Mother Teresa on Christ in the Poor by E Le Joly
The passages below are from the book “Mother Teresa—Messenger of God’s Love” by E.Le Joly.
“When you did it to the least of my brethren, you did it to
Mother Teresa sees the poor and asks us to see them in a spiritual perspective, through eyes enlightened by faith.
Poverty is simply an accident that does not affect man’s essential dignity, value and destiny. Every man is a child of God, irrespective of his intellectual and material possessions “We must acknowledge the dignity of the poor, respect them, esteem them, love them, serve them,” she says. And again “We owe a debt of gratitude to the poor. The poor people are great people, most lovable people. Often I think they are the ones to whom we owe our greatest gratitude. They teach us by their faith, their resignation, their patience in suffering. They allow us to help them. And doing so we are serving Jesus.”
The Sisters on returning from serving the refugees from Bangladesh all said the same thing: “We have received from the poor much more than we have given them.”
Many of the volunteers come from various countries to help at Kalighat, also confess, “We are struck by the faith and resignation of the people brought there in a dying condition. They taught us that it is so easy to die: just another action, the last one. They taught us how to die, without effort, trusting in God.”
The poor show gratitude for small favours or services. Mother recalls with admiration that a dying woman I had helped at the Kalighat Home held my hand, and her last word was “Thank you.” One is reminded of the Little Flower dying, saying, “My God I love you.” A last word, a summing up of a whole life, opening a door on an eternity of love and thanksgiving.
The question is often asked: Are the poor as a class morally better than the rich? According to Holy Scripture the answer seems to be: Yes. Christ himself has said, “Happy are the poor in spirit” and “How difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God,” when a young man whom he invited to follow him refused his offer and went away sad “because he was very rich.” To the Apostles who, not being very poor, expressed their fear asking, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus answered, “All things are possible to God” (Matthew 19:26).
In India also, it would seem, the answer to the question would be: yes. The poor, as a group, are closer to God, more detached from human comforts, from material things. Having fewer obstacles on the way, they are generally God-fearing, God-worshipping, and accept what comes to them as the will of God.
“The poor show faith and patience in suffering,” says Mother, “and we are privileged to serve God in them. We can console Christ in his distressing disguise in them, Christ suffering in his brethren?’ The poor are also challenging to those who wish to help them. “To serve well our poor, we must understand them, to understand their poverty we must experience it. Working for them, we come to identify ourselves with them. Our Sisters must feel as they feel, feel their poverty before God, know what it is to live without security, depending on God for the morrow.”
Mother can turn a blind eye to the shortcomings of the poor, at least when she extols their qualities. When an American lady photographer saw her pushing back with extraordinary energy a whole column of destitute women invading the compound to profit by a free distribution, Mother requested, “Don’t take this, please, don’t show this.” That was in 1981. The same scene had taken place several times in earlier years.
Love for the poor is rooted in the love of God. Mother says, “To serve the poor we must love them. In order to love the poor, we must first know them. And to know them means to know God. Then we must live with the poor: and to live with them means to live with God. Lastly, we must give our hearts in order to love them, and our hands to serve them, and this means to love God and serve him.
“But, everything starts from prayer. Without asking God for love, we cannot possess love, and still less are we able to give it to others.
“We must have the Conviction that in serving the poor we serve God. God is love. He loves you and me. If we love others as he loves us, it becomes evident that Christ is in the poor and lonely. The certainty of this reality is boundless for me.
“The poor people whom we gather each day are those whom society rejects and abandons. We try to give human dignity back to these people. As children of God they have a right to it.
“We take great care of the dying. I am convinced that even one moment is enough to ransom an entire miserable existence, an existence perhaps believed to be useless. All souls are precious to Jesus, who paid for them with his blood.”
Sitting in front of an illuminated portrait of Christ, Mother Teresa, on the eve of the New Year (1977) said, “Let us know the poor. This knowledge will lead us to love them and love to serve them. The downtrodden and the unloved could be a productive part of society. They are our brothers and sisters. If they are given the opportunity they may do much better than anybody else.
“People are created for greater things—to love and be loved. Love and compassion alone can remove all divisions and hatred in the world.” “We must thank God for the poor.” Indeed, by loving the poor we love God. God we cannot see, the poor are next to us; and by serving the poor we can serve Christ in them, who said, ‘What you do to the least of mine, you do it unto me.’
There is a double advantage in serving the poor, because as Mother says:
1. “We can give to the Lord who needs nothing, yet accepts our gift gratefully because it is made to one in need who represents him.” And
2. “When giving to the poor, we give to persons who cannot reward us or return the gift to us, so we earn merit for heaven, as promised by Jesus.”
The poor also teach us: “We can learn from them to accept a difficult situation and hardships, to be satisfied with few material goods, to make much of little.”
The poor teach us humility: having little, they feel small, unimportant, dependent, ready to receive;
they teach also to share what we have with others, as they often share with others poorer than themselves;
they teach us solidarity, brotherly love and compassion for those who suffer; they often show a deep attachment to their children, for whose good they deprive themselves of even the necessaries of life. Mother and her Sisters have witnessed and reported some moving examples of parental love and compassion.
Mother loves to praise the poor. She has a special gift enabling her to discover and extol their qualities. Speaking to an audience of ladies, she tells her enraptured listeners, “You and I being women, we have this tremendous thing in us, understanding love. I see that so beautifully in our people, in our poor women, who day after day, and every day, meet suffering, accept suffering for the sake of their children. I have seen parents, mothers going without so many things, so many things, even resorting to begging, so that the children may have what they need. I have seen a mother holding to her handicapped child because, that child is her child. She had an understanding love for the suffering of her child. I remember a woman who had twelve children, and the first of them was terribly disabled, terribly handicapped. I cannot describe to you what the child looked like, mentally, physically, and I offered her to take that child into our home where we have so many like that, and she started crying and she said to me, ‘Mother don’t say that, don’t say that. She is the greatest gift of God to me and my family. All our love is centred on this child. Our life would be empty if you took her away from us.’”
Then Mother turned to her listeners and asked them to look into themselves, into their own family life, their relations with their neighbours, so that we may improve our society and become more perfect men and women. And she asked, “Do we have that kind of understanding love today? Do we recognize that in our homes, my child, my husband, my wife, my father, my mother, my sister, my brother, needs that understanding, that handshake?”
And so through Mother’s and her sisters’ instrumentality, we know better the poor, we penetrate into their minds and hearts, we are all led to be better in our own surroundings.
Yahweh is Tender and Compassionate (Psalm 103:8)
“We should experience towards the poor not pity,” says Mother, “but compassion.” Pity implies superiority; but men are fundamentally equal as God’s creatures. Compassion arises between people on the same level, on the human level, all members of mankind, knowing themselves as such.
St Paul said of the Gentiles of his time that among their worst vices was their lack of compassion—they could see suffering without being moved by it; they could even—what is the acme of degradation—cause it and rejoice at witnessing it.
Would it be that in this modern world this vice taints and corrupts much of our society, when stories of violence and brutality are viewed by millions on the screen with gusto? The true Christian spirit revolts against this kind of entertainment.
But Mother asks her educated listeners if there are not around us glaring instances of self-centredness, of ugly egotism, of sheer cussedness refusing to see the misery, the needs of others?
Christ Jesus had compassion on the multitudes of sufferers:
he felt for the blind, the sick, the maimed, the hungry, the home less, the captive, the lonely. He came to heal them, spoke to them in endearing terms, brought them hope, told them that they counted before God. Yes, they are important, for God who created them out of love keeps loving them. The compassion of Christ, Mother shares. It is his gift to her; the Sisters exemplify it not only in words, but in constant action.
Mother knows the poor and their hardships. Like Christ, like Paul she has experienced poverty, tiredness, hunger. After Paul, she can say, “I have worked and laboured, often without sleep; I have been hungry and thirsty and often starving. I have been in the cold without proper clothes” (2 Corinthians 11:27). Like Paul’s compassion, hers shows an immediate concern for all her disciples, “Does one of you feel a scruple, I share it” (29).
The Prophet Ezekiel when he came to visit the exiles beside the river Chebar, stayed first with them for a week, keeping silence. He would experience their sad plight as exiles before ad dressing to them God’s message (Ezekiel 3:15). The Missionaries similarly have plenty of opportunities to feel as the poor feel, to experience many of their hardships and to bear them confidently and cheerfully. With the Apostle they may say, “I made myself all things to all men, in order to save some at any cost” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
Even without having made the same experience, we can look and see the misery, listen and hear and ponder the tale of woe, and sympathize with the sufferer. My heart can go out to the needy.
The Sisters’ is a compassion that prompts to swift, efficient action. A calamity anywhere in the world invites them to offer help. Floods, earthquakes, the spectre of famine raising its head, swarms of refugees fleeing their land due to political upheavals:
Mother soon brings her Sisters to render whatever help they can.
After the earthquake in Guatemala, even though she hardly knew where the country was located, Mother’s immediate reaction was “people are suffering there, we must go to their help.” Similarly with Ethiopia, where she had been several times and opened houses, “There is going to be a terrible famine there; we must do something about it.” She feels for people she has never seen, because they are God’s people.
The picture that made her world famous shows Mother holding in her arms a small child, looking sad and helpless, having lost his parents at the time of the exodus from Bangladesh. In her compassionate love she seems to feel the pain of all mankind Like all great pictures, it speaks for itself. Like the Christ on the Cross of Velasquez, it requires no caption, no explanation, no com One just looks, gazes, understands, as the picture penetrates into the innermost of the soul—awakening in turn sadness, shame, compassion and desire for such love.
On seeing a picture of herself on the cover of the Bengali translation of “We do it for Jesus,” Mother commented, “They should have put the picture with the child.” She was right. She wanted to focus the attention on devotion to the child, on compassion, on pure love.
The picture with the child in her arms depicts an essential aspect of the vocation of the Missionaries of Charity, namely to console, compassionate feel with, as Jesus had compassion on the multitudes hungry for the word of God, for bread, for the love of God. But it reveals only one side of Mother’s personality. There is another side, another picture, equally if not more human, the smiling face, engaging, befriending, conquering, trustful, optimistic, because God is good, God loves us. The joyful smile be speaks trust, love, hope in the Vision, the joy the Spirit pours into our souls which Mother has abundantly, which she prays for daily and deserves.
The Poor are Hungry for God
Especially when speaking to persons entirely consecrated to the service of God and the neighbour, bishops, priests, seminarians, religious, Mother stresses that “the poor expect you will bring God to them.”
To priests and seminarians Mother likes to tell again and again the beautiful, the inspiring story she heard from one of her Sisters after they had started their first house in Rome. “The Sister found an old man in a small room in a suburb of Rome. She cleaned the room, put things in order, washed him, nursed him, until one day, the old man said, ‘Sister, you have brought God into this house, now bring the priest also.’ The Sister did bring a priest, the old man -made his confession for the first time after sixty years, and a few days later died in the peace and love of Jesus?’
Good actions are the first link of a chain of goodness. “As I narrated this beautiful example at a meeting in the U.S.” said Mother, “after the meeting a priest came to me and said, ‘Mother I had written to my bishop asking to be relieved of my sacerdotal functions and laicised. But now, after hearing what you told us, I have changed my mind. I shall write to the bishop to cancel my letter and state that I wish to continue in my ministry.’”
To Care for the Poor is a Job for Everyone
To care for the poor is a duty, an honour, a favour, a blessing. Some hold nowadays that the responsibility of caring for the poor and the unfit, the handicapped and abandoned, the sick and suffering, devolves only on the State, that supposedly omnipresent, all-knowing, all-powerful providence. Mother Teresa does not think so. The care of the poor and needy belongs as a birthright to everyone.
“Recently:’ she recollected, “I was in Ethiopia, where they have a Communist Government since the revolution that deposed the Emperor. I went to a Minister to ask for land for a hospital that was badly needed, as there was none in the area. The Minister told me, ‘This is a Communist Government, and we believe that the care of the sick and the needy is the duty of the state, not of individuals or groups.’ ‘But you are not doing it,’ I replied. ‘No,’ he said, ‘that is true. So I shall help you to get some land.’ So now we can look after the sick,” concluded Mother.
Again, in Calcutta, at the civic reception given in her honour, after the Nobel Peace Prize, the Chief Minister, who presides over a leftist government in the State of West Bengal, mentioned in his very fine address, praising the work of the Missionaries of Charity, “Of course in a Communist state the care of the poor and those in need should be the province of the state and not of the individual. But considering that we are not in a position to take up the full responsibility, Mother and her Sisters are welcome to help in this work.”
Mother Teresa, replying with great respect and affection for the Chief Minister, made her position quite clear, “I do not agree with the Chief Minister when he says that the care of the poor and needy is the sole responsibility of the State. It is the responsibility of everyone. Every person must be concerned with his brothers and sisters’ needs.”
To the ancient question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” the answer today as every day will be, “Yes, you are. If you have been favoured with more goods, with better health and gifts than your weaker brothers and sisters, you owe it to them to share with them, to help them in their needs.” In a family an elder brother or sister must help a younger, weaker or handicapped brother or sister, everyone recognizes it. But we are all members of the human race. And for believers in a personal God the reason is still much stronger, since we are all God’s children, “the members of his household,” as St Paul tells us.
Objections Against Mother’s Methods
Mother Teresa has been accused of not tackling the problem of poverty at its roots, of offering only temporary and superficial relief to sufferers without putting them back on their feet. On several occasions, those interviewing her have objected, “You merely distribute food to the hungry; what you should do is to give them means to support themselves. You should provide them with instruments; say with a fishing rod and tackle with which they might earn their living.” Mother answered, “The people picked up on the Street or brought to our houses are too weak to even hold a fishing rod; we try to give them back enough strength so that they can hold a fishing rod.”
The accusation of temporary relief is baseless. It misses the point and does not make the necessary distinctions. In the homes for the dying sick in India, the Sisters receive people who cannot even stand on their feet. The first concern must be to return to them a modicum of health and strength. Truly, they cannot be kept very long in those homes, as others need the beds. Once they are out of immediate danger, they are moved to some other institution where they may have a chance to recoup. In other houses the Sisters receive persons permanently disabled, cripples or sufferers from tuberculosis or terminal sicknesses.
There are also food distributions to the poor in soup kitchens; there simple rations are given to hundreds of poor women, widows, mothers of small babies, all living below the absolute poverty line.
Work for the children in the Sishu Bhavans or Children’s Homes proves definitely constructive, as results already show. Those children have good prospects, if they can survive the first months, often critical, for those who have been discarded by their parents, thrown away, or brought undernourished. They are given every help to recover, and most of them do. They will be provided with all they require, and receive as complete an education as they are able to assimilate.
The children are either adopted by couples giving all guarantees that they are able to educate them well and will provide them with a friendly family atmosphere. The adoption system has been well organized: children are adopted by married couples either in India or in foreign countries.
Mother encourages childless couples to adopt a child, for their own and the child’s good. She puts it strongly, “A married couple without a child is not a family—a house without a child is not a home.” Without a child there is no occasion for sharing, for giving oneself, for concern for another, there is no living bond between the husband and the wife. Realizing this, many childless couples are happy to adopt a child and treat him truly as their own.
Some married couples want to devote themselves more fully by adopting a crippled child, one that has little prospects of a happy life. They feel they can lavish more care, more attention, more love on a frail brother or sister of Jesus, weak, handicapped, dependent. There are wonderfully generous parents in the world God made and sustains by his love. Contact with their neighbours’ sufferings, unhappiness or limitations bring out the best in them. They thus develop their full spiritual stature, and become humble unnoticed heroes.
In this spirit a married couple came to Calcutta and chose to adopt a blind child, whom they took back to North America. From the start they lavished their love on the child. Later a journalist succeeded in tracing the family and found that the blind child could swim, sing, play the guitar, and was happy in his new world. Then the question arose which the reader may try to answer: Who had given more and who had received more, the adopted child or the adopting parents?
Those children who are not adopted are put through school. Mother has sent over a hundred boys in the Boy’s Town established close to Calcutta, where they are trained for a job according to their abilities. They remain in the school until they can find a job and fend for themselves.
The girls are sent to various schools; they are not thrown on the employment market without skill and preparation. They are taught sewing, dress-making, commercial subjects, typing and shorthand.
When the Chief Minister came to inaugurate the new building of the Children’s Home in Calcutta, the girls sang and danced for the guests. The Chief Minister remarked approvingly that the Home had seen to cultural activities also. Even weddings are arranged, the expenses of the reception paid and the girls are given a small dowry to help the young couple get started in life.
Poverty Western Style
Mother says, “There are different kinds of poverty. In India some people live and die in hunger. There even a handful of rice is precious. In the countries of the West there is no material poverty in the sense in which we speak of poverty. There no one dies of hunger; no one even is hungry in the way we know it in India and some other countries.
But in the West you have another kind of poverty, spiritual poverty. This is far worse. People do not believe in God, do not
pray. People do not care for each other. You have the poverty of people who are dissatisfied with what they have, who do not know how to suffer, who give in to despair. This poverty of heart is often more difficult to relieve and to defeat. In the West you have
many more broken homes, neglected children, and divorce on a huge scale.”
Is it not shocking that in some countries, so-called advanced, a third of the marriages contracted end in divorce. They break up after five or ten years. What happens to the children every kind heart will understand.
Many people do not accept any moral code, beyond their own inclinations. Their spiritual poverty is far more difficult to cure than the material one. It affects man’s very being, his spirit and his soul. It endangers the fibre of society, its stability and resilience. The disease runs through every class, threatening mostly the younger generation.
Still, even in rich societies and countries there are found many people in need, whether this be due to their own deeds or because they were powerless to change their own adverse circum stances. On reliable information, in 1981 in New York, 36000 people sleep in the open, in railway stations, under bridges, in parks, in packing cases; and that night after night, under the rain or in the snow. They cannot be or do not wish to be accommodated in night shelters for indigents.
In the West there are habitual delinquents in and out of prison; what happens to their wives and children? There are drunkards and dope-addicts. During a visit to Tokyo, Mother’s keen eye spotted a drunken man lying on the wayside. This sight gave her an opportunity to speak to her Japanese audiences of their own circumstances. “You are a rich nation,” she said, “but on one of your streets I saw a man lying drunk, and no one picked him up, no one seemed to bother about him, no one tried to restore to him his human dignity, to bring back to his senses a brother, a child of God.” Mother wanted people everywhere to become aware of the sufferers and the needy persons living close to them, in their own cities, towns and villages.
In the East side of London, the Sisters provide sandwiches grants, jobless workers not covered by social insurance for some reasons or other, and also handicapped and mentally afflicted per sons.
The Sisters in Rome serve meals every evening to old men in a shelter close to the Statione dei Termini. They also go out at night to seek those who sleep in the open that the may give them a cup of warm milk and a blanket when they require one.
In the East side of London, the Sisters provide sandwiches to the hungry. They wished to open a soup-kitchen to serve meals to the poor living in the area. “The local Authorities refused to allow it,” said the Sister in charge, “on the ground that there were already several charitable organizations giving help and that if we opened another free soup-kitchen, the locality would attract more poor people and would soon look utterly depressed.”
In the richest towns some poor persons and many sufferers of painful terminal diseases will always be found, a challenge to sympathy and loving service. And the number of Christ’s brothers and sisters who feel lonely is beyond all telling. So that we may hear the Lord Jesus saying, “When you visited them to cheer them up, to console them, to befriend them, to render them service, you visited Me.” (112-124)