Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta is one of the most noteworthy Catholics in modern history.
Mention her name and images of a small, frail and elderly nun comforting the sick, holding children or kneeling in prayer come to mind. But this little woman was also an inspiring entrepreneurial spirit, a passionate and driven voice for the needy to world leaders and a titan of management!
When we think of people changing the world, many innovators and captains of industry spring to mind, like Gates, Cuban, Jobs, Musk, Branson, Zuckerberg and even Trump. But if Mother Teresa was still around, the little saint from India in some ways could run circles around those guys. Even combined they could be no match for her.
Why? Because she was devoted to her cause, her mission, and that mission was fueled by her love for God (and some would say the love of God). A sense of mission or cause separates true leaders from mere bosses in our world. And love is the most powerful force in the universe. It propels those on the mission way beyond their own limitations.
St. John Paul the Great wrote and taught extensively during his papacy about the “feminine genius”. I imagine it was women like St. Teresa that modeled such a title in his mind.
St. Teresa has more to do with modern encouragement, wisdom or inspiration than many realize. In fact any entrepreneur, manager or parent could look to her story and find great guidance.
If you’re facing a giant or two in your life, you would be hard pressed to find a better mentor than St. Teresa.
All of these revelations only recently landed on my radar. Like most every one else, I was impressed with what I knew (which wasn’t very much) of Mother Teresa. She was one of those iconic Catholics I intended to read more about one day, but had not yet made the time to actually do so, until this past lent.
That was when she suddenly became subject material for me in the most unusual way. Her image appeared in my mind while I re-read and reflected on another woman, from scripture.
The Poor Widow’s Contribution.*
He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. 43 Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. 44 For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”
Bible: New American Bible, Revised Edition 2011 (Kindle Locations 51015-51019). . Kindle Edition. (Mark 12:41)
While contemplating this story, I couldn’t help but see massive parallels between the poor widow and St. Mother Teresa. St. Teresa practically burst forth in my imagination, her image appearing from the text in a couple ways.
For starters, it is St. Teresa’s hand I see dropping coins into the treasury.
“but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”
And since that evening, she hasn’t let me be. It’s like she tapped me on the shoulder, wanting me to write about her. In doing so, I came to realize that this meek, little nun could very well be one of the strongest human beings to walk through our world in the past century!
HER CHALLENGES & MISSION
Raised in Macedonia, Albania, by a mother who stressed sharing things with the less fortunate, Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu (Mother Teresa’s birth name) felt called to the religious life as a pre-teen (source).
At 18 she gathered her courage and left her home to join the Sisters of Loreto, 1500 miles away, in Ireland.
First Ireland Then India
Calcutta, India, or Kolkata as it is known today, is a megacity, comprising an area of only 80 miles but housing over 14 million people. It is the country’s third most populated area and widely considered to be the cultural center of India (source).
Coming out of World War II, millions died of starvation from famine in the late 1940s. Hindu-Muslim violence erupted as factions struggled for power. Marxist groups eventually joined the melee, further increasing the area’s misery.
Almost a third of the city’s population live in slums. Some of the slums are official, meaning they have access to basic city services like running water and power. The rest are shanty towns and makeshift neighborhoods that fester amongst what most people would classify as landfills.
That was the backdrop for “Sister Teresa”, her life and work. Her religious name was inspired by St. Therese of Lisieux. The french saint is often referred to as “the Little Flower” and known for her “little Way” to holiness. That humble, little way strongly influenced Sister Teresa’s approach to just about everything.
In 1929, just a year after joining the order, Sister Teresa found herself teaching at St. Mary’s girls school, for some of Calcutta’s poorest Bengali families.
Sister Teresa took her final vows in 1937, and at that point she became known as “Mother” Teresa. From then on she considered herself a “spouse” of Jesus for all eternity.
It is said that the human suffering and immense poverty of her surroundings really impacted Mother Teresa. On September 10, 1946, Mother Teresa experienced a second calling, a “call within a call” that would forever transform her.
She was taking some time off and heading to a retreat, riding a train from Calcutta to the Himalayan foothills, when she said Christ spoke to her. His presence was felt so clearly and completely that, like St. Paul many centuries before her, the incident would permanently cement her convictions and alter her life.
During the apparition, Christ told Mother Teresa that he wanted her to abandon teaching and work in the slums, aiding the city’s poorest and sickest people.
She said her new mission was to:
“find and serve Him in “the unwanted, the unloved, the uncared for.”
Her conviction was put to work as soon as she returned to the classroom. Having taken a vow of obedience, she had to sell her superiors on her new dream, and persisted for almost two years before beginning her desired work. She pressed on during this time with patience and perseverance (source).
On a hot summer day in 1948, Mother Teresa stepped out of St. Mary’s school for the last time and waded into the sea of misery she was called to serve. She quickly translated that calling and her dreams into concrete actions, to help the city’s poor.
She began a new “open-air” school for children in the slums. “Open air school”. That’s a nice way of saying she had nothing and no place to work, so she gathered children around her and drew in the dirt. That my friends, never ceases to astound me.
She drew. In. The. Dirt.
How many entrepreneurs today display that kind of conviction?
Sometime after, she began going into the streets and picking up the sick and dying from the gutters, those discarded by family and “friends”. Her intent was to give them, at the very least, some measure of comfort in their deaths.
She established a home for the dying in a dilapidated building that she convinced Calcutta’s city government to donate to her cause.
She had only 6 mos. worth of basic medical training. No supplies. She had no food other than what she begged for (source). But what Mother had in abundance of was a sense of mission, and the love of God to share from her heart.
In the fall of 1950 she won canonical recognition for a new congregation, the Missionaries of Charity, which Mother Teresa founded with only a handful of members—most of them former teachers or students from St. Mary’s School.
Though it seemed as if things were beginning to move in the right direction for Mother, there was a new difficulty that afflicted her around this same time. The closeness she felt to Jesus since the train experience suddenly left her. Just as she was feeling validated from the Church for the work she was so convinced she needed to do, she felt God abandon her.
This revelation only became known after her death, when personal letters of hers were published.
She felt a longing for that spiritual clarity from the train. For most of the rest of her life and career, she chose her confidants wisely. She was very careful who she shared what she referred to as, the “Dark Night of the Soul.”
This was truly a mystery and I will share more on it below.
HER VICTORIES & ACCOMPLISHMENTS
As mentioned above, others started to join Mother in her work. She really didn’t have to sell others anymore, selling time was over. She inspired instead with her living example. The love she shared with her patients, students and anyone she encountered was infectious.
Both congregation ranks and donations swelled, pouring in from not just India, but around the world! This in effect threw gas on Mother Teresa’s holy fire.
The charitable activities of Mother’s congregation expanded exponentially, and within the next two decades, she established leper colonies, orphanages, nursing homes, family clinics, mobile health clinics, homes for the dying and those dying of AIDS.
In the 1950’s there were only about a dozen committed souls to Mother Teresa’s vision and work in Calcutta. In the 60’s and 70’s, Missionaries of Charity operations began sprouting up amongst the poorest parts of many nations, including the United States!
In 1979, as the Matriarch of a truly global religious order, Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize.
In the years following that honor, Mother Teresa was often visited by world leaders. The pope and Presidents of several nations, and even Royalty, came to see for themselves how she and her congregation were changing lives. It is said that princess Diana was emboldened to do greater things for charity after meeting and spending time with Mother.
In 1985, Mother addressed the United Nations. The same voice that comforted the discarded and dying in the slums of Calcutta, now had the entire world’s ear!
So what made Mother Teresa so effective, so successful? If you could boil it down, what would it be and what can we take with us?
Takeaway – She lived out her conviction.
St. Teresa was convinced she was doing God’s will and nothing could prevent her from heading out to help the needy. It didn’t matter that she didn’t have access to a vault or warehouse of resources. She acted out of trust in Jesus. It was He who came to her and asked her to do the work.
Resources, schmesources. Teresa had all she’d ever need from the One who sent her.
It’s not enough to look at your surroundings and be troubled at the way things are, like she was with the poverty around her. You need to put your convictions into action.
Takeaway -She used what she had.
She had a great way of summing up her “Just Do It” attitude:
“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.”
Takeaway -She kept it simple.
She was once asked by a reporter what the secret was to her success.
“My secret is simple. I pray.”
On the surface that could be seen as a flippant response. But consider that, in today’s hectic corporate world, how we crave simplicity and focus. Why? Because we can’t seem to get out of our own way and leave things simple. It’s in our nature, at least from an organizational perspective, to complicate things.
But at our core, we crave the straight forward, the executive summary, the bullet points, the streamlined process.
Her life exuded that brevity and focus.
Mother Teresa the WIDOW?
Remember as I read about the poor widow in the temple, the image of Mother Teresa burst forth at me from the scriptures in multiple ways? Yes I saw her hand drop a couple coins into the treasury, but I also saw her face with a look of mourning while doing it. I believe she too was a widow.
I may be getting into theological waters over my head here, so I’ll keep it short.
It’s said that she considered herself the spouse of Jesus. She prayed constantly and in particular, loved the stations of the cross, where one meditates on the passion and death of Jesus.
She prayed those stations daily. She also had the attitude that each sick or dying person she tended to was Christ himself.
She felt an intense longing in her heart for that presence of God she experienced on the train.
Could it be she was so surrounded by death in those slums, so spiritually connected with the crucifixion of Jesus and so heartbroken by the loss of His touch, that she found herself stuck in a state of mourning? It’s just a thought I can’t shake.
Some have theorized that her private faith crisis was prolonged depression, or worse, that she was somehow disingenuous. But I found four points that cause me to search for other, better options.
1) She isn’t the only saint to write about this phenomenon. St. John of the Cross, actually coined the term “dark night of the soul” when he wrote about the noche oscura.
and her spiritual namesake, St. Thérèse de Lisieux, the Little Flower, also at one point toward the end of her short life, suffered from a sense of abandonment. In her diary Thérèse wrote that “God hides, is wrapped in darkness,”
2) As I researched this article I found this amazing insight from author Kerry Walters, writing for franciscan media, who articulated why simple depression by itself, could not explain away Mother’s emotional battle.
“Psychological depression is me-centered; the depressive’s gaze is always directed inward. Teresa’s, on the other hand, was directed outward, to the God whose absence she so keenly felt. Depression renders a sufferer listless; Mother Teresa was always on the go, doing the work to which she felt God had called her. Moreover, dark periods don’t necessarily suggest a loss of faith. Instead, they are recognized in the Christian tradition as periods of great spiritual development.” (source)
3) Among her letters was also discovered a cherished respite of hers, that she wrote about to a confidant, Archbishop Ferdinand Périer.
It was Pope Pius XII who granted permission for the Missionaries of Charity to be founded. When he died in October 1958, Archbishop Périer celebrated a requiem Mass in India, at the Calcutta cathedral.
Teresa of course attended, and later wrote Périer about her experience:
“I prayed to [Pius] for a proof that God is pleased with the Society. There & then disappeared that long darkness, that pain of loss—of loneliness—of that strange suffering of ten years. Today my soul is filled with love.”
4) And lastly, here is a quote from someone who knew St. Teresa, Irish author and nun, Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy. It certainly doesn’t sound like the description of someone who was devoid of faith.
“When I met Mother Teresa…, I knew immediately that I was in the presence of God. She was a woman of extraordinary simplicity, or utter sincerity and humility and of an indefatigable commitment to the marginalized.”
“She was a woman of extraordinary faith, and prayer played a central role in her life. Clearly she drew her strength and inspiration from her relationship with God. Today our ears can be dulled to the word of God. We live in an age of science and skepticism. And yet, people are looking for people like Mother Teresa, people who are symbols of love and compassion, people who have a practical Christian faith.” – Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy. (source)
I see St. Teresa as a David figure for modern times, slaying the Goliath’s of poverty and societal indifference with her faith, conviction and the massive courage she displayed throughout her life. She was a doer who seized her days, and improved her surroundings with grit.
She combined profound empathy and a fervent commitment to her cause with incredible organizational and managerial skills that allowed her to develop a vast and effective international organization of missionaries, helping impoverished citizens all across the globe.
And we will always be better off because of her living examples of the most powerful force the world has ever encountered: Love.
QUOTES (source) :
Here is some direction from this powerful Saint, some marching orders for any mission.
“Give yourself fully to God. He will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in His love than in your own weakness.”
“Speak tenderly to them. Let there be kindness in your face, in your eyes, in your smile, in the warmth of your greeting. Don’t only give your care, but give your heart as well.”
“Peace begins with a smile.” – Mother Teresa
“God has not called me to be successful; He has called me to be faithful.”
– Mother Teresa
“Holiness is not the luxury of the few; it is a simple duty, for you and for me.”
– Mother Teresa
“You must live life beautifully and not allow the spirit of the world that makes gods out of power, riches, and pleasure make you to forget that you have been created for greater things”
– Mother Teresa
I leave you with a final witness to St. Teresa’s power, holiness and genius from none other than Bishop Robert Barron. Here he discusses the power of love that I mentioned at this article’s onset, and how St. Teresa harnessed it, along with prayer, to fulfill her mission. Enjoy friends!