This is a hall of words. A few days ago we had, in this rostrum, the most powerful men in the world. Now we have the privilege to have the most powerful woman in the world … she is much more than I, much more than all of us. She is the United Nations. She is peace in this world.”
Those glowing words came from Javier Perez de Cuellar, 5th General Secretary to the United Nations, when he introduced Mother Teresa to the U.N. General Assembly Oct. 26, 1985. In addition to being called “the most powerful woman in the world” Mother Teresa has also been described in many other magnanimous terms — a living saint, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, symbol of hope, spiritual master, the saint of the gutters, most admired person of the century by the Gallup organization.
The woman who would become Mother Teresa was born Gonxha (Agnes) Bojaxhiu on Aug. 27, 1910, in Skopje, Albania. She received a call to serve the poor at a young age: “I was only 12 years old, living with my parents in Skopje, when I first sensed the desire to become a nun,” she said. “It was then that I realized that my call was to the poor.” Thus at the age of 18 in 1928 she left home for Dublin, Ireland, where she entered the convent of the Sisters of Loreto, an order devoted to the education of young girls. After one year in Dublin, she went to Calcutta, India, where she took her formal vows as a nun adopting the name Teresa, honoring her two female spiritual mentors, Teresa of Avila and Thérèse of Lisieux.
Although Mother Teresa enjoyed her students and her vocation as a teacher, she was deeply agitated by the overwhelming poverty she saw in the streets of Calcutta. She reflected and prayed about this increasing inner discomfort which she was experiencing. Finally, on Sept. 10, 1946, she perceived a “call within a call.” She was to leave her convent and help the poor while living like them and among them.
To move forward with her new calling Mother Teresa would need permission from her superiors and from Rome. In order for that to take place, Mother Teresa knew that the support of the Archbishop of Calcutta, Ferdinand Perier, was essential. Archbishop Perier, though sympathetic, tested her commitment by insisting she spend more time in lengthy meditation, prayer and spiritual consultation. If, after that, she still felt called to proceed, then the archbishop wanted her to write answers to the following questions: 1) What exactly and in detail do you want to do? 2) The means by which you desire to bring it about? 3) How would you form your disciples? 4) What kind of people would you recruit for this work? 5) Where would be the center of your work? 6) Whether it is not possible to obtain this end by conregations already in existence? 7) Whether it would not be more conducive to use a kind of association? 8) The possibilities of success?
Archbishop Perier further asked Mother Teresa to keep it simple, saying: “It is not desired to have a long description of what you fancy you will be able to do. What we want is to know in a few words.”
A few months later, Mother Teresa answered his questions, adding a ninth one of her own. Writing the archbishop, Mother Teresa began her letter: “Today, after much prayer, I shall try with His help, to answer your questions.” Abiding by his request for brevity, Mother Teresa offered the following answers:
1. What exactly and in detail do you want to do? “Our Lord wants Indian nuns, victims of His love, who would be so united to Him as to radiate His love on souls … be His light, His fire of love amongst the poor, the sick, the dying, the beggars and the little street children.”
2. The means by which you desire to bring it about? “By going amongst the people. Nursing the sick in their homes. Helping the dying to make their peace with God. Having little free schools in the slums for the little children. Visiting the poor in hospitals. And helping the beggars of the streets to lead respectful lives. In a word, act the charity of Christ amongst the poorest.”
3. How would you form your disciples? “By giving them a complete knowledge of the spiritual life so that … they would live the life of close union with God. The interior life must become the main power of the exterior. To arrive at this the sisters will have the first year of their religious live — one of complete contemplation and perfect solitude, which will be renewed every six years after they have taken the vows.”
4. What kind of people would you recruit for this work? “Girls from the age of 16 upwards — Strong in body and mind with plenty of common sense. No special qualification … generous and lovers of the poor. They must be able to put their hands to any kind of work however repugnant to human nature. They must be of bright, cheerful disposition.”
5. Where would be the center of your work? “For the present the slums and the streets of Calcutta (and later) the big towns of India. We shall not wait to be asked to do this or that work by this of that bishop or priest. We shall go in search of souls ourselves and offer our services.”
6. Whether it is not possible to obtain this end by congregations already in existence? “No. First, because they are European. When our Indian girls enter these orders — they are made to live their life — eat, sleep, dress like them [Europeans].” Missionaries of Charity would be “Indian nuns, dressed in Indian clothes, leading the Indian life” and “whoever desires to be a Missionary of Charity will have to become Indian — dress like them, live like them.”
7. Whether it would not be more conducive to use a kind of association. “For the life they would have to live, seculars would not be able to do it. For a work of continual self-forgetfulness and immolation for others, you need interior souls — burning with love for God and souls. Pure souls who would see and seek God in the poor.”
8. The possibilities of success. “1 don’t know what the success will be, but if the Missionaries of Charity have brought joy to one unhappy home, made one innocent child from the street pure for Jesus, one dying person die in peace with God … it would be worthwhile offering everything for just that one because that one would bring great joy to the heart of Jesus.”
9. How would the sisters support themselves (my question)? “From the farm they should be able to get most of their food. They will sell some and so buy the other things. As for the clothes, they will make toys and pictures and other hand work things which will be sold and with that money get what is most necessary. We shall need very little as we intend with the grace of God to keep absolute poverty.”
These answers became the blueprint for the way Mother Teresa’s new order, the Missionaries of Charity, would function. Her process of being released from the Sisters of Loreto took nearly two years. On August 16, 1948, Mother Teresa replaced her European religious habit of the Sisters of Loreto with a white Indian sari and began her mission to serve the poorest of the poor, one which would make her one of the most inspiring and important persons of the twentieth century. Here are the five foundational spiritual principles upon which she based her life and through which she impacted her world.
1. Prayer: The driving force of Mother Teresa’s boundless energy and compassion was prayer. No matter where she was, no matter how busy she was, no matter how many demands were placed on her, Mother Teresa prayed daily for lengthy periods of time. Explaining the source of her strength to a reporter, she said: “I don’t think that I could do this work for even one week if I didn’t have four hours of prayer every day.”
She required daily prayer of her sisters as well, permitting no exceptions to this spiritual discipline. In 1972, a devastating flood struck Bangladesh. Mother Teresa immediately dispatched a group of sisters to the area. There, the needs were enormous, requiring the sisters to work nearly around the clock. Other relief workers asked if the sisters would make an exception and not interrupt their service for their prayer sessions. They consulted with Mother Teresa who promptly decided against the request. She insisted they continue to meet for an hour of daily prayer and reminded the sisters that their strength to serve would dry up without daily prayer.
2. Religious respect: One of Mother Teresa’s final interviews was with Time magazine reporter Edward W. Desmond in 1989 who asked her: “What do you think of Hinduism?” Her simple, frank response: “I love all religions.” Mother Teresa did not practice mere religious tolerance but complete religious respect and acceptance. For Mother Teresa, respecting the beliefs of others meant providing them with funeral rituals in keeping with their faith. When a dying person was brought to Mother Teresa’s House for the Dying, workers immediately asked for a person’s name and religion. Hindus were given Hindu funerals, Muslims were given Muslim funerals, usually presided by religious leaders from their tradition. Furthermore, since the dying had no money, the Missionaries of Charity paid for all funeral expenses. One time a bishop was in Calcutta and had no lodging so he asked Mother Teresa if he could spend the night in her House for the Dying. Mother Teresa paused for a moment before consenting, but on one condition: “Promise me you won’t die. The burial of a bishop would be much too expensive for us,” she said.
3. Poverty: From the very start, Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity took four vows: chastity, obedience, poverty, and a fourth vow, to give “wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor.” The vow of poverty meant that they would live just as do the poor. Mother Teresa explained:
“Poverty is necessary because we are working with the poor. When they complain about the food, we can say: we eat the same. They say, ‘It was so hot last night, we could not sleep.’ We can reply, ‘We also felt very hot.’ The poor have to wash for themselves, go barefoot; we do the same. We have to go down and lift them up. It opens the heart of the poor when we can say we live the same way they do. Sometimes they only have one bucket of water. It is the same with us. The poor have to stand in line; we do too. Food, clothing, everything must be like that of the poor. We have no fasting. Our fasting is to eat the food as we get it.”
4. Humility: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil 2:3-4, NIV) is the teaching of Scripture. Mother Teresa exemplifies the biblical virtue of humility to a heightened level. One example occurred on Oct. 26, 1985, when she was scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly. On the day of the speech, she followed the normal routine at her sisters’ house where she was staying. They rose early for Mass followed by an hour of prayer and meditation. Next came the regular cleaning: first, washing her sari, then cleaning floors and toilets. All her life, she worked side by side with her sisters, and this day was no exception. Mother Teresa’s expertise was cleaning the bathroom. “I am a specialist in that, probably the world’s best specialist in cleaning toilets,” she said.
5. Joy: Scripture notes that one sign of an advanced spiritual life is joy (see Gal 5:22). Though Mother Teresa worked in the most challenging and potentially discouraging of circumstances, she did so with a heart filled with joy often talking about the “joy” of loving the poor and of serving them. Speaking to her sisters, she stressed the importance of joy in their order: “Joy is one of the most essential things in our society. A Missionary of Charity must be a Missionary of Charity of joy.”
The woman who served the poorest of the poor with the greatest of joy, died on Sept. 5, 1997, at the age of 87. Mother Teresa was given an Indian state funeral. Only one other person was honored this way at the time of death, and that was Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1948. Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, delivered the eulogy, saying: “The entire church thanks you for your luminous example and promise to make it our heritage…. I thank you for what you have done for the poor of the world…. Dear Mother Teresa, rest in peace.”
Inscribed on her tomb, located on the first level of the Motherhouse of the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, are these words from the 15th Chapter of John’s Gospel: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Rev. Parachin, a minister, journalist and teacher of meditation writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.