MOTHER TERESA: THE EARLY YEARS
Leaving the Congregation of Our Lady of Loreto was the biggest sacrifice of my life," Mother Teresa told me. "I suffered a lot when I was 18, and left my family and country to go to the convent. But I suffered a lot more when I left the convent to begin the new experience that Jesus had proposed.
"I had received my spiritual formation, become a nun and consecrated my life to God in the Congregation of Our Lady of Loreto. I loved the work to which the congregation had assigned me at St. Mary's High School in Calcutta. For this reason, I paid a tremendous price by taking the step of leaving forever what had become my second family. When I closed the door of the convent behind me on Aug. 16, 1948, and found myself alone on the streets of Calcutta, I experienced a strong feeling of loss and almost of fear that was difficult to overcome."
The day before she left her convent, the Church had celebrated the feast of the Assumption, commemorating the Assumption into heaven, body and soul, of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The feast specifically exalts the ideals that Mother Teresa was striving to achieve in her new life.
Mary, bodily assumed into heaven, showed us Christians the importance of our bodies. The Church teaches that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and that they will be gloriously resurrected. Jesus redeemed our bodies and souls by His passion and death. Mother Teresa was about to begin serving the poorest of the poor, people whose bodies often were appalling in appearance. But even in these conditions, they were still children of God, whose bodies are destined to be resurrected. Mother Teresa wanted her last day in the convent to coincide with the feast of the Assumption as a way of giving deeper meaning to what she was about to do. She dedicated that day to prayer and meditation on the mission she was preparing to carry out, which would bring life and hope, as Mary's assumption into heaven did.
Thus, Mother Teresa left the convent on the morning of Aug. 16 for the first time in 18 years without her religious habit. She hardly made it to the middle of the street when she was overcome by anguish. Suddenly the reality of her new state in life became clear. She was completely alone, with no house, no savings and no work. She did not know what she would eat and where she would sleep. She found herself in that same terrible condition of those who have nothing— those whom she wanted to serve.
She had to plan her own future. She was no longer part of a religious community, nor was she a layperson. She was still a nun, committed to God by vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. She had only obtained the Pope's permission to live temporarily outside the convent in order to found a new religious order.
She already had a very clear idea of what she wanted to do. The "command" that she received from Jesus was to "serve the poorest of the poor and to live among them and like them."
This tremendous ideal included unimaginable sacrifices. But it was an expression of total love, and for it, Mother Teresa made a revolutionary change in her life.
First she had to choose a habit that would reflect her lifestyle, and that of her future companions. She chose a simple white sari and sandals, which was the most common form of dress in India, and the color most often worn by the common people.
The poor that she would be serving were mostly sick people, covered with sores and often smitten with leprosy. They urgently needed medical care, so she took a nursing course.
To do this, she moved to Patna, in the middle of the Ganges delta, where Mother Dengel and her Medical Missionary Sisters ran a hospital and offered nursing courses. "She was a good student," the sisters at Patna still remember. "She quickly learned in four months what is generally taught in a year."
Mother Teresa decided to live like the poor she would serve. The poor in Bengal ate rice and salt, so Mother Teresa tried to sustain herself for a while eating only a little rice seasoned with salt. However, such a diet did not provide enough nourishment. Mother Dengel's sisters intervened decisively. "If you continue to eat like that, in a short time you will waste away from consumption and die," she told her. "Then you won't be able to do anything for the poor."
Mother Teresa pondered their advice. She realized that she had been carried away by her enthusiasm and lack of experience and that her zeal could be fatal. She decided she and her future sisters would eat simply but sufficiently in order to remain in good health and totally dedicate themselves to serving the poor.
After four months, she returned to Calcutta to the only slum with which she was acquainted, located just behind St. Mary's High School. She had heard many horrible stories about the misery in this slum. While she was living at the convent, she had never wanted to step foot in this slum. Now she decided it would be her home.
She went there on Christmas Day, visited with the women and children, and searched for a place she could fix her living quarters. A woman rented a miserable shack for five rupees a month. This was her first house.
The next day, Mother Teresa's voice resounded in the shack, repeating the first letters of the Bengali alphabet. She had already found five children to teach. There was not even a table, chair, basin or chalkboard in her room, and she used a stick to trace the letters of the alphabet on the dirt floor.
A few months before, she had been the principal of the famous high school located just a few steps away and had taught the daughters of rich families. Now she was in a slum where people lived in misery among rats and cockroaches, teaching the children of people who were nobodies.
The heat was suffocating in her shack: 115 degrees with humidity surpassing 95 percent. Mother Teresa's clothing was clinging to her sweating body; she felt as though she was being invaded by filth. Everything was dirty: the shacks, the paths between the shacks that also served as sewer drains, the people and the rags they wore. On the floor of her shack she saw insects, rats and cockroaches. The children's heads were full of lice.
Mother Teresa remembered her school, her nice bed, the fans that ventilated the rooms, and the clean mosquito nets. She felt as though she had passed from heaven to hell. But it was there in that hell that the poor were living, the beloved brothers and sisters of Jesus, the people whom she wanted to serve. As Mother Teresa told me:
"The change was extremely difficult. In the convent I had lived without knowing what difficulties were. I had lacked nothing. Now everything was different. I slept where I happened to be, on the ground, often in hovels infested by rats. I ate what the people I was serving ate, and only when there was a little food.
"But I had chosen that lifestyle in order to literally live out the Gospel, especially where it says, 'I was hungry and you gave Me to eat, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was in prison and you came to find Me.' Among the poorest of the poor of Calcutta, I loved Jesus. When I love like that, I don't feel suffering or fatigue.
"On the other hand, after the very beginning, I didn't have time to get bored.
The five children that I had gathered on the first day increased. Three days later there were 25, and by the end of the year there were 41.
"Through the children, I began to penetrate those labyrinths of the most squalid misery in Calcutta. At that time, the number of homeless in the city was about 1 million. I went from hut to hut, trying to be useful. I helped those who slept on the sides of the street, who lived on garbage. I found the most atrocious suffering: the blind, the crippled, lepers, people with disfigured faces and deformed bodies, creatures who couldn't stand upright and who followed me on all fours asking for a little food.
"One day, in a heap of rubbish, I found a woman who was half dead. Her body had been bitten by rats and by ants. I took her to a hospital, but they told me that they didn't want her because they couldn't do anything for her. I protested and said that I wouldn't leave unless they hospitalized her. They had a long meeting and they finally granted my request. That woman was saved. Afterwards, when thanking me for what I had done for her, she said, 'And to think that it was my son who threw me in the garbage.'
"On another occasion, I absolutely needed to find a hut where I could shelter some people who had been abandoned. To find one, I walked for hours and hours under the scorching sun. By evening I felt as if I were going to faint from fatigue. Only then did I understand the degree of exhaustion that poor people reach looking for a little food, a little medicine, or a roof for their heads.
"I gave my life completely to God, and He was the one who guided me. I felt His presence at every moment, and I saw His direct intervention.
One day, while I was walking along the streets of Calcutta, a priest came up to me, asking me to give a contribution for some worthy project. That morning I had left the house with all the money I had, five rupees, which amounted to about 30 cents. During the day, I had spent four on the poor. I had only one rupee to live on the next day and the following days if something didn't happen. Trusting in God, I gave my last rupee to that priest. In my mind I prayed, 'Lord, I don't have anything more, [but] I must think of You.'
"That evening a person whom I didn't know came to my shack. He gave me an envelope and said, 'This is for your work.' I was surprised because I had started my apostolate only a few days before and nobody knew me yet. I opened the envelope and found 50 rupees. At that moment, I felt as though God wanted to give me a tangible sign of His approval for everything I was doing."
This article is adapted from a chapter in the new book "Teresa of the Poor: The Story of Her Life" (Servant Publications), by Renzo Allegri. Allegri is a prize-winning journalist and author of several successful Italian biographies, including "Padre Pio, Man of Hope."
New Covenant Magazine © 1996