She was born in Yugoslavia in the year
1910. Her name at birth was Agnes Gonxha Bejahiu. In early adult life she knew herself
called of God to be a nun. Following her education at Loretto Abbey in Ireland she was
posted to Calcutta. Her first assignment was to teach high school geography. She remained
at this school as principal for several years.
At the age of thirty-six Mother Teresa became aware of what she
speaks of as a "call within a call." She now knew herself seized and summoned to
work on behalf of "the poorest of the poor." It was not the "ordinary
poor" those who could still beg, wheedle, or even thieve whom she was
called to serve. Rather, it was those whose situation was even more wretched: the dying
destitute, the leper, the person whose sores are loathsome, and the most helpless and
vulnerable of all, the abandoned baby.
She set about acquiring intensive nursing training. Two years
later, the authorities in Rome released her from the Loretto order. At age thirty-eight
she stepped out into her new life. She was all too aware that her activity would appear
pathetically insignificant in the midst of the one million people who sleep, defecate and
die on the pavement of Calcutta.
Many things sustain her. Her vocation her calling
is one of them. Another is her conviction that the wretchedness all around her is the
"distressing disguise" her Lord wears. (The festering wounds she and her sisters
dress are to her the wounds of Jesus; every dirty infant is the Bethlehem baby who was
born in conditions less than sanitary.) She is sustained too by her devotional discipline.
Awake at 4:00a.m., she and her sisters pray until 6:30. Every morning there is a
celebration of Holy Communion. Mother Teresa insists that if she did not first meet
her Lord at worship and in the sacrament she could never see him in the most wretched of
The workday ends at 7:30 p.m. when sisters gather again for
prayer. Midnight frequently finds the little woman still on her feet.
Several years ago she came across an emaciated man near death on
the sidewalk. No hospital would admit him. She took him home. Soon she had gained access
to an ancient Hindu temple which she turned into her home for dying
destitutes." To this home the sisters bring the seventy- and eighty-pound adults who
would otherwise die on the street. When Westerners scoff at the so-called band-aid
treatment she gives to these people she replies, "No one, however sick, however
repulsive, should have to die alone." Then she tells whoever will listen how these
people, with nothing to give and with a past which should, by all human reckoning,
embitter them forever, will smile and say "Thank you" and then die at
peace. For her, enabling an abandoned person to die within sight of a loving face is
something possessing eternal significance.
Of what worth, then, are the cast-off babies the sisters pick up
out of garbage cans, railway stations and the gutter? Mother Teresa quietly asks,
"Are there too many flowers, too many stars in the sky?"
When the stench from running ulcers embarrasses even a sick
person himself as a Sister of Charity cares for him, the sister smiles as she reassures
him, "of course it smells. But compared to your suffering, the smell is
Mother Teresa reminds Christians of all persuasions of how
readily we are infected with the narcissism ("me-only-ism") of our age and with
its preoccupation with ease. She forces us to face up to those New Testament passages that
insist Jesus Christ is to be found in the sick and the poor, the vulnerable and the
victimized (Matt. 25). Simply to think of her is to hear anew what Jesus maintains is the
truth: We cannot turn our back on the wretched of the earth without turning our back on
Her diminutive body and her vast work (the Sister of Charity are
now in 25 cities in India and in 26 countries throughout the world) illumine and magnify a
glorious text of St. Paul: "For while we live we are always being given up to death
for Jesus sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So
death is at work in us, but life in you" (2 Cor. 4:11,12). In her disease-ridden
environment she is plainly courting death. Yet because it is for Jesus sake
that she is being given up to death, the life of the Risen One himself is manifested in
her. And in a stunning paradox, the life of the Risen One is also manifested in the
weakened men and women who are only hours from death themselves.
Mother Teresa and her sisters have proven once more what our
society has yet to learn: a preoccupation with comfort does not produce comfort! Rather,
we are comforted ourselves, as Paul insists in another paradox, only as we compound our
suffering with the suffering of others. For in doing this we share in Christs
suffering and therefore know the comfort only the victorious one himself can impart (2
Now eighty years old, yet as resolute as she is wizened, Mother
Teresa continues to live and work in the slums of Calcutta, certain that God will permit
her to die with the people she has lived among and loved for over forty years. In their
fragile humanity she has discerned and embraced the Fragile One himself by whose
wretchedness the world was redeemed and through whose risen life fellow-suffers are made
alive forever more.