Mother Teresa in Life is Life: Save it

Mother Teresa in Life is Life:Save it

The following passages are taken from the book, “Teresa of Calcutta,” written by a journalist Franca Zambonini and translated by Jordan Aumann, OP and published in 1993.

Shishu Bhavan means Children’s Home, and it is located at Number 78 on Lower Circle Road, a short distance from the Motherhouse, which is Number 54/A. Life in the Motherhouse is very orderly and silent and it follows a rigid schedule. Visitors are admitted only for Mass or for some urgent need. Of the approximately 200 Sisters in residence, most of them leave the house after Mass, two by two or in groups, and hasten to their daily work. The few who remain at home bid the others farewell at the gate. Every time I observe that morning departure, which is the same in every house of the Missionaries of Charity, the words of Dante come to mind: “As sheep do when they come out of a fold, by ones and twos and threes, and the others stand timidly putting nose and eyes to earth” (Purgatorio, stanza 79). The Sisters hurry to catch the streetcar on Lower Circle Road or else set out on foot, walking quickly, with the customary cloth shopping bag on their arm and the rosary between their fingers. They are going in search of human rejects, obedient to the command of Mother Teresa: “Give me your hands to care for the poorest of the poor and your hearts to love them.”

              . . . . . . 

The traffic in the large cities of the West is an orderly, quiet procession when compared to the noisy confusion on Lower Circle Road. The streetcars rumble down the center of the highway with people perched on the roof or clinging to the windows like bunches of grapes. The four lanes of the street are choked with automobiles that would be rejected even by the auto-wreckers, motor bikes that give off a deafening sound, and blocked trucks blasting their horns and emitting clouds of black smoke from their exhaust pipes. Meanwhile, the trotting men pulling rickshaws do their best to squeeze through the serpentine maze of metal and the ant-hill of pedestrians. It is the only means of transport that can make its way through the blocked traffic. I set out for Shishu Bhavan, the Children’s Home, at seven o’clock; before the sun sends down its wave of humid heat on the city. Kazim, the owner of a snack shop, greets me and invites me to enter. By this time I know the shop well because I have eaten his dalpuries, a type of fritter or pancake, and haluwa, a cold soup made with curry. This morning Kazim offers me a refreshing drink made of anice. He is a Muslim and he tells me that I should visit the little blue-tiled mosque next door, but I always find it closed. Two numbers down the street is the vendor of betel. His name is Paan, and he is already at his stand, which is simply an opening about the size of a window. He is preparing the fresh merchandise for the day. With a pair of scissors he cuts off the glossy leaves of the Piper betel; then he wraps them around a stick of cinnamon, a piece of the areca catechu nut, and a little calcium. The result is a morsel to chew on. It costs only two rupees, a price that even the poor can afford. The benefit of this snack is that it produces a slight narcotic effect that helps poor people endure the hunger that makes the day seem endless.

The Motherhouse of the Missionaries of Charity, as we have said, is an oasis of tranquillity and peace; the Children’s Home, on the other hand, is a whirlpool of joyful chaos. It resounds with the squalling of newborn infants, the shouts of small children playing in the courtyard, and the agitation of the pregnant girls who have been cast out by their families and are here waiting to deliver. A childless couple arrives to inquire about adopting a baby; poor people are waiting patiently in line for a bowl of rice; sick people are arriving for medication or injections. While the Motherhouse represents the contemplative aspect of the life of the Sisters, Shishu Bhavan is an illustration of their active apostolate. It serves as an emergency clinic, a (center for receiving abandoned infants, a 24-hour pharmacy, a soup kitchen, an office for processing the adoption of babies, and a maternity counseling center.

There is already a line of people in front of the gate. The people who sleep on the sidewalk awake at the first light of day. Those who have blankets fold them up; those who do not, take the ragged piece of cotton cloth that covered them during the night and use it as clothing during the day. The men wrap it a round their waist and the women drape it around themselves like a sari. They wash themselves at one of the numerous city fountains. Water is one of the few things that are not lacking in Calcutta, a city built on marshes, frequently visited by monsoon rains, and divided in two by the Hooghly River. The street people use their fingers as a toothbrush, a bit of earth as soap, and a bucket of water for a shower. They do all this in the open, with the drainage canals serving as latrines. Privacy is a luxury of the rich. Now the people are waiting while the rice is being cooked under a lean-to in the courtyard. It is being prepared in huge kettles placed on rocks that surround a coal fire. Sisters are stirring the rice with ladles so large that it takes two Sisters to rotate them. The line of people silently inches forward, each person holding a metal bowl, a dish, or an empty tin can. Each one receives a ladle of rice and then goes off to face a new day. A notice is posted in front of the office in the courtyard: “Interviews for adoptions between 8:30 and 11:30, except on Thursdays and Sundays.”

It is not yet 8:30 and Sister Alex, the superior, has time to read the paper. She shows me an article on the first page of The Telegraph. It states that according to some American scientists, the smoke from the burning oil wells in Kuwait, set afire during the Gulf War, may possibly affect the cycle of monsoons on the Indian subcontinent. That would be a great calamity. Monsoons, like the goddess Kali, can bring life or death, blessing or curse. If a monsoon comes peacefully, it is of great benefit to the dried-up fields; it sustains the rice plants and prevents them from withering; it cools the scorching winds. But if a monsoon arrives with fury, it causes floods that ruin the harvest in the fields and inundate the slums in the city, causing millions of people to flee from their dilapidated hovels. Sister Alex asks me to wait for Sister Mary Peter, who is in charge of adoptions. On the wall behind Sister Alex is a poster containing one of the instructions of Mother Teresa: “I prefer that you make mistakes through kindness than that you work miracles with rudeness.”

              . . . . .

The use of these teaching posters is characteristic of all the houses of the Missionaries of CharityAt Shishu Bhavan, a place for desperate people in search of hope; the posters serve as a source of instruction and encouragement. One of the posters has a water-color painting of two trees: the tree of self-pity and the tree of self-realization. The first tree, painted in an ugly brown color, is dried up and without leaves. On each of its roots is painted a word: fear, resentment, distrust, hostility, guilt feelings. The poison rises from the roots to the branches, which bear the following labels: alcoholism, drug addiction, alienation, loneliness, neurosis. The second tree is healthy and covered with green leaves. Its roots are marked as follows: love, friendship, charity, pardon, trust. The life-giving sap rises to the branches, which are identified as well-being, joy, acceptance, creativity, and freedom.

Other posters contain simple, helpful counsels, for example: “The pleasure of walking”; “Walking is an exercise that doesn’t require a gymnasium. It is a prescription without medicine, a control of weight without dieting, a cosmetic that is not found in a boutique, a tranquillizer without pills, a therapy without psychoanalysis, a fountain of youth that is not a fable, a vacation that costs nothing.”

One entire wall in the office is a collage of photos of Mother Teresa, and on each photo there is a brief comment. In one of the photos Mother Teresa is bending over a sick person at Kalighat and the notation reads: “Love is a fruit for all seasons and is within the reach of all.” Another photo shows Mother Teresa in the midst of handicapped children: “One must do God’s work in his way.” Yet another photo shows the Sisters in chapel: “It is impossible to engage in the direct apostolate without being a person of prayer.” Finally, there is a photo of Queen Elizabeth embracing Mother Teresa, and the comment is a statement made by Jesus, without any irony intended: “What you have done to the least of my little ones, you have done to me.”

              . . . . 

Sister Mary Peter arrives, a short and lively Bengali. She leads me into a second courtyard that is more crowded and congested than the other one. The Sisters’ saris that are hung out to dry form a curtained area in which groups of children are playing, hidden from view. They pay no attention to the young Sister who appears from time to time and scolds them for playing there. But my arrival saves the laundry; the children run to me and crowd around me, crying: “Auntie! Auntie! Take my picture!” They mimic the taking of a photo by making a circle with the thumb and forefinger and holding it up to their eyes. Meanwhile, one of the larger children plays at driving the ambulance that was donated by the makers of Fiat in India, calling to the Sister to look at him. Elsewhere, a small child with big eyes chases after two frightened chickens. Rising above the courtyard is an old villa decorated with colorful tile and mosaics portraying the theme of liberty. Formerly it was the headquarters of a political party but it was donated to Mother Teresa ten years ago. In the parlor on the ground floor there are cribs for the newborn infants, ten in each row. Some of the babies are lying motionless in a state of lethargy; others, only a few months old, have enough strength to hold out their thin arms. Many of these babies were picked up from the gutter or discovered in a pile of rubbish; others were abandoned and left in front of the police station, and the police brought them here. More than half of these infants die, either because they are premature births or are the result of a late abortion.

There is such a strong instinctual need for love in these abandoned infants that even if they are only a few months old, they will follow you with their eyes and hold out their arms to be picked up and held. However, a notice on the wall warns visitors: “Remove your shoes. Do not pick up the infants. Do not kiss them.” Moving among the cribs, carrying diapers and rubber toys, are a few Missionaries of Charity and the Indian ladies who help them. Sister Mary Peter gave me this information about adoptions:

“The couples who want to adopt a baby can choose a boy or a girl. The Indians prefer a male; the Westerners prefer a female. For an Indian family, a male gives promise of later assistance to the family; for the Westerners, the female is a source of affection. Another preference of adopting couples is for the youngest and smallest infant, although in the end they are usually willing to forego that preference.

“We have had generous couples who adopted handicapped babies, but we keep the severely handicapped ones. We take care of them and some of them do make some progress. We have had some blind children and some with deformed legs who have been operated on and then let out for adoption. One can ask generosity of adopting parents, but not heroism. Still there have been some who were heroic. For example, a couple from Switzerland adopted an infant who had to have its blood changed every three months. The baby is now two years old; it is cured and is much loved. We are able to follow the baby’s progress through the photos that the mother sends to us regularly.

In 1990 we gave out 97 babies for adoption by Indian couples and 208 by European families. The procedure is simple. The request is made at one of our houses in the nation of residence of the adopting parents. That’s where the process begins, and there must be a verification that the petitioners are qualified to adopt a baby. The following factors must be investigated: the health of the prospective parents, their financial situation and their ability to raise a child. The results are sent to the court for minors and in the meantime we send to the petitioners two or three photos of babies that are eligible for adoption. We also send some information about the baby: name, date of birth, and why the baby was abandoned. Usually it takes three or four months from the beginning of the process until the baby is handed over. Then it is better if the adopting parents can come to get the baby; otherwise we send the baby to them with one of our Sisters who is travelling to that place.

“A few days ago Mother and three Sisters left for Rome and they took four infants to Italian families. Two weeks ago an Italian couple who had already adopted one of our infants came back here and adopted a nine-year-old girl who had been abandoned at Darjeeling.”

              . . . . .

In the waiting room for adopting parents the “Hymn to Life” is posted on the wall:

Life is an opportunity; seize it. 

Life is beauty; admire it. 

Life is a dream; realize it. 

Life is a duty; fulfill it. 

Life is a game; play it.

Life is a mystery; know it.

Life is a promise; keep it. 

Life is sorrow; surmount it. 

Life is a song; sing it. 

Life is a struggle; fight it.

Life is an adventure; challenge it.

I don’t know who composed this hymn to life; it seems to come out of the Anglo-Saxon culture, which is greatly attracted to this style of writing. Mother Teresa has added to the list in her own hand:

Life is life; save it.

              . . . . .

Mother Teresa is a specialist in human suffering and misery. I believe that no other person has ever seen as much horror and suffering as she has. In spite of this, Mother Teresa remains a lover of life. When they gave her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she gave what was for her an unusually long speech, and the central part of her message was dedicated to the defense of life.

“We combat abortion with adoption. We have saved thousands of lives. We circulate this message in hospitals, clinics and police stations: ‘Please, do not kill the infant before it is born. Entrust it to us.’ As a result, every hour of the day and night there is always somebody—as you know, there are many unmarried mothers among us—to whom we can say: ‘Come, we will take care of you; we will hold the baby that will be born of you; we will give it a family.’ And we have an enormous number of requests from couples that have no children. This is a blessing of the Lord for us.” The poet, Rabindranath Tagore, the sweet singer of Bengal, has written:

 “Every baby that is born

  brings with it the hope

  that God is no longer

  disappointed with man.” [53-60]

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