Mother Teresa in The Scandal of India
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.
An obsession with the poor. A passion for the poor. The poor exist all over, but only in India do they take your breath away. Would Mother Teresa have become what she is—the universal symbol of mercy—if instead of disembarking at Calcutta, she had remained at Rathfarnham in Ireland or if her superior had sent her as a missionary to some other country? It’s an idle question. Mother Teresa became a Sister precisely to go to India as a missionary. Her calling was to India, and it came to her early in life, a very urgent and demanding calling that only India could satisfy.
Mother Teresa returned to her native town in 1978, fifty years after she had left it. At the airport in Skopje a crowd awaited her; they had come by bus at the break of dawn. In the front line were the journalists, the TV crew and the cameramen from Vradan Films in the hope of making a documentary. No sooner had Mother Teresa descended from the plane then they all ran towards the tarmac. The people wanted to touch her, to embrace her, to speak with her, disregarding the efforts of the police to restrain them. It took an hour for Mother Teresa to extricate herself from the crowd. She took the time to say to the journalists: “I was 17 years old when I left Skopje. I studied here in the high school but then suddenly I left our country to give help to others. Now I return, after 50 years. Everything is changed, but it is better that way.” As was her custom, she spoke succinctly and somewhat brusquely.
“Suddenly I left our country.” Suddenly, but not blindly. She responded to the call of India and followed that call along the mysterious ways of God’s providence. In 1925, Agnes Bojaxhiu, age 15 and a high school student, attended the Sodality meetings with her friends. The Sodality was a Catholic club that provided recreation, a choir, theater and excursions. One Sunday afternoon the members of the Sodality met with some missionaries who had come from Bengal. The young people did not know where Bengal was, so the missionaries pointed it out to them on a map. They also spoke about the challenges and the hardships of their work and described the natural disasters and the incredible poverty in India. Some months later, a letter from Kurseong, Western Bengal, arrived at the Sodality. The missionaries described the latest disaster: “As a result of the monsoon, the rivers are overflowing their banks. The water carries with it snakes and cows as well as scores of corpses and injured persons clinging to tree trunks. We have held out poles and thrown out ropes…. We have saved some people. Now we are taking care of the survivors as best we can, but we are few.”
“But we are few.”
So Agnes decided to become a missionary to India. She investigated and she discovered a religious institute that was just right for her because it sends missionaries to India. It is the Congregation of Our Lady of Loreto, and its Motherhouse is in Rathfarnham, County Dublin, Ireland. Agnes wrote a letter, asking to be admitted to the community. Later on, Mother Teresa recalled: “At the beginning, Mama was opposed to my vocation as a missionary, although she was a holy woman. She did not want to lose me. Everybody in the family prayed together. One day Mama said to me: ‘I will give you permission; then go.’ And what did she do? She locked herself in her room and for a whole day she refused to see anybody. That evening she said to me: ‘Put your hand in the hand of Jesus and look ahead. Never look back. Always ahead.’ And that it what I have done.”
When she left her home for Ireland, Agnes had just completed her eighteenth year; it was September 25, 1928. She stayed at Rathfarnham for two months, impatient to set out for India, but she used the time to verify her vocation and to study English. On December 1, 1928, she sailed for India on the ship Marcha, and on January 6, 1929, she sent her first article to the Yugoslav magazine, The Catholic Missions, describing the impact that “the land of my dreams” made on her.
At Madras I witnessed the sad spectacle of that poor people…. Many families live on the street along the wall of the city and in the crowded squares. They live in the open, day and night, and they sleep on mats made out of the large leaves of palm trees or even on the bare ground. They are almost naked, with a tattered cloth around their waist. One family was mourning a dead parent. The body was wrapped in red cloth and covered with yellow flowers, and there were colored stripes painted on the face. If our people could only see all that, they would be moved to sorrow for their own ingratitude and would thank God for having blessed them with such an abundance.
. . . .
An obsession with the poor. A passion for the poor. That young girl of eighteen was already committed. Then why did she wait so long before going out to live among the poor? How could she live for almost twenty years in the comfort of Entally with that concern for the poor which long ago had begun to gnaw at her soul? What caused her suddenly to make the shocking decision to put aside the black habit of Loreto and don the white sari? Why did she spend a decade of her twenty years and then almost a decade of her thirty years – the most significant years of life—teaching in the classroom like the rest of her companions? Why did her vocation need so much time to develop and come to fruition? Is this the mystery of Mother Teresa?
These questions were turning over in my mind as I made my way to the residence of the Archbishop of Calcutta on Park Street. And what I found inside did not help me find any answers.
On both sides of Park Street, the most elegant street in the city, entire families have made the sidewalk their home. Their kitchen is an open fire, their bedroom is a tattered piece of cloth that serves as a blanket at night and by day provides some protection against the monsoon rains or the scorching heat of the sun. Their means of sustenance are ingenuous: the women walk around the streets, carrying their small babies on their hips and, with the help of the bigger children, they collect the ghute, the cow dung that is used as fuel for the fire. They place the ghute in the sun to dry and then sell it for 10 rupees per basket. A journalist once told me: “The ghute is the coat of arms of Calcutta.”
The men of the family go to the market to look for discards and then recycle them for their little street stands, putting them in little piles on the ground, arranged according to their “quality.” They sell their products to other poor people at prices marked in daisa, which is one-hundredth of a rupee. Thus, a bunch of grapes will cost 30 daisa if the grapes are only slightly bruised; 20 daisa if half of the grapes are spoiled. There are also small piles of coal that have been extracted from the fires of the ghat, the cremation of the dead. The coal can be recycled for cooking and the prices vary, depending on whether the coal is only slightly burned, half burned or almost entirely reduced to ashes. Then there are the little bunches of flowers that are offered in the temple of the gods during the pujah, a sacred ceremony which even the most wretchedly poor Hindu would not dare to omit. The white tuberose and the red hibiscus that are thrown out at the end of the market day are put up again for sale by the sidewalk vendors. Once again, the prices vary, depending on whether the flowers are somewhat faded, quite faded or withered.
The street-dwellers themselves are also of various types. Some are emaciated but still able to provide for their daily sustenance; others are sick or deformed and have to live by begging alms; still others are in the last stages and waiting for death. Each morning the police vans make the rounds of the city to collect those who have died during the night. Usually I try to avoid these scenes of human misery by keeping a safe distance or by going around the city by taxi. Today, however, I am looking for answers to my questions, so I look at the scenes of suffering as long as I can without getting nauseated. On this day, at least, I do not wrap myself in the protective covering of indifference. I must know how India brought Mother Teresa to the point of making her revolutionary decision.
. . . .
The Archbishop’s residence is too strong a contrast. I observe closely the graceful Bengali architecture and ornamentation, the trees and bushes with their new leaves of brilliant green, the bubbling fountain at which the crows and sparrows are drinking, the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, the lushness of tropical vegetation speckled with dahlias and Canterbury bells as big as sunflowers, the garden of fresh, plump tomatoes. I ask myself, without having any right to do so, whether it is possible to live in paradise just a few steps away from hell. Henry D’Souza, Archbishop of Calcutta, is a heavy-set man with white hair contrasting sharply with his dark-complexioned face. There are two dark blotches beneath his cheek-bone, something typically Indian. He is about 50 years old and he has the dignity of a Brahmin and the gentleness of a guru, which is also typically Indian.
“How can you live here, Archbishop, when the people outside…?”
“Ah, I know well your reaction. It is the reaction of all Westerners who come to India. India upsets people. India exceeds all limits. India forces one either to close one’s eyes or to open them wide and stare.
“Look, I was born in India. No, that is not an excuse; I became a priest in order not to close my eyes. I went to the seminary; I was ordained a priest; I became a pastor and then a bishop. I have always been confronted with poverty; it is the tragedy of India. I am also trying to face it from my position. I know I am inadequate, but God commands us through signs.
“Mother Teresa is a sign and a teacher. She is a sign for us on how to respond to poverty, and her example serves to stimulate and multiply initiatives. I call her Mother twice over.”
I had come to ask the Archbishop what Mother Teresa has done for India and what India has done for Mother Teresa. But first of all, Archbishop D’Souza wanted to explain why he had said that for him Mother Teresa is mother twice over.
“A short time before my ordination to the priesthood, I had the sad experience of losing my mother. She had always dreamed of seeing me a priest, but she was not here at the precise time that her dream was fulfilled. I said to Mother Teresa: ‘Make me this promise: “I will be at your ordination”.’
“I did not count on it too much, because I knew how many affairs she has to take care of during her travels around the world. But when I entered the cathedral on ordination day in the procession of concelebrants, I saw Mother Teresa seated next to my father. She smiled at me and said simply: ‘Here I am.’
“I had known her when I was a seminarian. She often came to the seminary to ask the seminarians to help her in some emergency or other. We were impressed by her total dedication and her promptness in facing up to problems. Later, I met her at Bhubaneswar, about 30 miles south of Calcutta, where she had opened a house for lepers at the request of the government. But it was when I became pastor at Kharjpur on the outskirts of Calcutta that I could really see what the presence of Mother Teresa in Calcutta meant for the poor. I put all the problems of the poor in her hands. One day she said to me, as a kind of rebuke: ‘You always talk about problems. Can’t we find another word to describe difficulties?’
“‘What word, Mother?’
“‘For example, the word gift.’
That’s the way she is. She spreads serenity with her innate ability to pacify, showing that even in the face of difficulties there are reasons for gratitude. From then on, whenever I called her, I would begin: ‘Mother, I want to give you a little gift‘ or ‘”This time the gift is a big one.’
“In 1984 I had a heart attack. Mother Teresa, who was in New York, sent this telegram to me in the hospital: ‘Who gave you permission to get sick?’ Later, when she herself was recovering from a heart condition in 1989, I rushed to her side and the first thing I said was: ‘Mother, who gave you permission to get sick?’ She was in serious condition, but she found the strength to laugh.
. . . . .
An obsession with the poor. Passion for the poor. The poor of India, who are present wherever you go, force you to compare the way you live with the horror of their lives. “Why did Mother Teresa wait 20 years before she went among the poor? Do you have an answer, Archbishop?”
“No, I don’t, but I can offer a theory. Mother Teresa was eighteen years old when she arrived in India. At that age there may be enthusiasm in the heart but insufficient clarity of one’s aims. She arrived in India as a Sister of Loreto, obliged to follow the rule of Loreto. In the succeeding years I can imagine that she was held back by reasons of convenience, obedience or prudence, but eventually she could no longer bear the sights of India.
“India disorients and scandalizes a person. It is necessary to know India deeply in order to understand her. I am an Indian and a Christian, and sometimes my Christianity comes into conflict with my being an Indian. Christianity is based on divine providence, on the certainty of redemption, and on the promise of a resurrection into the peace of Christ. Hinduism rests on karma, and karma leads to fatalism and resignation.
“We criticize the Hindus for not being concerned about the necessities of life or the suffering of others, preoccupied as they are with their individual spiritual search. Yes, they are contemplatives, but they sincerely admire those who perform good works. The Hindu appreciates Christian charity, just as the Christian appreciates Hindu detachment. The tremendous influence that Gandhi exercised over the Hindu crowds was due in part to his ability to make a synthesis between detachment and charity, between mysticism and compassion. Mother Teresa has also made that synthesis.”
. . . .
The central doctrine of Hinduism is karmasamsara, the transmigration of souls according to the perpetual laws of retribution. As a snake changes its skin, so also the human soul passes from one body to another. The soul is a spiritual substance, intellectual and eternal, and it goes through a succession of births and deaths. The previous existences determine it: present existence. In one lifetime, however, the human soul accumulates more debts than it can possibly pay, or more rewards than it can possibly collect. The future lives serve to balance the account.
In the Bhagavad Gita, the holy book of Hinduism, the body is compared to a field. With every human act a seed falls into the field, a seed that immediately germinates and will bear fruit. If one’s actions are noble, there will be a harvest of flowers and good fruit; if the actions are wicked, the harvest will be thorns and weeds. To improve one’s destiny, it is necessary to better oneself at the present moment by deepening one’s spirituality. Millions of seeds were planted in the field of the body in one’s previous life. In due time that previous planting will be harvested and a new planting and harvest will take its place. Consequently, our place in the universe, the tasks assigned to us, our pleasures and pains, happiness and unhappiness, are all determined by karma, the inexorable laws of cause and effect.
It is by one’s own actions
that we merit happiness and sorrow,
that we are reborn as master or slave,
that we contract diseases,
that we receive beauty or deformity….
This is the very essence of the secret of karma.
The knowledge of this wisdom
is the ship of salvation
that enables us to traverse
the ocean of hell.
. . . .
Archbishop D’Souza commented: “The karma is the great compass for Indian life. If today you are a Brahmin, it is because you did well in your previous life. If you are an untouchable, you are atoning for your past. Do you have leprosy? God is punishing you for your past sins.
“Yes, India has changed Mother Teresa. The impact of its dehumanizing poverty challenged her to take up the cause of the poorest of the poor. But Mother Teresa has also changed India by challenging in turn its fatalistic mentality and by defending the irreplaceable value of the human person.
“God loves you—that is the teaching of Mother Teresa. Leprosy is not a punishment but a curable disease. When Mother Teresa bends over a sick person whose body is covered with sores, she does not judge, she does not accuse of any fault; rather, she restores that person’s dignity as a human being. The greater the suffering, the greater the person’s value in the eyes of God, that God who became man in order to take upon himself all the suffering of the world. In every person who suffers, Mother Teresa sees the face of Christ, who became incarnate and, though he was without sin, he accepted death on the cross to redeem us from all our sins. In the name of Christ, Mother Teresa insists that every human life is precious.
“Moreover, Mother Teresa is a master at fostering compassion and stimulating generosity. I remember a young Hindu couple whom I knew well. In preparing for their marriage, they asked their parents and friends to give them the money that would have been spent on the celebration and gifts. They received it and then gave it to Mother Teresa. She asked them: ‘Why are you making such a sacrifice?’ They answered: ‘In exchange for this sacrifice, God will protect our love’.”
. . . . .
Mother Teresa always says: “I hope that whatever you give me will not come from your surplus but is the fruit of a sacrifice made out of your love for God.”
She loves to give little examples: the Hindu child who brought her all the sugar he had saved during the past week instead of putting it in his bowl of milk; the woman who shared with her neighbors the bag of rice she received from the Missionaries of Charity, saying: “They are also hungry.” Then there was the beggar who stopped Mother on the street and gave her the alms he had collected that day. “I took the money from his hands and I can tell you that his face was radiant with joy. I can also tell you this: in my heart I felt that I had received from him something greater than the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Mother Teresa’s philosophy is both simple and profound: the gift should be more profitable to the giver than to the one who receives it. “I do not ask for charity; I have never asked for it, even at the beginning. I go to people—it makes no difference whether they are Hindus, Muslims or Christians—and I say: ‘I am giving you an opportunity to do something beautiful for God’.”
She doesn’t mention the joy of giving, the satisfaction of being a benefactor, the recognition for philanthropy. She seems to have adopted from Hinduism the concept of niskama seva, which means a service without recompense. But perhaps she would state it this way: a service that does not demand a recompense and is done at the cost of a sacrifice. “Give until it hurts,” she says. “True love should hurt. The cross hurt Jesus.” [83-93]