The Saint of Calcutta (Note: details about Mother Teresa’s were recounted or excerpted from her personal autobiography: Mother Teresa: A Simple Path.)
A letter to my parents: Dear Parents. I wanted to say thank you for many of the gifts you gave me as a child. The sense of humor (thumbs up, 'click' tongue). Love the way with dogs and children. But this Catholicism you gave me... (holding up an imaginary package, dubiously). Really? (More dubiousness). You shouldn't have. Oh, it's very pretty. (Hold at arm's length). It just... doesn't quite fit right. Look, it says right here on the package: "Not to be used around Pagans, Polytheists, Atheists or Sodomists." Have you met any of my friends? I mean it's... nice. Really. Very nice. But for me? But because it's an important gift to you, I'll at least unpack it a little. (Holding up imaginary contents.) Oh. Nice music. Hmm? Love the candles and incense! But this whole 'hell' thing... I'm not sure I'll keep this one. (Surprised) Oh.... what's this? 'Missionary work'? That looks nice. Let's just strip off the proselytizing, the patronizing and the pejorative point of view and viola! (Holding imaginary object up.) Pretty! Now, what have I got left? It looks like a story about a nun! Oh, I love stories! Let's see what it says.... Mother Teresa Her birth name was Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, and she was born on August 26th, 1910 in Skopje, Serbia. Her parents were Nikola Bojaxhiu, a wealthy merchant, and Dranafile Bojaxhiu, both Albanian. She had one older brother, Lazar, and one older sister, Aga. She lived a very privileged life with her father gone most of the time in Europe. He had gone into partnership with an Italian merchant and together they sold oil, sugar, cloth and leather and had become very prosperous. Even though he was a stern man, he was a gifted storyteller and brought back gifts for his children. All was well with the family until Albania declared its independence in 1912 and their father started to become politically active in the new country. After several important meetings and increase in prominence in this new country, he took a trip to Belgrade and when he returned
he was mysteriously hemorrhaging and immediately died at age 45. To this day, the family suspects he was poisoned. Things got worse when the Italian business partner their father had been working with suddenly seized all the assets and the family was left penniless. Mother had a few assets from her own family, but it would have meant long travel and long negotiations so she decided to tough it out. Her oldest daughter helped her until she could recover from the devastating loss and then she took over as primary provider. The family never had much after that, but they kept to their strong Catholic beliefs and continued helping out with their community. The family, you see, was devoutly focused on giving back to those less fortunate, no matter what their own situation. When their father was alive they had regular guests as important as an Archbishop, or as humble as isolated widow. Each meal was a chance to help others and her father's axiom was: “Never eat a single mouthful unless you are sharing it with others.” Agnes took that saying very seriously. Her mother would pack the children up and make regular visits to others in the community who were worse off than they. An old woman abandoned by her family would be brought food and have help cleaning her house. A severe alcoholic would be fed and washed. Six children of a poor widow were brought over to the house regularly and eventually became adopted by the family. “When you do good,” her mother instructed, “do it quietly, as if you were throwing a stone into the sea.” The community was tightly knit in that area. Catholic Albanians constituted less than 10% of the total population and the Sacred Heart congregation had become the cultural and religious center for their entire community. But only Agnes took the religious part to heart and followed her mother regularly to church services. At the age of 12, Agnes was already struggling with a weak heart and lungs. She was prone to a chronic cough and her mother always suspected that that it would either be her daughter's health or her religious conviction that would take her away from her someday. The Sacred Heart congregation had a dynamic priest by the name of Father Jambrekovic. He liked to read letters from missionary priests in his church who traveled regularly to India and worked with the archdiocese of Calcutta. Their letters of working with the very poor and sick struck a deep chord in Agnes and Father Jambrekovic encouraged it. Agnes felt called to work with like the missionaries and her mother encouraged her to wait. She wanted to be absolutely sure that this is what her daughter wanted because this was no minor undertaking. After patiently waiting Agnes was still certain and on September 26th, 1928, she boarded a train for Zagreb.
Her first stop was Dublin, where she spent six weeks learning English which was the language she would use teaching in India and as she took her vows she selected the name Sister Mary Teresa of the Child Jesus – after Teresa of Lisieux, the “Little Flower” who had pointed the way to holiness through fidelity in small things. Not the great Teresa of Avila, as she would insist on pointing out throughout her life. The order of nuns she would join was called the Loreto order, and from a mission in Calcutta she would teach, serve the poor and pray. Upon her arrival she found there was already a nun named Sister Marie Therese and so she got the nickname 'The Bengali Teresa' because she would pick up words in that language from her students. She started working immediately, following up her mother's example by rolling up her sleeves and washing her own classroom and doing her own sweeping. This amazed her students who had never seen anyone who wasn't the lowest caste doing any kind of menial labor. But she didn't always feel comfortable there. From her window, she could look down on the Motijhil slum where people lay dying in the street. But she was new to the order and did what she could with what she had. She began touching the heads of each child that came into her classroom, showing them love and affection no matter how poor or dirty they were. The children began nicknaming her 'Ma', short for 'Mother', and becoming very fond of this hardworking nun. After she took her final vows with the Loreto Sisters war between the Muslims and Hindus came to the area on May 24th, 1937. River boats that normally brought rice into the area were commandeered. Families could no longer afford to feed their children. Babies started appearing on the doorsteps of the Loreto mission. On one afternoon, Mother Teresa found herself bottle-feeding twenty-four babies at once! The British stepped in, taking over many of the buildings the mission used and turning them into medical hospitals. They evacuated the priests and nuns but Mother Teresa insisted on staying. This made such an impression on the local people that when the British left and teaching resumed, she was made headmistress. It was at this point that her life took a big change. She came across a woman left dying in the street. Her body was badly wasted and infested, but her tears weren't because of her physical pain. Her own son had brought here there and left her to die. She had been abandoned by her own family. This shook the young nun to her core. She went back to the convent and tried to convince her superiors that the poor couldn't always make their way to the mission. Sometimes the mission had to go out to the poor. The war got worse. Food supplies stopped entirely. Mother Teresa told her children to hide in the chapel and pray. Picking up her bag, she walked out of the convent and up to the line where Indian soldiers were blocking the street. To their amazement, she asked for some food for
her children. Handing her a few bags of rice they asked her to go back where it was safe and she did, but not before she saw some of the bloodshed firsthand.
Lessons from the story At this point I want to pause for a moment and show you a little of the magician's trick behind the magic. Each of you has been listening to a storyteller spin a story, but there's a lesson hidden underneath it. A lesson about reconciliation. As an openly gay man, I can't accept the religion of my parents whole-cloth. It's irreconcilable with my lifestyle, my partner, and most of my friends and allies. I'll never be the kind of Catholic my parents were, liberal as they are. But that doesn't mean I can't pick out something that I do like and live with that. And that is the real gift within what my parents gave me. You see, a lot of indigenous people like my ancestors didn't have the option of which religion to follow. The Meso-America didn't have a choice on accepting Catholicism. Neither did the Native Americans of California. The trick is finding something within the dominant culture that you can identify with, and thereby retain your independence. And keep your head. For people in Africa, it was clinging to the Catholic saints and hiding their gods and traditions within them. For Meso-Americans it was the Virgin Mother and elaborate rituals. For me, it was finding something within Catholicism that I could respect, even if I didn't care for other parts of it. Now let's return to the story for a moment and I'll pull out another storyteller's trick at the end. Back to the Story Now remember that Mother Teresa was getting dissatisfied with staying only within the convent. And by marching up to the soldiers she had already proven she was willing to take risks for the welfare of others. Well, this cumulated with her request to found a new order of missionaries who would do something pretty extreme - they would work and live within the very slums that they served. The head priest of the mission was enthusiastic to help her but they needed the local Bishop's approval. Like her mother had, he advised her to wait a year and see if this was still her calling. She was very anxious to begin, but could see the wisdom in it and agreed to wait. When the permission came in 1991, she looked for the space to do her first hands-on work with the poor. She rented two rooms with money she was able to collect and started cleaning them out to use for a school and a hospice for the sick and dying. It was very hard work. She was doing everything herself. But after she discovered a woman dying in the street because she was turned away from the hospital for being too poor, her conviction solidified and she stuck it out.
Donations started arriving and now she had a bench to use as a library, a box, a chair, and a green cupboard that served as an altar. A family let her use the second story of their home and helpers started to arrive - students from her old classroom. Permission came from Pope Pius XII and she was able to found her first congregation – the Missionaries of Charity. They owned only their white saris with blue striping, their habits that went over them, some coarse underwear and a pair of sandals, plus their rosary and crucifix and an umbrella when the monsoon season came. The Sisters ate, work, slept and labored all within the confines of the slum they were serving. And this is the point where I'll come to the second stop in my story. Her accomplishments Mother Teresa is one of the pieces of Catholicism I can identify with. Her Sisters of Charity helped millions of lives across the world. And even though she toed the line with the Catholic teachings on abortion and women's rights, she stuck to a motto that I can always respect: "It is better to make mistakes in kindness, than to work miracles in unkindness.” And she did that. Even when she disagreed with how her order was relating to the poor, she still served them, refusing to try to convert them to her religion and even when they turned their backs on the AIDS epidemic in the 1980's, In 1971, Mother Teresa and four sisters went to Belfast, taking up a council house previously owned by a curate of the parish who had been shot dead giving Last Rites. The shooting was so bad, they sat huddled together on the staircase but left the door open for anyone else escaping violence. In 1973, they went to Gaza. Then Peru. Then the Bronx in New York, tending inner city children. By 1979, there were 158 foundations around the world, 1,187 Sisters, 411 novices and 120 postulants. When new or returning sisters arrived at the Lower Circular house, she would welcome each one before they left to destinations around the world. “If there are poor on the moon,” she remarked once, “we shall go there too.” Asked once whether she was married, she replied she was married to Jesus, and sometimes she found it difficult to smile at him also. In January of 1953, a woman named Jacqueline de Decker was suffering from a severe spinal disease and had to undergo several operations to avoid paralysis. Going through extreme suffering, she received a letter from Mother Teresa with a proposal. She saw suffering as a form of gift that can be given to God. Her sisters did not have time to pray themselves, so she proposed establishing the Link for Sick and Suffering Co-Workers, who would become pen pals with working Sisters, providing and receiving support, and offering prayers on their behalf. “Suffering in itself is nothing, but suffering shared with
Christ’s passion is a wonderful gift. Man’s most beautiful gift is that he can share in the passion of Christ.” In 1985 she received a letter from a patient of Dr. Richard DiGioia, a physician in Washington D.C. He had seen how AIDS patients were being treated and sent the letter to Mother Teresa who saw great similarities to leprosy patients. During a visit to America in June of that year, she went to visit AIDS patients at George Washington University Hospital and met Dr. DiGioia. She greeted each patient personally, asked about their families, and suggested that they each pray. That December she opened a hospice in east side Manhattan. On Christmas Eve, they opened New York’s first AIDS hospice “Gift of Love” in the rectory of a Greenwich Village church. “We are not here to sit in judgment on these people, to decide blame or guilt. Our mission is to help them, to make their dying days more tolerable.” A second home opened in Washington D.C. on June 13th, 1986. A third in San Francisco in June, 1988. On September 3, 1989, she was overcome with fatigue and nausea, experiencing pain in her stomach and heart. It was found she had a blockage in her heart and it was only functioning on one valve. On September 8th, her condition worsened. An Italian heart specialist who had previously tended her flew out and fitted her with an external pacemaker, but it was discovered malaria parasites were also contributing to her illness. The Pope sent her his personal prayers, and after one month of treatment she was released on October 14th. One month later she returned home but on November 29 th she was rushed back to the Woodlands nursing home suffering from severe dizziness. This time she was fitted with a more permanent pacemaker and was her usual cheerful self. On April 11th, 1990, at the age of 80, she announced her resignation to Pope John Paul the II as Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity. A United States senator once asked her: “Don’t you get discouraged when you see the magnitude of the poverty and realize how little you can really do?” Her reply was: “God has called not called me to be successful, God has called me to be faithful.” The untimely death of Diana, Princess of Wales was Mother Teresa’s last public statement. Her heart finally gave out on Friday, September 5 th, in 1997. Put down the Sam Harris, step away from the Stephen Hawking. Come back to the table and let's talk awhile.