Kindness and humility sometimes seem to be very unpopular traits these days. We adulate those who are boastful and arrogant while assuming the someone with quiet dignity is somehow weak. Given the current climate I was thrilled to learn that Mother Teresa will soon become a saint. I can’t think of a more deserving person nor one that I more admire.
She was born in what is now Macedonia at the time that it was part of the Ottoman Empire on August 26, 1910. When she was eighteen she moved to Ireland to become a nun. Ultimately she found her way to India where she became the founder of the Missionaries of Charity. Her life was dedicated to running hospices and homes for those with the most dreaded diseases that often made them pariahs to the rest of society. She gave succor to those with leprosy, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. Understanding the needs of the poorest among us she set up soup kitchens, hospitals, orphanages, schools and clinics. Her service to mankind played out in some of the most horribly desperate situations where few others dared to go. Her services were always free to those who needed them and offered with unconditional love.
Mother Teresa was as human as any of us. In her journals she often wrote of her anguish and frustration. She saw such terrible suffering that she sometimes asked God why He was allowing such things to happen to innocent people. Nonetheless, even when her tasks became almost unbearable she continued with her work and stuck by her principles and beliefs. She was openly opposed to both abortion and contraception which made her the target of criticism, something that appeared not to bother her at all.
She was the youngest child in her family of Albanian descent. When she was only eight her father died just as mine did when I was the same age. I suppose that knowing and understanding what she had experienced made me feel even closer to her. By the time she was twelve she felt that her true vocation was to be a missionary. She joined the Sisters of Loreto as soon as she was old enough to make her own decisions. At first her goal was to teach the children of India and she arrived in that country in 1929. She was sent to a convent in Calcutta where she served for around twenty years.
She liked teaching school but the poverty and sickness that she saw daily became so distressing that she knew that she had to do far more. She had witnessed a terrible famine and waring between Hindus and Muslims that created untold problems for the people whom she served. By 1948, the year that I was born, she had begun to work as a medical missionary, wearing a simple white habit with a blue border. She became a citizen of India and left the safety of the convent for the slums where she saw devastation beyond what any of us might ever imagine. With no real income she had to literally beg for food and supplies. Eventually her work caught the attention of people around the world and donations for her cause began to come in profusion. Perhaps her most incredible act was to create a place where patients who were otherwise shunned might die with dignity, a luxury that had rarely been afforded them in life. She wanted them to know in their final hours that they were truly loved and wanted.
Mother Teresa lived simply much as the people for whom she cared. She wanted to fully appreciate how they felt and to let them know that she was one of them. Her tireless work and frequent deprivations eventually affected her health. She suffered a heart attack in 1983. In 1991, she developed pneumonia and more heart problems. Becoming increasingly frail while still continuing her work, Mother Teresa fell and broke her collar bone in 1996. This accident was followed only months later by a bout of malaria and more heart failure. She died on September 5, 1997.
Mother Teresa received honors from all around the world both during her lifetime and in death. None of those earthy awards meant as much to her as knowing that she had helped the most unfortunate among us. She once said that the three most important actions in life were to first be kind, second be kind, and third be kind. She admitted readily to her own imperfections and that there were indeed times when her faith was sorely tested. While some people see her lapses as indications that perhaps she was not as faithful to God as she should have been, I see them as evidence that she had to work hard to overcome her human condition. Just as Jesus suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane and begged His Father to lift HIs cup of suffering, so too did Mother Teresa view the horrific lives of the people that she served with a sense of abandonment from time to time. Still she believed that God was working through her and she continued under even the direst of circumstances.
I’ve loved reading about the saints all of my life. Some of them seemed a bit too perfect to me. I always preferred the ones who had doubts and difficulties that they ultimately overcame. I needed to know that they were humans who somehow worked around the flaws that all of us have. Mother Teresa is the grandest example of someone who took her imperfections and honed them into a heart filled with endless love for those who had been ignored by the rest of the world.
I once heard Melinda Gates speak of visiting a hospital in India somewhat like those where Mother Teresa did her work. Mrs. Gate described how people were literally dying of the worst kind of diseases. She was struck by the heart wrenchingly wretched situations that she encountered. One woman was particularly moving in that she was slowly dying and nobody was even willing to touch her. The poor woman was lying all alone and feeling unwanted by all of humanity. Melinda said that she asked the lady what would make her feel better. The poor soul admitted that all she really wanted was to go outside to see the sky one more time but she could not walk and nobody was willing to take her out of her bed. Melinda looked in vain for someone to help her provide the woman with this humble request but just as she had been told, there was not a person willing to carry the dying patient from her bed. Melinda said that she eventually decided to take care of the problem herself. She picked up the woman and found that she weighed almost nothing. Mrs. Gates was able to carry her in her arms to a small garden where the lady smiled and cried when she saw the sky and felt the wind on her face. It was a beautiful moment for both Melinda and the stranger. Hearing the story brought tears to my eyes and also made me think about the thousands upon thousands of times that Mother Teresa had done something similar for people whom she ministered. How amazing and how endlessly tiring her life must have been and yet even when she was old and her body was failing her she kept working until God Himself called her home.
We need more stories these days about people like Mother Teresa and Melinda Gates. They are the role models that we should tout, not angry bullies who play to our selfish tendencies rather than the qualities that make us better people. It was good to hear that in the midst of all of the craziness in the world, we will glorify forever the amazing work of a great woman.