Social Work

The epitome of mercy

Print edition : February 06, 2015

September 24, 1993

IT was 64 years ago, on January 29, 1929 that an 18-year-old Albanian girl, Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu, arrived in a strange city a world apart from her native Skopje (then in Albania). In response to what she believed to be God's call, she said goodbye to her beloved mother, a deeply religious woman herself, knowing perhaps that she was destined never to see her again. The route to India lay via Rathfarnam in Ireland, the headquarters of the Loreto Mission that had established schools and colleges in India.

Soon after her arrival in Calcutta, she was despatched as a novice to Darjeeling; upon completion of her novitiate in 1931, she took her first vows and assumed the name of Teresa, inspired by the life of St. Therese of Lisieux, a French nun canonised for her exceptional goodness, in executing the most humble of tasks.

From 1931 onwards, Mother Teresa taught mainly geography at the Loreto Convent at Entally in Calcutta. In 1944, she was made Principal of St. Mary's School in the same complex. This was a school for poor children, many orphans among them. Mother Teresa conducted her lessons in Bengali, in which she had become fluent. To distinguish her from another Sister who shared the same name, she soon came to be known as the 'Bengali Teresa.' Her colleague and friend at Loreto Entally, Sister Marie-Therese Breen, told me two years ago, "She has always been very steady. Very humble. She has never lost that humility." She also exemplified obedience. "The only people she is not obedient to are her poor doctors," said Sister Breen with a laugh. "I expect she finds she has so much to do she has not the time to listen to them."

On September 10, 1946, while travelling by train to Darjeeling to make her annual retreat, Mother Teresa heard, for the second time in her life, a call, this time to renounce Loreto, where she was supremely happy, to go out into the slums and the streets to serve the poor. For a woman who was not a priest, to embark on such an unchartered course required permission from the Vatican itself. It took almost two years for Mother Teresa's fervent prayers to be answered. On August 17, 1948, Father van Exem, then her spiritual adviser, blessed the three cheap saris with their distinctive blue bands that from then on became the symbol of the Missionaries of Charity.

Armed with her faith, Mother Teresa moved out of her secure world into one of which she knew nothing. She had no money (out of choice), no companion, no helper. The early days were difficult and lonely. She was to resist often the temptation to return to the security of Loreto. Sceptics, even within the Church, abounded. It was her overwhelming faith that sustained her. The first of her institutional ventures in the 'bustee' of Motijhil began literally on the ground. The mud on the ground was her blackboard, a stick she picked up became her marker. As a few children collected around her, she began to mark the letters of the Bengali alphabet on the ground. Goodness reciprocated goodness. A chair arrived. Someone sent a blackboard. Someone else donated a broken table. The first of hundreds of her institutions and centres had become a reality.

Today the Missionaries of Charity find themselves in 504 centres in 105 countries. In modern parlance, they have grown into an intercontinental organisation with a transnational membership benefiting the largest constituency — the world's most abject poor. But neither size nor numbers nor their perceived influence is of any importance to Mother Teresa. Regardless of whether the organisation grows or shrinks, what is fundamental for her and her Sisters is to be faithful to their vows.

Three vows are shared with many other Orders. By the vow of poverty they undertake to live like the poor and to understand them as equals. By the vow of chastity, they give their hearts to Christ. "I am married to Him, so to speak, as you are to your wife," Mother Teresa once casually explained to me. The vow of obedience is one by which the Sisters have renounced to Him their own free will. The Missionaries of Charity, however, have an additional, fourth vow which is unique to their Order: to serve only the poorest of the poor.

It took me long to understand how deep and wholehearted is Mother Teresa's faith in Christ, whom she sees in every one she ministers to. The first woman she picked up many years ago, lying on a Calcutta street, her face half-eaten by ants and rats, could only be the abandoned Christ. Each emaciated body in each Home for the Dying the world over is the suffering or the dying Christ. For her and her band of Sisters, it is He whom they tend to in every leprous ulcer they clean, every child they feed or every urine-soaked body they bathe. As Mother Teresa herself was to explain, "Otherwise I would be able to look after a few loved ones at the most. People ask me how I can clean the stinking wound of a leprosy patient. They say to me, 'We cannot do it for love of all the money in the world'. I tell them, 'Nor can we, but we do it for love of Him'."

When she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1979, the Chairman of the Committee, Prof. John Sannes, made a fundamental point when he said: "The hallmark of her work has been respect for the individual and the individual's worth and dignity... In her eyes, the person who, in the accepted sense, is the recipient, is also the giver and the one who gives the most. Giving — giving something of oneself — is what confers real joy... The life of Mother Teresa and her Sisters — a life of strict poverty and long days and nights of toil — is a life that affords little room for other joys but the most precious."

I have often spoken to Mother Teresa on the subject of death. "Over the years, we have rescued over 54,000 people from the streets, about half of whom have died a beautiful death." How could death be beautiful, I asked. Naturally, we feel lonely without a loved one, she had explained, but death means "going home". After a pause, she added, softly. "Those who die with us die in peace. For me that is the greatest development of human life, to die in peace and in dignity, for that is for eternity."

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