There in the Darkness, Mother Teresa
Anthoni Jeorge Kunnel*
Among India's desperate
The following text is taken from an article written for L’Osservatore Romano by a Camillian priest who assists people with HIV and helps in other charitable activities in Mangalore, India. For six months in 1994, Fr Kunnel assisted the Missionaries of Charity in homes for the poor in Calcutta. He met Mother Teresa on this occasion. This is his story and the outcome of his experience.
When you walk with her, you walk differently because you know that Mother walked with God in her soul. By her words and in her deeds Mother was a treasure of Compassion and she left behind a landmark legacy. My long-standing yearning to meet Mother was finally fulfilled when I was blessed to work with the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta for six months, from June to November 1994. Looking back, I vividly recall those ineffaceable moments on 4 July 1994 when, together with my companions, we met Mother at her residence.
When face-to-face with Mother, I was dumbstruck by her radiant, glowing smile and gentle greeting. I leaned forward and kissed her palm. I never imagined how deeply and completely that event would change the rest of my life. The saint I kissed is my lifelong inspiration. Very gently, Mother picked up some prayer cards from the window of her room and then sat on the wooden bench on the veranda. She signed one of them and gave it to me saying, “thank you for coming”. The prayer on that card reads: “Mary, Mother of Jesus, give me your heart, so beautiful, so pure, so Immaculate, so full of love and humility that I may be able to receive Jesus in the Bread of Life, love Him as you loved Him and serve Him in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor”. Amen. I treasure this card beyond all measure. One need only mention the words “Mother Teresa”, and even today they invoke an image of an amiable person, full of wrinkles, wearing a white and blue sari, walking through the gutters of Calcutta meeting the needs of the very poor. Mother became the crusader of compassion to defenceless displaced people. Mother was one with them, washing and feeding the dying, embracing the lepers, and caring for the starving children.
In the six months I spent in the different homes of the Missionaries of Charity caring for the sick and dying, I could see how Mother’s extraordinary nature of expressing compassion had captured the hearts of all. She rendered lifelong service to the poorest of the poor. Mother Teresa became an icon of compassion to people of all religions. One morning I accompanied a Missionary of Charity brother to give some medicine to a family living under a bridge. As we walked along, the brother noticed a very sick man almost taking his last breaths. Honestly, I had no intention of staying there. However, to my surprise he told me to stay with that man until he returned with a vehicle to take the man to the home for the dying destitute at Kalhighat. I stood there helpless, trying to avoid looking at the man. Shortly afterwards, the brother returned in a car, we took the man in and placed him on our lap. This was my first ever such experience, just as the car stopped in front of the home for the dying destitute, he took his last breath in my arms. There are thousands of destitute women, men and children who have experienced a final fulfilment in the love of the extraordinary services of Mother and her associates. Mother was prepared to care for the sick, the dying, and the thousands of nobodies who no one cared for. Many are the threads of hope and despair that have knit the basket of compassion in Mother’s heart.
Mother Teresa was the youngest child of a humble Albanian family in Skopje, Macedonia. Her father passed away when she was eight years old, and by the time she turned 12, she knew her calling was to be a missionary. She left her home at the age of 18 to join the Sisters of Loreto in Ireland. She chose the name Sr Mary Teresa after Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, and a few months later, left for Calcutta, India, to join the sisters of her community. Sr Teresa took her first vows as a nun and began teaching at St Mary’s School for girls. In 1946, while riding on a train from Calcutta to Darjeeling, she heard a calling from God. She said: “I heard the call to give up all and follow Christ into the slums to serve Him among the poorest of the poor. It was an order. I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them”. Thereafter she set out to establish a community dedicated to serving the poorest of the poor. After two years of planning and prayer, she devoted herself completely to her calling. She dressed in a white sari with a blue border — what would become her religious habit for the rest of her life. In 1950, Mother started the order of the Missionaries of Charity, which now counts more than 4,500 members in 125 countries, and a vast number of volunteers across the globe. Her work with orphans, prison inmates, sex workers, the sick, the dying, the disabled — the unwanted — earned her international recognition, including the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize in 1971, the Nehru Award in 1972, and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
Open to the spirit’s call, Mother knew that it is offered in love and hope, with the same love and hope that led Jesus to ask more of people than they thought they could give. Our Lord emphatically stated his purpose in the Gospel of John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly”. For us as Christians, to recognize the abundance of life which Jesus spoke of is essential to our wholeness. For us the mode of abundant life is modelled after the person of Jesus by his message and the way he lived. Abundant life is characterized by the extension of compassion to all.
Transformation in life happens when one sees for oneself that there is a new way of life: Abundant Life. Mother’s genuine sacrifice demonstrated the way in which compassion has proved to draw God to the sick. Compassionate giving is an important component of, and pathway to, that Abundant Life. It implies a compassionate approach to the life of the other. It means a conscious attention to the condition of the rest of the world. Here is where I see Mother’s spirituality of compassion related to people. In contrast to the general understanding of “good life", it is difficult to create an image of abundant life, for we do not find it easily prevalent around us. Yet, all of us, on the grounds and tracks we walk and run on, experience hints of abundance — breathtaking moments that ring in our hearts and call us to be more fully alive.
The illuminated journey of Mother Teresa from the gutters of Calcutta to the Altar of God is a tapestry woven with the voice of God on a moving train amidst the roar and gust of the daily grind. Visiting families living in slums, nursing those weak with hunger and dying of tuberculosis and leprosy, she touched the hearts of “the unwanted, the unloved and the uncared for”. Mother Teresa believed that no act of kindness is too small to have no impact. She encouraged people to look for the needy in their neighbourhoods, even in their own homes. She cried out: “There is a terrible hunger for love. Find them. Love them”. Hence, abundant life is the life of love, where the heart is full and relationships are rich. Abundant living is a life of greater simplicity and compassionate giving.
I was born in a small village of Shimoga district, Karnataka, and grew up in very ordinary circumstances. I witnessed a genuine example of love, watching my own mother always cook food either for a regular beggar who approached her for food or she would set aside a plate of rice fit for an adult meal to be later given to a beggar/stranger who would walk up to our home. That characterized her relationship with God in the Poor. The two names of holy people that often I heard at home were, Mother Teresa and St Pope John Paul II, whose picture was placed in our family prayer room. One day I happened to read a message of Mother Teresa, in which she poured out her deepest longing in the following words: “If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of ‘darkness’. I will continually be absent from Heaven — to light the light of those in darkness on earth”. Reflecting on this I began to understand this righteous attitude which determined the character of Mother’s engagement with the poor sick. I was truly captivated by the way the Missionaries of Charity sisters, brothers and volunteers cared for the needs of impoverished sick people.
Living a life of love and for love, Mother inspired millions of people to extend compassion. Despite the difficulties of her personal journey, Mother Teresa found the courage and dedication to continue her work with the poor. Even on days when she experienced deep despair and a crisis of faith, she got out of bed, prayed and went out into the streets to help those who needed her. Over the years, she came to believe that this inner struggle allowed her to more fully experience her convictions and empathize with those she wished to help.
*Camillian Religious Priest
Weekly Edition in English
2 September 2016, page 10
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