During Christian Aid Week over 300,000 volunteers collect donations in Britain to tackle world poverty. One of a number of Christian development charities based in the UK, Christian Aid is known for its credo ‘We believe in life before death’.
Letters from Jesuit missionaries sent home to Yugoslavia in the 1920s led Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhieu to become a nun in India, indeed to become an Indian, and to work among the poor of that country. In May 1929, aged eighteen, she was received as a novice at the Loreto Convent in Calcutta, taking the name Sister Mary Teresa. In May 1937 she took her final vows, from then on being known by the name by which she became famous – Mother Teresa, now beatified.
For Mother Teresa herself, the most significant day in her own life was 10 September 1946. Travelling by train from Calcutta to Darjeeling, she read the passage in Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus asserts that in relation to feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, taking care of the sick and visiting prisoners, ‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25: 40).
She was seized by a vision of working for the poorest of the poor and living as one with them. Granted permission in 1948 to do this, she embarked with five rupees on a work which, in 1984, treated 4 million lepers, distributed rations to 106,000 people and cooked food to 51,000 more, tended 13,000 people dying destitute and looked after 6,000 babies. The order of Missionaries of Charity which she founded continued after her death on 5 September 1997. By 2001 the Missionaries of Charity served ‘the poor and the unwanted, irrespective of caste, creed, nationality or race’ in 123 countries.
To approach this achievement is to approach a spiritual vortex of immense power, whose scale dwarfs our mind and sense. To Mother Teresa, the scale was not the point at all. Her biographer T T Mundakel quotes her as saying (p 184), ‘God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.’
For her, the heart of everything was always the individual – and particularly the smile – the smile of a faithful person carrying out God’s will with joy, and the smile of the person to whom God’s love reaches out. Since respect for every person as an embodiment of God was the foundation stone of her work, Mother Teresa was intensely respectful of whatever faith the person she sought to help had (Mundakel, p 65):
‘Mother Teresa was always very particular that the dying should receive the rituals of their faith before they die – for Hindus, a little holy water from the Ganges on their lips; for Muslims, readings from the Holy Koran; for Christians, sacramental anointing, and so on.
‘Once, Mother Teresa picked up a man lying in the gutter and brought him to Nirmal Hriday. His body was full of festering wounds and nasty sores. She bathed him carefully, cleaned his sores, applied medicines and bandaged them, feeding him all the time with a dose of love and mercy. He never complained and he was not at all afraid of death. She prayed for him, and prayed with him, according to his faith. Slowly, hope of reaching heaven dawned on his face. He gave her a beautiful smile and said, ‘All my life, I have lived in the street like a dirty animal; but now I am going to my eternal home like an angel,’ and within three hours, he died a peaceful and beautiful death.’
There is an immaturity which can often be seen in our teenage years but which may still drive us later on, when we meet someone out of the ordinary. It is the desire to copy them, and the connected assumption that they want us to copy them. In meeting the work of Mother Teresa, we can put both of these reflexes behind us. Although by 2001 her order had more than 3,500 sisters and about 400 brothers, she knew that only a tiny number of people are given by God the gift of devoting their whole lives to such selfless communion with the very poor. Why else are the careful and extended pathways of entry into any holy order there, but to challenge, to test and if need be to reject rather than to convert?
The challenges which Mother Teresa does pose to us are two, one beguilingly straightforward and the other full of deep mystery. One is to offer whatever we have to offer with a smile. The other is to be open to revolutionary possibilities in our own lives. If it is not quite obvious from life which of these two challenges is the straightforward one, and which is the deep, Mother Teresa’s own opinion was clear (Mundakel, p 1):
‘I know that true holiness consists in doing God’s will with a smile, and so I have always tried to smile, even when things do not turn out as I would wish. Apart from that, I don’t think I have done anything worth mentioning.’
----------God of poverty and of smiles
Your eyes see many things.
The poverty of the cold and hungry, and the smiles of the smartly casual.
The poverty of the sick and powerless, and the smiles of the valet parked.
The poverty of the under-educated, and the smiles of the over-photographed.
Help us also to see these poverties:
The poverty of being surrounded by riches, if you have to walk fifty miles to find a generous person.
The poverty of being surrounded by information, if you can speak to fifty people yet not find one who understands.
The poverty of being surrounded by smiles, if you can weep fifty times without being heard by anyone who cares.
Put us to work in your world
With eyes that see reality
With hands and minds that change it
And with smiles which touch and transcend it.
In Jesus’ name we ask.