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Mother Teresa—A Life of Healing

She radiated holiness pure and simple. She was drawn to the poorest of the poor, and as a result the world was drawn to her. She was Mother Teresa. Founder of a religious order and a Nobel laureate, she lived as she died, in Calcutta tending to those in need. One of the ways she was able to achieve what she did—always for others—was through her unique ability to communicate. Through prayer, through meditation, through interviews, and through her own writings, Mother Teresa demonstrated an ability to bring people to her cause.

Macedonia to India

The facts of her life are straightforward. Born in Skopje in what is now Macedonia, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was Albanian by heritage. She was inspired to go to India after learning about it from missionaries who spoke at her school. She joined an Irish order, the Sisters of Loreto, moved to India, and became a school principal. Wanting to do more, she founded her own order, the Missionaries of Charity, based on Franciscan principles of service to those most in need. She founded her order with some fellow nuns in 1948 with no funds to speak of. Upon her death nearly 40 years later, her order had grown to include 4000 nuns and 120,000 lay workers treating the disenfranchised who were suffering from leprosy or AIDS as well as hunger and malnutrition in some 450 missions around the world. She also became a citizen of India, demonstrating her solidarity with the people she served first.[4]

Burden of Sainthood

Mother Teresa was not comfortable with the label of "living saint." It is true that she had an aura, a kind of charisma, that drew people to her. But she was also very human. A documentary about her, done over a 5-year period, depicts in gritty detail the world that was her life. As one reviewer put it, "The frail figure huddled inside the Indian sari is clearly a force, a soft-spoken lode of iron reserve. The deeply committed no-frills humanity comes through."[5] When asked what it is like to be a living saint, Mother Teresa responds, "I have to be holy in my position. That's nothing extraordinary. It's my simple duty. We have been created for that."[6]

Also depicted in the film is her visit to Beirut in 1982 at the height of the fighting between Muslims and Christians. Mother Teresa wishes to retrieve a group of spastic children who were isolated in an abandoned hospital. A priest says it's a good idea, but it's impractical because the hospital is in a free-fire zone. To which Mother Teresa responds, "It's not an idea. It's our duty." At her insistence, a cease-fire was arranged and the children were rescued.[7]

Words to Live By

Like many leaders, Mother Teresa was a powerful storyteller. Many of her writings tell of the people she has encountered and what they have taught her. Rather than assuming some kind of superior role, she paints a portrait of herself as a seeker. She was famous for telling the story about the first person to whom she ministered. The woman's body was half-eaten by rats; instead of revulsion, Mother Teresa saw "Christ in his distressing disguise."[8] And in her Nobel Peace Prize lecture she tells the story of a bedridden man whose only joy was smoking. He abstained from tobacco for a week and sent Mother Teresa $15 for the mission. "It must have been a terrible sacrifice for him but see . . . how he shared. And with that money I brought bread and I gave to those who are hungry."[9]

Although Mother Teresa was strictly Catholic in faith, she was liberal in reaching out to others, seeking to help all regardless of their faith as well as receiving aid from anyone of any faith. She also saw her ministry as taking care of the poor and sick, not as proselytizing: "Love has no other message but its own. . . . If we do any preaching, it is done with deeds, not with words. That is our witness to the gospel."[10]

A considerable body of literature is growing up around Mother Teresa. Some of her writings have been collected as inspirational texts. Another book is a collection of reflections from the famous (e.g., Senator Ted Kennedy), from religious leaders, and from ordinary people who met her only once. All of these are testaments to the power of her example, and these communications serve to extend her message further.

True to Her Beliefs

Those from the secular world found Mother Teresa a holy individual, but many of them did not agree with her doctrinaire support of the Church's position on contraception and abortion. Mother Teresa did not turn them away. Similarly, she accepted an award from dictator Baby Doc Duvalier of Haiti and laid a wreath at the tomb of Enver Hoxha, the communist tyrant of Albania. Critics assailed her. Mother Teresa was not bothered. She "saw Christ in them, and believed they could be redeemed."[11]

Deeply Human

For all the talk of Mother Teresa's saintliness, she also was very human. In excerpts from her diaries published after her death, we see a woman who is more like us—plagued by doubts. "In my soul, I feel just the terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing." Those words were from a journal she kept between 1959 and 1960, when she was urged by her confessor to keep a record of her thoughts.[12] Thirty years later, she seems much more at ease. "I have begun to love my darkness, for I believe now that is a part, a very small part, of Jesus' darkness and pain on earth."[13]

Mother Teresa writes eloquently of love as a healing force and how it is necessary to love others in order to heal their physical afflictions. She also writes of the joy of giving, doing it for love, not for duty. "God loves a joyful giver. . . . A joyful heart is a normal result of a heart burning with love. Joy is strength."[14]

And as befits someone who is in tune with herself and with others, Mother Teresa had a good sense of humor. She writes: "Someone once asked me, ‘Are you married?' And I said, ‘Yes, and I find it sometimes very difficult to smile at Jesus because He can be very demanding.'"[15] Likewise she joked in her Nobel speech, "If I don't go to heaven for anything else I will be going for all the publicity [which has] made me really ready to go to heaven." [16]

Work Continues

The greatest legacy of a leader is the continuation of his or her work after he or she has passed from the scene. In the year following Mother Teresa's death, the Missionaries of Charity added some 20 new centers. Her successor, Sister Nirmala, accounted for the growth this way: "It's God's work. If it was Mother's work, maybe in the course of time it would [have ceased], but since it's God's work, it is the same."[17]

Whether God has anything to do with it is an eternal question. What there can be no question about is this: It is the example of Mother Teresa that continues to bring the poor to her missions and to draw people who are committed to serving them as she herself did.

[4]"Mother Teresa," Economist, Sept. 11, 1997.

[5]Leo Seligsohn, "A Portrait of Mother Teresa in Action," review of Mother Teresa, a film by Ann Petri and Jeanette Petri; Richard Attenborough, narrator and consultant, Newsday, Nov. 28, 1986.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Ibid.

[8]"Mother Teresa."

[9]Mother Teresa, "Nobel Peace Prize Lecture," Dec. 10, 1979.

[10]Mother Teresa, No Greater Love, ed. Becky Benenate and Joseph Durepos, with a foreword by Thomas Moore (Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 1997, 2001), p. 179.

[11]"Mother Teresa."

[12]Laurinda Keys, "Mother Teresa's Writings Reveal Doubts about God," Seattle Times, Sept. 15, 2001; quotes were from Vidayajyoti (Light of Knowledge), a Jesuit journal published in New Delhi, India, March 2001.

[13]Ibid.

[14]Mother Teresa, No Greater Love, p. 33.

[15]Ibid., p. 34.

[16]Mother Teresa, "Nobel Peace Prize Lecture."

[17]Neelesh Misra, "Shared Burden: Mother Teresa's Nuns Carry Out Work," Associated Press, Orange County Register, Sept. 5, 1998.


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