What happens when a mountain of faith combines with an ocean of compassion in the same individual? The answer made itself visible to me on a swelteringly hot morning in Madras (now Chennai), during my undergraduate days in 1973, as announcement from the Principal’s office streamed in, asking all students to gather at Bertram Hall (the college auditorium) to listen to an address by a person who was by then a venerated figure in every sense of the term. The hall was packed to capacity by thronging students and teachers standing by for the rare opportunity to listen to a living saint. A frail woman in nondescript monastic attire, with folded palms and slightly hunched back, to symbolize the burdens of the world’s poor as it were, slowly walked into the hall around noon time, her feet barely touching the floor as if she was worshipfully treading on an animate entity. It was humility personified..! She must have spoken, if I recall correctly, for about twenty minutes. The import of her words dwelt on uplifting the poor from slums and gutters with love and kindness, by treating them with dignity and making them feel wanted. Interspersed in her speech were stories of how uncared for and dying lepers were picked up from the streets of Calcutta, taken to her camp where their wounds were washed and dressed in addition to nourishment, not merely with food but with the milk of human kindness such that many of them died in dignity with grateful thanks to the mother for making them feel wanted and facilitating their humane and dignified exit. That was Mother Teresa, a saintly soul with an abiding Christ-consciousness that informed the entire spectrum of activities of Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by the mother.
Albania, a tiny country in south-east Europe with a population of little over three million, across the Strait of Otranto that connects the Adriatic and Ionian seas, and neighbouring Macedonia with around two million people, both endowed with rich bio-diversity and bearing strong influences of Greco-Roman and Turkish cultures, would have continued to remain remote pieces of geography, or minuscule cartographic points on the map, for people in far away India but for its association with a larger-than-life icon that brought succour to thousands of people, diseased and downtrodden, crippled and homeless, alongside the streets of Calcutta (now Kolkata), and many other parts of an India of half-a-century-ago destitution and squalor. Born in Skopje, the capital of today’s Macedonia, of Albanian descent, she arrived India at the age of nineteen bearing the name of Agnus, to begin a life of novitiate in Darjeeling, a hill station at the foot of the Himalayas; she learnt the local language, Bengali, and started teaching at St.Teresa’s school, located near the convent. The year 1931 saw Agnus taking her initial religious vow as a nun at the age of twenty one, accepting the name of Teresa; the final solemn vow followed six years later. Even though Teresa enjoyed teaching and wanted to continue doing so at the Loreto convent in Calcutta, the poverty around the city was deeply disturbing. The Bengal famine of 1943, triggered by crop failures and, probably, sudden diversion of food grains to feed the Allied forces, brought misery and death on an unprecedented scale wiping out over three million people through hunger and disease which, together with onset of Hindu-Muslim riots in 1946, literally plunged the region into despair and horror. In the same year, Teresa experienced a divine call to leave the convent and help the poor by living as one amongst them. The gradual transformation of Sister Teresa into Mother Teresa was on. Her missionary work with the poor began in 1948; shedding her Loreto habit and going in for a simple white cotton sari with blue border, Teresa adopted Indian citizenship and spent a few months in medical training at the Holy Family Hospital in Patna prior to venturing out into the slums. A year later, she was joined in her effort by a dedicated group of young women, laying the foundation of a new community engaged in the epic mission of bringing relief to the poorest of the poor, to the sea of destitute and deprived humanity resigned hopelessly to “fall upon the thorns of life and bleed”.
The earlier years were fraught with many travails, the challenges of working with meagre resources often going down to the level of begging for food and supplies, of self-doubt, loneliness and nagging temptation to drop her mission and return to the comfort of Loreto convent. It was, most certainly, her mountainous and unflinching faith, and deeply rooted Christ-consciousness that helped her to tide over the most insurmountable odds and soldier on, walking long distances to search out shelter for the poor till her weary arms and legs ached, but still propelled on the way forward, according to her, by the image of pain and suffering of the crucified Christ, with a single-minded steely determination that did not allow even a tear of frustration to drop from her eye. One of the shelters was even an abandoned Hindu temple, which was converted, duly assisted by local authorities, into a free hospice for the poor. Those brought to the shelter were not only given medical attention but also afforded the opportunity to die with dignity, according to the rituals of their faith; Muslims were read the Quran, Hindus received water from river Ganges, and Christians were given the Last Rites. People who were wasting away on the peripheries of roads like wretches could thus die like angels, loved and wanted. Her congregation grew in stature and network, building itself to over 4500 sisters spread over 133 countries, running everything in benevolence and charity from hospices and homes for those affected by HIV / AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis, soup kitchens, dispensaries and mobile clinics, orphanages and schools, counseling programme for families and children. In all of these activities, to recall Mother Teresa’s own words echoing through the hazy span of four decades, the guiding credo, as she fed an hungry man, tended the bleeding leper, supported orphans or brought in succour to the sick and aged, was that she virtually saw the image of the poor and battered, hungry and bleeding Christ in all those people. It was, therefore, not just charity, benevolence or alleviation of suffering that was playing out, but the most sublime act of worship.
It did not take long for awards and titles such as Nehru award, Magsaysay, Templeton, Bharat Ratna (meaning ‘the precious gem of India’, the highest civilian award in India) and Nobel prize to come knocking at her door. At the Nobel ceremony, she declared that India was her country and the award amounted to nothing more than a recognition of the prevalence of hunger and poverty in various parts of the world. In 2003, she was beatified as “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta”, a prelude to her logical sainthood in due time. The accolades and recognition that came her way from dignitaries and heads of governments in India and worldwide sat lightly on her persona, not making any difference to her work or demeanour. The only discernible difference was that each of those awards and recognitions gained in lustre by adding Mother Teresa to their list of recipients. Her several bouts of illness in the 1990s and recoveries that followed were prompted by the cumulative prayers of an entire country petitioning the Almighty for an extra lease of life for the noble soul who was a lifeline for the needy and downtrodden. Her eventual passing away in 1997 was a global event in itself, with dignitaries, royalties and heads of states from around the world converging in Kolkata to attend the funeral.
All her commendable work notwithstanding, the painful reality is that there are certain detractors in India and outside, comprising individuals and radical fringes of few organizations. While in the earlier years it was her strong stand against birth control and contraception that attracted criticism, today there are some sections attributing in her mission a veiled attempt at converting people to Christianity. Can there be a level more preposterous to which political thinking, calculated at polarizing people on religious lines, can stoop to? Did Mother Teresa really exploit poverty and disease to bring its victims to the Christian faith? Christopher Hitchens, the left-wing neo-atheist and British author, described her as ‘hell’s angel’, accusing her not only of blatant proselytization but also of misusing donated funds and hobnobbing with dictatorial regimes. Malcom Muggeridge, one of her ardent followers, considered her as a miracle of light. While in Calcutta to film a documentary on the Mother at her Nirmal Hriday, or home for the dying, the place was deemed to be insufficiently lit; however, the picturisation turned out perfectly and it was ascribed to the sheer effulgence of Mother’s Christ-consciousness lighting up the entire surrounding.
Is there anything like an abiding legacy of Mother Teresa? I, for one, would firmly believe that she is another incarnation of the holy spirit. Her language is love and religion is compassion and she cannot be faulted for firmly holding that Jesus Christ is in all of humanity, regardless of caste, colour and creed. Navigating the deep waters of life’s travails in a boat, propelled by tender love and kindness and illumined by sublime humanism, Mother Teresa’s life constitutes an eternal scripture for the religion of infinite love and boundless compassion, and a beacon-light for generations of humanity.