She Captured the Imagination of the Whole World
Mother Teresa was born Agnes Bojaxhiu in Serbia on August 26, 1910. Agnes grew up in Albania, surrounded by wealth and prosperity. Despite their wealth, her parents were models of virtue. They loved each other deeply, and that love overflowed to Agnes and her sister. At the age of eighteen, Agnes left home to join an Irish order of nuns. Later that year, in December 1928, she set sail for India to begin her work as a novice for the Loreto Order. Now Sister Teresa, she spent most of the next twenty years teaching. In 1937, she made her permanent vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and as was customary adopted the title of Mother.
By 1943, India was torn by war and famine. Mahatma Gandhi’s great success in freeing India from British rule had become tainted by civil war between Muslims and Hindus living in India. More people than ever descended upon Calcutta. It finally became necessary for the Loreto Convent to move the children and the school outside the city. At this time, many nuns and whole orders decided to leave India and close their schools, but Mother Teresa stayed and worked tirelessly. As others left, she taught more and more classes, eventually teaching two subjects to eight grades.
She was happy in her work and well liked. By the mid-1940s, her mere presence already had a power that had been born through hours of prayer and reflection. Soon Mother Teresa was appointed headmistress, and she wrote to her mother, “This is a new life. Our center here is very fine. I am a teacher, and I love the work. I am also head of the whole school, and every- body wishes me well.” Her mother’s reply was a stern reminder of her original intentions for going to India: “Dear child, do not forget that you went to India for the sake of the poor.”
Kipling described Calcutta as “the city of a dreadful night.” Mother Teresa was in the capital of poverty, a poverty that most people never even witness firsthand, let alone personally experience. Have you been there? Have you seen it on television? Can you picture it?
This was the world that surrounded the school and this was the world that was crying out for help.
In 1946, Mother Teresa became very ill herself and was ordered by doc- tors to have bed rest for three hours every afternoon. It was very hard for her to rest and not do her work, but this period of enforced rest culminated in the directive to go away on retreat for a month. The intention was that in the interests of her health she should undergo a period of spiritual renewal and a physical break from the work.
On September 10, 1946, she boarded a train for Darjeeling, where she was to retreat. Aboard that train, Mother Teresa had a supernatural experience that changed the direction of her life forever. She referred to it as “the call within the call.” Many years earlier she had been called to religious life (the call). Now she was being called to something more (the call within the call). The retreat provided the perfect period of silence, solitude, and prayer to follow the experience God had given her on the train.
The next couple of years were filled with dialogue between her spiritual director, the Bishop, and Rome. By 1950, at age forty, Mother Teresa had left the school and the Loreto Order, founded the Sisters of Charity, and was living among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. At this time she began a new life, dreamt a new dream. She stepped into the classroom of silence, sat down with her God, and said, How can I help? Over the next twenty years she would capture the imagination of the whole world simply by living the Gospel. Such is the potency and spellbinding power the Gospel holds when it is actually lived.
When was the last time you stepped into the classroom of silence, sat down with your God, and asked, How can I help?
Over the next five decades, Mother Teresa emerged as an icon of modern holiness, capturing the imaginations and intriguing the hearts and minds of people from every nation on earth. Dedicated to a life of simplicity, she gave herself to society’s most marginalized victims. Her love for people was tangible. You could see it. You could feel it. You could reach out and touch it. It was real and living. It wasn’t a sermon or a speech. Each moment, she looked only for the next opportunity to love. For her, every individual mattered. “I believe,” she once said, “ in person-to-person contact. Every person is Christ for me, and since there is only one Jesus, the person I am meeting is the one person in the world at that moment.” Those who spent time with her would often comment, “For the moment you were with her, there was only you and her. She wasn’t looking over your shoulder to see what was happening around you. You had her full attention. It was as if nothing else existed to her except you.”
Contrasted against the unbridled materialism of the modern world, Mother Teresa had an attraction that seemed impossible to explain. The contrast between the spirit of the world and the spirit of this woman was breathtaking.
Years before, the people of India had traveled hundreds of miles, often on foot, to catch a glimpse of Gandhi. Hindus believe that simply to be in the presence of a holy person brings with it a great blessing. Now they sought the company, the mere presence, even just a glimpse of Mother Teresa, a Catholic nun. Like a magnetic field, she attracted the rich and the poor, the weak and the powerful, irrespective of race or creed.
In time, Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the United States Medal of Freedom, and the United Nations Albert Schweitzer Prize. Considered by many to be a living saint, she didn’t allow all the attention to distract her and remained a soul wholly dedicated to a life of service.
Mother Teresa is one of the most beloved women of all time. She was a steadfast voice of love and faith, and yet her power didn’t come from the words she used or the awards she received, and she never forced her beliefs upon anyone. Asked to speak about religion, she once said, “Religion is not something that you or I can touch. Religion is the worship of God— therefore a matter of conscience. I alone must decide for myself and you for yourself, what we choose. For me, the religion I live and use to worship God is the Catholic religion. For me, this is my very life, my joy, and the greatest gift of God in his love for me. He could have given me no greater gift.”
When I reflect on the life of Mother Teresa the questions I ask myself are: Where does this power to love so deeply come from? Where does the strength to serve so selflessly come from? What is the source of this woman’s extraordinary ability to inspire?
The answers to these questions are also deeply embedded in her life. Before everything else, Mother Teresa was a woman of prayer. Each day, she would spend three hours in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Her power to love, her strength to endure, and her gift to inspire the masses were all born in the classroom of silence. This woman believed in the centrality of Jesus Christ. She knew his centrality in history and eternity, and she trusted his centrality in her own life. There lies the source: She placed Jesus at the center of her life. In the depths of her heart, she knew that action without prayer was worth nothing.
Mother Teresa’s story is remarkable, but the story within the story is equally remarkable. It would be a mistake for us to examine the life of Mother Teresa and not ask some simple questions: How did she learn to live, love, and pray the way she did? Who taught her? Whom did she take as her role model?
These questions lead us to a young Catholic woman Mother Teresa never met, another nun who lived in a Carmelite convent in southern France and died before Mother Teresa was born. Her name was Saint Therese of Lisieux. Therese believed that love is expressed through attention to the small things that fill our daily lives. Mother Teresa practiced “the little way” taught by Therese.
This connection demonstrates that every holy moment is an historic event. Every time we choose to love God and neighbor we change the course of human history, because our holiness echoes in the lives of people in other places and other times.
Therese entered the convent at the age of fifteen and died at age twenty-four, but her influence continues to resonate in the lives of more than forty-five hundred Missionaries of Charity (the order Mother Teresa founded) who work in 133 countries today. It is impossible to measure Saint Therese of Lisieux’s impact on history, but it is vast. Each holy moment is deeply personal, but it is also communal and historic. Holiness is not something we do for ourselves; it is something God does in us if we cooperate. And it is something he does in us not for us alone, but for others and for all of history.
Mother Theresa and Therese of Lisieux cooperated with God to create holy moments that had a historic impact. Now God wants to collaborate with you to create holy moments, and who knows how he will use those holy moments to unleash his great love for us all.
From Do Something Beautiful for God
Written by Matthew Kelly
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