her God.

MOTHER TERESA'S faith also happened to be passionate, dogmatic and almost absolutist on certain contentious issues of great social importance that have challenged the hard-boiled leadership of the Catholic Church. As Parvathi Menon points out in the Cover Story, on abortion, on contraception, on the various issues raised by liberation theology, on gender questions and on a number of issues on which many Catholics round the world have demanded change from unyielding doctrinaire positions, "there was never any question where Mother Teresa stood." She was a staunch ally of a reactionary Pope, who valued her greatly and extended to her many graces, courtesies and concessions. At times, she seemed non-judgmental in a disturbing way, yet this was a function of the way she had chosen, not (as Christopher Hitchens more or less alleges) a sign of diabolical cunning or opportunism. Mother Teresa's simple yet elaborately organised philosophy-in-action seemed to proclaim: take me as a whole, or not at all. Yet the efficacy and social and moral effects of her long-term work rose above the limitations imposed by dogmatic religious philosophy and ideology.

SHE was a genius of practicality. She never turned down anyone who was poor and never refused a child, Hindu, Muslim, Christian or whatever. She was attacked by the Hindu Right for "surreptitious conversions" and "secret baptisms", but the allegations turned out to be completely false. During communal crises in India or natural or human-made disasters almost anywhere, Mother Teresa moved in swiftly and galvanised various institutions and individuals into action.

She would have objected to the description of her missionary work as "secular", yet the charity in action she led from the front over many decades "transcended her religion in reaching out to people of all faiths and the faithless besides"(as her biographer points out). Her friendship with the Communist leader and West Bengal Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, with whom she found she "shared a love of the poor," was famous for its warmth as well as its tangible partnership effects. Her reaching out to Cuba and China over the years showed she could step across crude ideological prejudice.

From humble beginnings, the Missionaries of Charity has grown into a truly globalised network of humanitarian activities that are broad-ranging and diversified, yet keep the focus uncompromisingly on relieving, in however modest a measure, the misery of the poor. What sets this Congregation apart from other charitable, philanthropic and social work organisations is the extent to which it puts its Fourth Vow into action. It must not be judged by the standards that apply to movements and organisations fighting injustice and the socio-economic and political conditions that impose poverty, misery and suffering on millions of people around the world. While there is no question of its responding to demands that ask it to change its basic character, it must learn to listen to constructive and specific criticisms, such as the one that says it can introduce better standards of scientific but inexpensive medical care into some of its institutions without affecting their accessibility and purpose.

Frontline joins the world in paying tribute to Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose faith, selflessness and practical gifts were able to move mountains of insensitivity and uncaring around the world.

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