Though most people don’t know the extent of what she actually did, just saying the name “Mother Teresa” can convey the weight of your point. That is a legacy.
In 1928 and at 18 years of age, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu made the life-changing decision to join a missionary order that would remove her, potentially forever, from her homeland in Macedonia, her friends and her family. She left everything she knew so she could do, “something beautiful for God.” What she created over the next 70 years was indeed something beautiful--and far more than anyone ever could have expected.
Mother Teresa spent the first 20 years in faithful service, but in 1948, after repeated petitions, she was finally granted the necessary permission to leave the Loreto convent and answer her “call within a call”. She later remembered, at 80 years of age, that leaving the place of her “work and spiritual training” was her “greatest sacrifice”. Nonetheless, she trusted herself and did something!
September 10, 1946, which is still celebrated annually by her admirers and followers as Inspiration Day, marks the date when Mother Teresa realized what was to be her life’s work: To be a missionary of charity. “I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them,” she explained. Mother Teresa defied the notion that a lone, non-native Indian, non-Hindu woman couldn’t or wouldn’t last long in the most desperate slums of India--particularly without any source of funding.
The Uncompromised Mother Teresa wasn’t guided by convention but by conviction. And by the time of her death, the order to which she belonged, Missionaries of Charity (MC), and its greater organization numbered more than a million members in more than 130 countries worldwide. These people continue to serve intimately others whom society would rather forget.
The numbers are inspiring, but to best understand the real impact we have to realize how she (and, in time, many other MC sisters) lived integrity hour by hour, day by day, month after month and year after year…when no one was looking and no one particularly cared. By her faithful efforts, sheer will and boundless enthusiasm, this tiny, poor, “rather frail” nun accomplished things that were astonishing by anyone’s standards.
When most of us think of slums we picture some rough, semi-abandoned, crime-ridden, economically depressed inner city. The Calcutta slums where Mother Teresa made her home was, by contrast, poverty-stricken--the likes of which most will never see, let alone accurately imagine. The streets of her chosen home were littered with people literally dying from hunger, lepers who had been abandoned by family and shunned by everyone else to die alone and others so diseased and half-dead that they were actually being consumed by maggots as they rotted to death. It was here that Mother Teresa, armed with three saris made of the least expensive cloth she could find, went to work.
Mother Teresa spent her days begging for money or food to feed those who couldn’t even beg for themselves. She would regularly venture out from the sparse room that was her home to find people on the edge of death. Then she would simply embrace them so that as they died they knew they were in fact loved and cared for.
Despite sometimes suffering from great loneliness, Mother Teresa headed daily into the poorest parts of town, committed to serving with a spirit of cheerfulness no matter what she encountered. Imagine taking a vow of poverty, period. Imagine holding a diseased infant whose own mother won’t even hold her. Imagine being filled with such a deep love of humanity and being so open to sharing the suffering of others that, despite being a devout Catholic, you regularly read the Koran to Muslims and Vedas to Hindus to comfort those who are in your care.
Now imagine doing all of this with such joy and love in a place where no hope existed for overcoming wave after wave of tragedy. Mother Teresa responded to her calling not with questions of how—which is where most people get bogged down--but with action. She was so committed to doing what she believed needed to be done that the expression, “What Mother wants, she gets,” became cliché to those who witnessed her determination.
Over time, Mother Teresa would be confronted by the needs of those who survived, so she set up schools. She was inundated with the orphans of the deceased who also needed education and, more, adoption. She took special care to place Muslim children with Muslim families and Hindu children with Hindu families. Then there were lepers who needed treatment as well as love and human touch, so Mother Teresa started a leper colony and a mobile leprosy clinic.
As the work of Mother Teresa and the sisters of MC became known, the Indian government began to help, as did prominent individuals. Soon people were beginning to hear of what this little nun was up to and of the success she was having in not only helping people die with dignity and love but in actually saving people by nursing them with donated medications that were previously unavailable.
Mother Teresa, however, didn’t measure her work in terms of numbers or achievements but in terms of faithfulness to what she did. Maybe it’s not so amazing then to think that, with her supreme faithfulness to her purpose, after a couple of decades she’d opened Missionaries of Charity in the poorest and most desperate locations of cities around the world, each of which was staffed by MC sisters who’d taken vows of not only chastity and poverty but of cheerful service.
The reminder to serve with joy and cheerfulness would be a benchmark of Mother Teresa’s work, from her earliest days alone to her last written notes of encouragement to those hundreds of thousands who carried on her work in the organizations she founded. Serve, yes but all were to serve from love and with a cheerful heart. Having witnessed and worked with people who’d lost their inspiration and willingness to serve, Mother Teresa knew far too well the dangers of turning the helping of others into a chore--not only to the caregiver but also to those being cared for.
In the decades after she was “discovered,” it became necessary for Mother Teresa to travel away from her work in the slums of Calcutta so she could help find suitably humble accommodations for MC locations in other parts of the world. Ever thoughtful of the funds that she’d been entrusted with to provide for the poor, Mother Teresa petitioned the Indian government to let her serve as a stewardess on her flights so money intended for the poor wasn’t used for her travel. She was denied this but instead granted free passages on Indian Airlines as an acknowledgment of how appreciated she and her work were.
So consistently and so faithfully did she place herself last that Mother Teresa was eventually put first in the eyes of world leaders, international organizations, innumerable religious leaders of various sects and millions of other people around the world. She received honorary U.S. citizenship (one of only four ever bestowed), cash grants for her missionary work, countless awards and medals from nations and other institutions, honorary doctorates and the Nobel Peace Price.
During her lifetime, Mother Teresa successfully ushered in 379 Missionaries of Charity locations. She also started scores of corollary organizations globally to meet the needs of the poor and forgotten. With far fewer resources, Mother Teresa effected more positive change in the world than governments and international organizations that were unaware of or unwilling to deal with those she lived to serve. Her integrity to listen and do, her endurance to follow through on what she knew, her courage to do what others simply wouldn’t and the enthusiasm and joy with which she worked all make Mother Teresa a woman still worth following today.
“There will be plenty of time to rest in eternity. Here there is so much to do…” -Mother Teresa