by Dr. Norman Williams, Col. K.K. Nair and Barry Oborne: Most people have heard of Mother Teresa but few understand that she was an enlightened soul acting out God’s role for her in this world.
Instead arguments are invoked about her mission on earth which range from a Christian conspiracy to wipe out Hindu Gods, to a belief that she converted to Hinduism on her deathbed and therefore would not qualify for a place in heaven.
This account is not concerned with such matters. Mother Teresa always said that there is only one God and that everyone should be seen as equal before God. She said that we should help a Hindu to become a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, and a Catholic a better Catholic.
Mother Teresa was born in 1910 in Skopje, now in Macedonian, and had a particularly loving family life. For several years after the age of puberty she wanted to lead an ordinary married life but later she resolved to serve God and become a nun. In 1928 she joined the Order of the Sisters of Loretto, in Ireland, and in 1929 was sent to teach at St. Mary’s High School in Calcutta. She was much loved at the school but in 1946, while on a train to the hill station of Darjeeling (to recover from suspected tuberculosis and malaria), she received what she described as a “call within a call” – to serve the poor.
In 1948 she was released from her duties at the convent, had some medical training in Paris, and, coming across a half-dead woman lying in front of a Calcutta hospital, comforted her and stayed with her until she died. From that point onward she dedicated her life to helping the poorest of the poor, and in 1950 founded a religious order called the Missionaries of Charity. In 1952 she started the Nirmal Hirday Home for the Dying (Nirmal Hirday meaning Pure Heart) in an abandoned Kali temple in Calcutta. Half a century later the Mission has 50 branches in Indian cities and has centres in 126 other countries, including, most recently, China. With Mother Teresa’s death in 1997 (see further on), leadership of the Order – the fastest-growing Order within the Catholic Church – fell to Sister Nirmala, an almost 70-year-old Indian woman of whom one of the biographers of the Order (Navin Chawla) wrote: “I saw this sister with a very gentle smile and twinkling eyes that seemed to take in everything… There is an enormous piety about this woman. She is deeply religious.” So, contrary to the views of many detractors, it seems that the Missionaries of Charity is healthy and has survived the passing of its founder.
What Mother Teresa was like
Contrary to the usual view that saints undergo great hardship and live in misery, awaiting their reward in heaven, the situation seems to be quite the opposite; and in the case of Mother Teresa (and most of the other sisters) her life, though hard in the extreme, was filled with joy. On this matter she held the conviction that the more you have, the more you are occupied and the less you give.. But the less you have the more free you are. She said: “Poverty for us is a freedom. It is not mortification, a penance. It is a joyful freedom. There is no television here, no this, no that; but we are perfectly happy.” The broadcaster, Malcolm Muggeridge, said that he had never met such delightful, happy, women – nor experienced such an atmosphere of joy that they create.
In the presence of Mother Teresa people may burst into tears, and in a fleeting moment she could create an ineffable impression of great deep and abiding love. Malcolm Muggeridge described the faces of people gathered for a talk. He wrote: “I was watching the faces of people – ordinary people listening to her. Every face, young and old, simple and sophisticated, was rapt with attention, hanging on her words – not because of the words themselves which were quite ordinary, because of her. Some quality came across over and above the words. A luminosity seemed to fill the hall, penetrating every heart and mind.”
Nevertheless Mother Teresa, it is said, was a shrewd administrator and ran a ‘tight ship’. In no other way could the organisation have expanded to its present size and international status.
Mother Teresa’s exalted state: Christian dogma does not talk much about altered states of consciousness, but that Mother Teresa had discovered the secret nature of God’s love and experienced its mind-altering properties should be clear to anyone who studies her life and hearkens to her sayings. Mother Teresa discovered that the strange alchemy of God’s love, as it manifests in the world, requires the presence of suffering and that there is a need for those who, in worldly eyes, are less fortunate or less than perfect specimens of the human race. This need for suffering she personified in the suffering of Jesus – as the role model for suffering – and saw Christ (the universal Jesus) in all the dying, the diseased, the homeless and the chronically poor of the streets of India; and also in the spiritually impoverished and the mentally disturbed of the developed world. On the occasion of a visit of a Catholic Bishop to the Home of the Dying in Calcutta, she asked him if he would like to see Jesus. On receiving an answer in the affirmative she took him to a man lying on a pallet who had “clearly visible things crawling over his body.” As the Bishop stood there in a state of partial shock she knelt down and wrapped her arms around the man, holding him like a baby in her arms. “Here he is,” she said.
The Bishop asked, “Who?”
“Jesus,” she said, “Didn’t he say that you find him in the least person on earth? Isn’t this Jesus challenging us to reach out and love?”
The Bishops reply is unrecorded – see 32 Quotations from Mother Teresa . What Mother Teresa realized, and it was a spiritual revelation of deep profundity, is that suffering crystallises love as nothing else does. On this she said:
“The dying, the cripple, the mental, the unwanted, the unloved – they are Jesus in disguise… Speak tenderly to them. Let there be kindness in your face, in your eyes, in your smile, in the warmth of your greeting. Always have a cheerful smile. Don’t only give your care, but give your heart as well… The poor give us much more than we give them. They’re such strong people, living day to day with no food, and they never curse, never complain. Really we don’t have to give them pity or sympathy. We have so much to learn from them… Only in heaven will we see how much we owe the poor for helping us to love God better because of them.”
By contrast, the sterile nature of the egoic world, and the belief that everything can be solved through technology, sociology, medical science, psychology and the like, along with the nightmare of life without other than a stereotyped, officially-approved “God”, stands starkly against the exalted state of those like Mother Teresa. In his is book about Mother Teresa, Something Beautiful for God Malcolm Muggeridge cogently expressed this. He wrote:
“Surely when we can go to the moon and ride through space; when our genes are known and our organs replaceable; when we can arrange to eat without growing fat, and copulate without procreating, to flash a gleaming smile without being happy – surely suffering should be banished from our lives… If the eugenicist’s wish were ever to be realized – the sick and the old, and the mad all who were infirm and less than complete and smooth-working, would be painlessly eliminated, leaving only the beauty queens and the athletes, the Mensa IQ’s, and the prize winners, to be our human family. That we should go on suffering would be, they would surmise, an outrage; and a deity that still allowed it to continue would be a monster… If this came to pass, along the ice-bound corridors of cash, God really would be dead.”
When technology fails, we look around for someone to blame and, Malcolm wrote: “In the eyes who see men as machines, ‘God’ is the manufacturer and the priests are his mechanics.” But to Mother Teresa and her worthy successors, things are seen differently. To them suffering and death is not the malfunctioning of a machine but part of the everlasting drama of our relationship with the Creator: “that enhances our human condition.”
Muggeridge pointed out that if ever it were possible, as some arrogant contemporary egoic minds believe, to eliminate suffering and even, through the use of cryogenic preservation, cloning, growing tissues, and so on – (or when medical science has sufficiently advanced in the implanting especially-grown organs and the injection of hormones and other chemicals), live for ever – our lives, as should be apparent even now, would not be enhanced but would be demeaned: “to the point that they would become insignificant, too banal to be worth living at all.”
The licking of lepers: Among Christian saints of the middle ages it was popular to lick the sores of lepers to cure them. More recently too the tending of the sick by close physical contact and the human touch is undertaken by those, like the Missionaries of Charity, who have severed their ties to the world – as indicated by the above account of Mother Teresa and the Bishop. Farther Damien was also one of the saints of modern times who took the extreme step in his ministrations of lepers. (Recently too, Amma – Chapter 19 – much to the horror of her devotees – cured a leper by licking his suppurating sores. To this day the same leper, now cured, visits her ashram from time to time.)
To judge that this is simply absurd, even obscene, and carrying things far too far, would be to miss the point. It would be to not understand that enlightened souls or those in the exalted state of union with God, do not belong to the same system of logic and behavior as does the world. And to say that this is absurd is to say that God is absurd – an idea that only the most deluded or reckless would entertain. The fact is that the enlightened are so detached from the usual worldly dramas that haunt the ‘personality’ aspect of our psyches, that they are, for the most part, completely indifferent to what the world brings them and completely confident that God is in charge. They understand that if the world seems out of control, it is because it is out of control – that is, out of our control. To the world-bound, when things happen as we expect them to happen, we feel that it is because we have arranged it so, but when they don’t, as more often seems to be the case, we became angry and frustrated – we fume and rage: “It’s not right” we judge, this or that should be done. “Society should look after the poor, they can do it better; they have the resources.” – And this is, in fact, the view of many about Mother Teresa’s organisation; but, as we can easily see, society never does.
The suffering of the developed world: Mother Teresa could become angry when seeing the wealth and the squandering of wealth of the developed world: She said, “When I see waste here (the USA) I feel angry on the inside. I don’t approve of myself being angry but it’s something you can’t help after seeing Ethiopia.” Still, she maintained, the world is not just hungry for bread but hungry for love as well: “Hungry to be loved; hungry to be wanted… There is a terrible hunger for love. We all experience this in our lives – the pain, the loneliness. We must have the courage to recognize it. The “poor” you might have right in your own family. Find them and love them… We have been created to love and be loved… We must make our homes centres of compassion and forgive endlessly.” This is why there are now almost 600 centres of The Missionaries of Charity throughout the world, not just in the poor countries.
On birth control: Mother Teresa is often criticised over her stand on birth control. To the worldly bound birth control, including abortion, may seem to be a good thing for society. But what is this society? Is society a well-functioning and altruistic thing that should be hearkened to? World events now and throughout history would incline one to the view that it is not. To a saint the question of doing something to one person for the comfort and convenience of another, does not have any meaning – the ends do not justify the means. Malcolm Muggeridge wrote that Mother Teresa had difficulty in even grasping the notion that there could, in any circumstances, be too many children. To her the life of a child was a particularly beautiful thing. He describes her holding a tiny baby girl, and with an expression of exaltation most wonderfully moving, saying, “See! There is life in her!” – It was a divine flame that no man dare presume to put out.
On the controversies surrounding the Catholic Church: Mother Teresa simply said, on many occasions: they are temporary – they will pass.
In the Catholic Church you can only be a saint after you are dead. Moreover, the Church requires three authenticated, physical miracles to be attributed to any candidate as a pre requisite for canonisation. In Mother Teresa’s case these were about miraculous cures that occurred as a result of her intervention:
One of the beneficiaries was a Bengali woman who was cured of a malignant stomach tumor through the agency of a locket with Mother Teresa’s photo.
Another was a French woman in the United States who broke several ribs in a traffic accident, and who was miraculously made whole because she wore a medallion of Mother Teresa around her neck.
A third was a Palestinian girl suffering from cancer who was cured after Mother Teresa appeared to her in a dream and said: “Young girl, you are cured.”
A very striking miracle that is still in evidence is related to a documentary film that was made by the BBC in the sixties. The miracle concerns the filming of the interior of the Home of the Dying in Calcutta, and the events are fully described by Malcolm Muggeridge in his book Something Beautiful for God.
The interior of the hall was very dark with only one small window and the film crew was not equipped with lights. The very experienced BBC cameraman was quite adamant that nothing would come out, but because of Mother Teresa’s insistence went through the motions of filming. When processed it was found that: “The film was suffused with a particularly beautiful soft light.” Muggeridge wrote that The House of the Dying is overflowing with love, and this love is luminous, like the haloes that artist paint on saints. The luminosity that is registered on the film, everyone agreed, is quite extraordinarily lovely. The same batch of film was subsequently tested under similar circumstances elsewhere and produced images that were dark and completely useless. Furthermore, back-up footage that was shot for the Mother Teresa documentary outside the Home of the Dying, turned out to be blurred and unusable.
At the time the report of the film received short shrift from the top brass of the Roman Catholic Church in the USA. It seems they were not interested in hearing about the miracles of Mother Teresa at that time.
Some teachings and sayings
On love: Love does not measure; it just gives. In the world love cannot remain by itself but must be put into action through service. Whatever we are like, able or disabled, rich or poor, it is not how much we do but how much love we put into the doing… (so)… Put your love in living action. The hunger for love is much more difficult than the hunger for bread. In loving others you are loving God Himself… We cannot do great things. We can only do little things with great love… Keep the joy of loving God in your heart and share this joy with all you meet, especially your family.
Smiling : Smile at each other, smile at your husband, smile at your children, smile at everyone – it doesn’t matter who it is – and that will help you to grow up in greater love for each other.
On prayer: Love to pray. Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of himself. Ask and seek and your heart will grow big enough to receive him as your own… Start and end each day with prayer.
On dryness; what to do when prayer becomes a struggle: Pray some more. (Such was Mother Teresa’s ‘dark night of the soul’ and her antidote for it).
Be as a little child: Come to God as a child.
On surrender and work: The spirit of our Society (the Missionaries of Charity) is total surrender, loving trust and cheerfulness.. To God there is nothing small. The moment we have given it to God, it becomes infinite… There is always the danger that we may do work for the sake of the work. This is where the respect and the love and the devotion come in – that we do it for God… and that’s why we try to do it as beautifully as possible. I was expecting to be free, but God had his own plans… I will work all day. That is the best way.
On presence: To keep a lamp burning we have to keep putting oil in it. (Keeping alert to the movements of the mind and trusting God continuously – waiting attentively for His grace.)
On silence: God is found in silence. See how nature: trees, flowers, grass – grow in silence. See the stars, the moon, sun, how they move in silence… We need to be silent to be able to touch souls.
On being holy: You have to be holy in the position you are in, and I have to be holy in the position that God has placed me. So it is nothing extraordinary to be holy. Holiness is not a luxury of the few. Holiness is a simple duty for you and me. We have been created for that.
On peace and war: Please choose the way of peace… In the short term there may be winners and losers in this war that we all dread. But that never can, never will, justify the suffering, pain and loss of life your weapons will cause… I have never been in a war before, but I have seen famine and death. I was asking myself, “What do they feel when they do this? I don’t understand it. They are all children of God. Why do they do it? I don’t understand.”
Understanding the poor: Rich people, well-to-do people, very often don’t really know who the poor are; and that is why they can’t forgive, for knowledge can only lead to love, and love to service. And so, if they are not touched by them, it’s because they do not know them… The other day I dreamed I was at the gates of heaven. And St. Peter said, “Go back to earth. There are no slums up here”… Nakedness is not only for a piece of cloth, but nakedness is a loss of dignity, human dignity: The loss of what is beautiful, what is pure, what is chaste, what is virgin. Loss, homelessness is not only for a house made of bricks – homelessness is being that people are completely forgotten, rejected, left alone, as if they are nobody to nobody.
Modern life: Everybody seems to be in such a terrible rush, anxious for greater development, greater riches and so on. So children have very little time for their parents. Parents have very little time for each other, and in the home begins the disruption of peace in the world.
Sharing: We have to share with people. Suffering today is because people are hoarding, not giving, not sharing. Jesus made it very clear: Whatever you do for the least of my brethren, you do it for me. Give a glass of water, you give it to me. Receive a little child, you receive me. Is that clear?
Loving what is : No matter who says what, you should accept it with a smile and do your own work.
On always wanting things: More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.
On time: Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.
Miracles: Every day some miracle happens.
On seeing God in everyone: I believe in person to person. Every person is Christ for me, and since there is only One, that person is the one person in the world at that time… I see God in every human being. When I wash lepers’ wounds, I feel I am nursing the Lord himself. Is it not a beautiful experience?
On abortion: It is poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.
Kindness: Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless. Let no one ever come away without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, and kindness in your smile.
See Catholic webpage Mother Teresa August 26, 1910 – September 5, 1997, and 32 Sayings of Mother Teresa referred to above. The book Something Beautiful for God (1969) by Malcolm Muggeridge is a copyright of the Missionaries of Charity.
Her death and beatification
Mother Teresa died in 1997 at the age of 87 after a long period of ill health. She died surrounded by her close associates after experiencing difficulty in breathing. She spoke of her love for Jesus several times before dying. She was canonised (beatified) by the Roman Catholic Church in October 2003. The Church requires that at least five years must pass before anyone can be proclaimed a saint and Mother Teresa must have broken all records. Usually the process of investigation for sainthood takes much longer, sometimes centuries.
During the time that her body lay in state, street sweepers clutching flowers came to pay their respects. Beggars, some with crippled legs, dragged themselves to the church to gaze at her body.
On the occasion of her death the Dalai Lama said she was “an example of the human capacity to generate infinite love, compassion and altruism.”
The Prime Minister of India compared her to Mahatma Gandhi, a “great soul”.
Practicalities; The Missionaries of Charity
The Missionaries of Charity have more than 600 centres for the poor worldwide. Details can be obtained from the Internet under their name.