A first-hand portrait of Mother Teresa by one who knew and worked with her
WHAT MOTHER TERESA TAUGHT ME
by Maryanne Raphael
(St Anthony Messenger Press, 2007, 206pp, $24.95. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Maryanne Raphael had the honour and blessing of both meeting Mother Teresa and working with her and her Missionaries of Charity.
A freelance writer, who has worked with the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, South Africa, Mexico, Los Angeles, Washington DC and the Bronx, she shares with readers her own first-hand experiences as well as stories of Mother Teresa related by those who knew her well.
When reading about the life and works of Mother Teresa and the many things she said to those around her, one word comes to mind: simplicity. Mother Teresa's advice to others and her expressions of faith were extremely simple. Not simple in terms of a blind faith, but simple in being focussed solely on that which is most important: love of God and love of neighbour.
Acknowledging that we are God's children she insists that as such we should place ourselves entirely in His hands and not worry too much about anything - easier said than done. That is why those able to live this total abandonment to God's will are usually saints.
Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, in the little town of Skopje in the mountains of Macedonia, on August 26, 1910. Her father who was actively involved in the political campaign for a free Kosovo, died suddenly when she was only nine years old. After his death her family was plunged into poverty, yet her faith in God deepened.
Mother Teresa felt her first calling to the religious life at the age of about 18 when she sensed God was calling her to serve him in India. After entering an order of Loreto nuns in India she was sent to study in Calcutta to gain a teaching certificate. It was while studying in Calcutta that she observed the severe poverty of the local people. She felt a second calling from God: to leave the safety and tranquillity of her Loreto convent and live amongst the poor, serving them and caring for them on the streets of Calcutta.
Upon becoming a nun she had taken the name Teresa, after her patron saint, Th...rse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, who developed a 'little way' to gain heaven through abandonment to God's will, and performing little deeds with great love.
After receiving approval from the Vatican, Mother Teresa began her own order of nuns: the Missionaries of Charity. Many young women were attracted to her order, some from very privileged and wealthy families.
The level of poverty on the streets of Calcutta is hard for most of us in the Western world to imagine.
Mother Teresa once found a woman 'lying in rubbish, half-eaten by rats,' whose own son had left her there, and a thirteen-year-old boy homeless, naked and lying in the gutter very close to death. Until Mother Teresa and her nuns drew attention to their plight, the wealthy people of India largely ignored the poor people who were often lying in the streets, dying right under their noses.
Today, we are informed, Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity have 72 centres worldwide, with 4,000 members in 125 countries. Her missionaries feed 500,000 families a year in Calcutta alone, treat 90,000 leprosy patients annually and educate 20,000 children every year.
One aspect of Mother Teresa's personality that comes through very strongly in this book is her lively and often mischievous sense of humour. She dreaded public appearances and only went through with them because she felt it would help God's work. When she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she was in anguish knowing she would have to make speeches and public appearances.
She prayed to Jesus: 'What in the world are you up to now, having me win this prize? If this is how you treat your friends, it's no wonder you have so few of them!'
She was extremely popular in America and when she was told the American people wanted to canonise her she said, 'Let me die first.' She related to her sisters a dream she had during one of her many illnesses, when she was almost comatose: 'I knocked on the gates of heaven and Saint Peter said, 'We're not ready for you, Mother Teresa. You are needed in the slums. There are no slums up here'.'
One aspect of Mother Teresa's life that many people would still be unaware of is that she suffered what is known as a 'dark night of the soul' for much of her life. In fact, it lasted from the time she started working with the poor until her death in 1997. Experienced by many saints including St Th...rse of Lisieux, it is a period of spiritual dryness, a sense that one has been abandoned completely by God, that He does not in fact exist.
It is described as an incredibly painful ordeal and the sufferer is often tempted with thoughts of suicide. Mother Teresa wrote to her spiritual advisers: 'I feel so alone. So miserable.... Heaven from every side is closed. I feel the terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing. These thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my soul.'
She even had an exorcism performed on her because the Archbishop of Calcutta feared she was under attack from the devil, after he had observed her in a very uncharacteristic state of agitation. When he offered to arrange the exorcism she replied, 'I am so small I don't think the devil would bother with me, but I want to do whatever you feel is best.'
She kept her inner turmoil a secret known only to her spiritual advisers. Her ordeal was only made known to the public four years after her death. It contradicts the images we see of her as a smiling and serene nun.
Maryanne Raphael's book is a wonderful account of Mother Teresa's life and work. She presents a very human and holy woman. After her beatification in 2003, Mother Teresa's followers are now praying for her canonisation.
Catherine Sheehan is a research officer at the Thomas More Centre.