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India. Mother Teresa, a message for our times

Mother Teresa will be proclaimed saint on September 5.  Archbishop Emeritus of Guwahati (India), Thomas Menamparampil, traces some aspects of Mother Teresa’s life. “One has to make a bold choice, risk a daring decision and pay the price”.

Having known Mother Teresa closely over a period of four decades, what has impressed me most was her visible sense of compassion, self-forgetful attention to others, bubbling enthusiasm, and unfailing resilience in the face of difficulties.
As a young seminarian, I first met her in 1958 at Bandel Church. Her work was about ten years old and was hardly known beyond the neighborhood. Those who knew her closely spoke of an ‘impossible’ measure of generosity implied in the new initiative. She was young, quick on her feet, and walked to the Church or around the Marian Shrine with a group of young Sisters at an amazing pace. Such an external expression of dynamism was combined with spiritual depth, a profound sense of vocation, and contagious joy. She was a mystic in action.

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The first time I met her as a bishop was on an occasion when I was travelling from Mumbai to Calcutta (Kolkata). All of a sudden, I noticed Mother Teresa sitting a few seats ahead of me. It was  already late, and when we reached Kolkata, it was past midnight. She asked me whether someone was waiting for me. If not, she said, she would take me to the place I was intending to stay. I thanked her for the offer but insisted that I knew Kolkata well and that she should not trouble herself at so late an hour to help me, but she would have none of that. Her Sisters had been waiting for her with a jeep.

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She put me in the front seat, and the Nobel Prize winner and her companions sat sideways like little girls on the back seat of the rickety old jeep. We missed the road, wandered round the city, and finally after ploughing through many circuitous lanes, reached the religious house where I was going to stay. Even after l got down from the jeep, Mother would not move away until the gatekeeper opened the gate and recognised me. As I thanked her, I asked her to pray for me. And she replied “I will”, in a way that I can never forget.

With life and exuded energy

It was on 10 September 1946 while travelling to Darjeeling on the little train, that young Teresa of the Loreto Sisters heard an inner voice asking her to come out into the streets of Kolkata and look after the poorest of the poor. Industrialization had brought wealth to the city, but had thrust a large number of people into degrading conditions. She had only a few cents in her pocket when she ventured on that mighty undertaking which was to stun the world. She accomplished the unbelievable. Though not physically strong, she vibrated with life and exuded energy all the time.

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Mother Teresa never ran short of ideas and always found fresh energies within herself, and from the obscure slums of Kolkata, she won the attention of the world. Her message was always the same: love the poor, show compassion. She related with everyone as she did with Kolkata’s poor. For her, all were equal. She had no other topic for conversation but the needs of the poor. Mother Teresa recognised that seed of greatness in every human being in every human condition. Each person is unique, and every individual uniquely precious. She did not argue the point but established the truth in action, in life. That was her style. In her own manner of communicating, she was eloquent beyond description.

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Mother Teresa’s message to everyone is “Be an adult today, and take on responsibility for the rest of humanity”, as she did. The dignity of the human person implies something even profounder. Is the human being best described as a diligent producer and ardent consumer? Is there a deeper significance linked to one’s identity, for example a call to be an artist, a prophet, a sage or a saint? Can one discover and unveil the hero within? Can one come to understand that ordinary people have a vocation to live extraordinary lives and that greatness is not for a few; it is the calling of all? Mother Teresa has shown from the streets of Kolkata how true such an assertion is. One has to make a bold choice, risk a daring decision and pay the price. It calls for painstaking effort linked with a change of attitude. Change the landscape of your mind, and you will change your life, and you will also change the world.

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Mother Teresa confronts us today with a few more challenges. She says: question your life of compromise, dialogue with the challenges you face, keep close to pain and those who have to live with it. Listen to the message that human agonies have for you. You may be surprised to find, as she did, that pain is a wonderful teacher, that an inner agony can be a gift. In fact, the pains she suffered were not merely linked with the hardships of her ministry, but also with the strains of her spiritual journey in search of God who seemed to be constantly absent. While she was perfectly sure that the work she was doing was God-mandated, He Himself seemed to keep a distance, leaving this much admired nun in deep inner distress. St John of the Cross calls this experience the ‘Dark night of the soul’. Mother Teresa struggled with this deep spiritual pain of inner emptiness for years, and we would have known nothing of it if her diary had not been preserved against her own will. Such an experience can help us to unwrap our cosy little lives and give us a chance to know the secrets of our soul and firmly hold that God is near.

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One of the criticisms I have heard of Mother Teresa is that she was what she was, not what others wanted her to be. They wanted her to do the ‘impossible’; that is exactly what she did. They wanted her to go beyond that. That she was unable to do. In other words, what she has actually done in itself is so amazing, that it is unfair to expect something more from her. For example she has been accused of associating with the high and mighty, not denouncing those who headed unfair structures, and even of accepting assistance from them. Indeed, she rejoiced that there were many who traced injustice to the roots. But she pleaded that her own mission was different, it was assisting humanity where it was most wounded.
I would end with these words of Lao Tzu which apply so well to the great saint from the streets of Calcutta: “The wise shine because they do not want to impress They achieve great things because they do not look for recognition. Their wisdom is contained in what they are. They refuse to argue, so no one argues with them”. But their message convinces.

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