Sanctity, Mother Teresa — who, after her second miracle was recognised by Pope Francis last week, is just a step away from sainthood — maintained, was not the privilege of the few but “a simple duty for you and for me”. My first experience of her commitment to that “simple duty” was in 1981 via a crackling telephone line from London to Calcutta. It was 4.30 am IST, the start of a day totally dedicated to “wholehearted free service of the poorest of the poor”, as each day had been since she stepped out into the Calcutta slums in 1948. Founder and mother general of the sizeable international congregation of the Missionaries of Charity and Nobel laureate that she was, she answered the telephone herself. I asked to write about her mission. As always, she rejected publicity, insisting she was merely god’s humble instrument, but when we met next at her sisters’ sparse London house, she changed her mind. So began a 16-year relationship, during which I learned the pattern: Resistance to any focus on her, submission of all things to prayer, absolute trust in divine providence and a loving response to the individual before her. Those qualities that in this world’s terms might have counted against me had contributed to the favourable outcome of our meeting: My youth and inexperience, my “poverty”.
To understand poverty, it was necessary to touch it. I was put to work in the Kalighat Home for the Dying in Calcutta, learning the importance of being fully present to those often beyond all medical care: Cutting hair, holding hands, cleansing maggot-ridden wounds. No one must die without knowing what it was to feel loved and wanted. As
a Christian, Mother Teresa saw Christ in everyone. In touching the broken body of a dying man, abandoned baby or ostracised leper, she was tending to Christ in his distressing disguise. Nevertheless, dying Hindus were given water from the sacred Ganges, Muslims were read to from the Quran. Her professed aim was not to convert but to make a Hindu a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim. No one could know the way in which god was at work in every soul. Ultimately, we would all be judged on love. It was not, therefore, the magnitude of our actions that counted, but the love put into them.
Her understanding of poverty grew. Confined for the first 10 years of its history to the Calcutta diocese, the Missionaries of Charity spread first to Delhi, then to other parts of India and ultimately throughout the world. When Mother Teresa began travelling more extensively in the West, she was shocked by the declining reference to god, the breakdown of family life, drug and alcohol problems and the loneliness. The spiritual poverty of the West was a more complex problem than the material poverty of the so-called third world. She set about caring for the isolated elderly, the imprisoned, the homeless of London and the Aids sufferers of Los Angeles, whom she swiftly identified as the lepers of the West. She called on mothers in particular to make their homes “centres of compassion” and “forgive endlessly”, championing the cause of the unborn child and announcing that she wanted the rich to save the poor and the poor to save the rich.
Over the years, we met in many locations that her distinctive geography of compassion had identified as needing her particular care. I witnessed not only the joyous, luminous smile but also her practical abilities, the way in which she liked to rearrange the furniture in the sisters’ houses, the lack of sentimentality and immense shrewdness that went hand in hand with intuitive understanding, the humour and the earthy qualities that did not detract from her spirituality but were somehow moulded by it. The pragmatist in her knew not everyone was cut out for a lifetime touching the dying destitute, myself included. My job was to write about the “joy of loving Jesus”: “You can do what I can’t do. I can do what you can’t do. Together we can do something beautiful for god.” Everyone, moreover, should be given the opportunity to do “something beautiful”, even those branded dictators or corrupt.
The tiny woman widely known as “Ma” was not only humble but also strong-willed, determined and fearless, because god was on her side. This assumed union of intention was not always easily accepted. Her traditional views on the role of women and conservative Roman Catholic stance, particularly on abortion, were not always popular. Yet “What Mother wants, she gets” was accepted by most who knew her, not least because she practised what she preached. In her old age, she would quietly clean the toilets in the Calcutta Mother House. In February 1992, she arrived in Rome after a major heart surgery. Despite the bitter cold, the only concession to her age and frailty she permitted was for her Sisters to tear up cardboard boxes to place as insulation on the bare stone floor of her room. “You’re going back to London aren’t you?” she beamed at me. “Please tell Princess Diana I don’t think I shall be in Calcutta when she is due to see me there but she is welcome to come and see me here.” Jawaharlal Nehru or Mumbai slum-dweller, she treated everyone with the same simple respect, and in some mysterious way she lit up all that she encountered.
Yet “What Mother wants, she gets” was accepted by most who knew her, not least because she practised what she preached. In her old age, she would quietly clean the toilets in the Calcutta Mother House. In February 1992, she arrived in Rome after a major heart surgery. Despite the bitter cold, the only concession to her age and frailty she permitted was for her Sisters to tear up cardboard boxes to place as insulation on the bare stone floor of her room. “You’re going back to London aren’t you?” she beamed at me. “Please tell Princess Diana I don’t think I shall be in Calcutta when she is due to see me there but she is welcome to come and see me here.” Jawaharlal Nehru or Mumbai slum-dweller, she treated everyone with the same simple respect, and in some mysterious way she lit up all that she encountered.
Millions of leprosy patients treated through mobile clinics, rations dispensed to hundreds of thousands through relief centres, thousands of children sheltered in her shishu bhavans — Mother Teresa loved to cite statistics as evidence of god’s achievements through his imperfect instruments. “God has not called me to be successful but to be faithful”, she told a US senator. Yet divine providence had invariably seen to it that she was successful. The ordinary girl from Albania became India’s most decorated citizen, and less than two decades after her death, the Roman Catholic Church has approved the miracle necessary for her canonisation. For many, however, the extraordinary fruits of her faithful exercise of a “simple duty” were already evidence of the miraculous.