In1979, Professor John Sanness, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, gave the award ceremony speech for that year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner – Mother Teresa:
“In awarding Nobel's Peace Prize for 1979 to Mother Teresa the Committee has posed a focal question that we encounter along all these paths: Can any political, social, or intellectual feat of engineering, on the international or on the national plane, however effective and rational, however idealistic and principled its protagonists may be, give us anything but a house built on a foundation of sand, unless the spirit of Mother Teresa inspires the builders and takes its dwelling in their building?
Mother Teresa was born into an Albanian Roman Catholic family in the Yugoslavian town of Skopje. She relates that at the age of twelve she felt a vocation to help the poor. A few years later she listened to accounts of conditions in Bengal, as related by missionaries, and decided there and then that she would work as a missionary in India. At the age of eighteen she joined the Irish Loreto order, whose sisters ran a mission station in Calcutta. From 1929 to 1946 she taught at the girls' school run by the order in that city.
It was in 1946 that she applied for permission to go out and work among the poor in the slums of the city. She felt this to be a fresh vocation, a vocation within a vocation, as she herself has expressed it.
She had a glimpse of the poverty and squalor of the slums, of sick people who remained untended, of lonely men and women lying down to die on the pavement, of the thousands of orphaned children wandering around with no one to care for them.
It was among these people that she felt a call to work, and to spend the rest of her life, in daily contact with them. She left the sheltered world of the convent and the fashionable girls' school behind her. Her plea to be allowed to go out into the slums and work there was granted. In 1948 she received permission to change from the uniform of the Loreto order to the customary cheap Indian sari. She started her work after an intensive course in nursing.
She was joined by a number of former pupils and other young women. In 1948 this little local community was recognised as a new, separate order, the Missionaries of Charity. In addition to the customary convent vows, a fourth promise, "to give wholehearted, free service to the very poorest", was added.
Fifteen years later, in 1965, Mother Teresa's order was recognised as a papal congregation under the protection of the Vatican. In the years that had elapsed the Missionaries of Charity had witnessed a growth that no one could have foreseen, and which was to continue. In time, more and more women, Indian as well as foreign, volunteered for this service, and were recruited into the order. It also received the support of an auxiliary organisation consisting of male lay helpers. Its activities include slum schools, homes for orphaned children, mobile clinics, leprosy centres, hostels for the dying, food kitchens, vocational training, and much else besides….
The Committee has attached decisive importance to the spirit that has permeated this work. This has been Mother Teresa's fundamental contribution to the order she has created and run. This it is that explains both why so many people should flock to join the order, and the interest and respect she has encountered throughout the world. This springs from Mother Teresa's own fundamental attitude to life and her very special personality….
The hallmark of her work has been respect for the individual and the individual's worth and dignity. The loneliest and the most wretched, the dying destitute, the abandoned lepers, have been received by her and her Sisters with warm compassion devoid of condescension, based on this reverence for Christ in Man….
Mother Teresa has personally succeeded in bridging the gulf that exists between the rich nations and the poor nations. Her view of the dignity of man has built a bridge. Unencumbered and naturally she has crossed the gulf by means of this bridge...”
On Tuesday, September 10, 1946 Mother Teresa was on her way to a much-needed retreat at the Loreto Convent in Darjeeling, a small town in the foothills of the Himalayas. While on the train to Darjeeling, Mother Teresa experienced what can be described as “a decisive mystical encounter with Christ.” Though she never revealed the entirety of her experience, she later described:
“[It] was a call within my vocation. It was a second calling. It was a vocation to give up even Loreto where I was very happy and to go out in the streets to serve the poorest of the poor. It was in that train, I heard the call to give up all and follow Him into the slums – to serve Him in the poorest of the poor…. I knew it was His will and that I had to follow Him. There was no doubt that it was going to be His work.”
Mother Teresa followed her Calling with the most steadfast conviction for the rest of her life. However, the challenges she faced caused her tremendous grief, and her private correspondence reveals her deeply human nature, and the pain, doubt and emptiness that hid from everyone except her closest confidants.
In February of 1949, three years after she received her Calling, Mother Teresa wrote of these internal struggles:
“Today I learned a good lesson – the poverty of the poor must often be so hard for them. When I went rounding looking for a home – I walked and walked till my legs and my arms ached – I thought how they must also ache in body and soul looking for home – food – help. Then the temptation grew strong – the palace buildings of Loreto came rushing into my mind – all the beautiful things and comforts…. ‘You have only to say a word and all that will be yours again’ – the tempter kept on saying.” But she continues on: “Of [my] free choice My God and out of love for you – I desire to remain and do what ever be Your Holy Will in my regard. – I did not let a single tear come. – Even if I suffer more than now – I still want to do Your Holy Will…. My God give me courage now – this moment – to persevere in following your call.”
On July 3, 1959, Father Picachy, one of Mother Teresa’s overseers and confidants, received a letter from her. It contained one of the most detailed, intimate descriptions of her experience of darkness, written as a prayer:
“In the darkness…
Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The child of your love – and now become as the most hated one – the one You have thrown away as unwanted – unloved. I call, I cling, I want – and there is no One to answer – no One on Whom I can cling – no, No One. –Alone. The darkness is so dark – I am alone. –Unwanted, forsaken. –The loneliness of the heart that wants love is unbearable. –Where is my faith? –even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness & darkness. –My God – how painful is this unknown pain. It pains without ceasing. –I have no faith. –I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd my heart –& make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me – I am afraid to uncover them – because of the blasphemy – If there be God, –please forgive me. –Trust that all will end in Heaven with Jesus. –When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven – there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. –Love – the word – it brings nothing. –I am told God loves me – and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Before the work started – there was so much union – love – faith – trust – prayer – sacrifice. –Did I make the mistake in surrendering blindly to the call of the Sacred Heart? The work is not a doubt – because I am convinced that it is His not mine. –I don’t feel – not even a single simple thought or temptation enters my heart to claim anything in the work.
The whole time smiling – Sisters & people pass such remarks. –They think my faith, trust & love are filling my very being & that the intimacy with God and union to His will must be absorbing my heart. –Could they but know – and how my cheerfulness is the cloak by which I cover the emptiness & misery.
In spite of all – this darkness & emptiness is not as painful as the longing for God. –The contradiction I fear will unbalance me. –What are You doing My God to one so small? When You asked to imprint Your Passion on my heart – is this the answer?
If this brings You glory, if You get a drop of joy from this – if souls are brought to You – if my suffering satiates Your Thirst – here I am Lord, with joy I accept all to the end of life –& I will smile at Your Hidden Face – always.”
A Global Wish for Peace
Despite her personal anguish, Mother Teresa’s active advocacy for those in great need, for peace, and for the unconditional upholding of human dignity never wavered. During her lifetime Mother Teresa opened 517 Missionaries of Charity houses in over 100 countries. Her outreach and notoriety made her a reluctant celebrity, but she used her influence repeatedly to attempt to sway world leaders into alignment with peace. Here is one such example in the context of a very recognizable crisis:
January 2, 1991
Dear President George Bush and President Saddam Hussein,
I come to you with tears in my eyes and God’s love in my heart to plead to you for the poor and those who will become poor if the war that we all dread and fear happens. I beg you with my whole heart to work for, to labour for God’s peace and to be reconciled with one another.
You both have your cases to make and your people to care for but first please listen to the One who came into the world to teach us peace. You have the power and the strength to destroy God’s presence and image, His men, His women, and His children. Please listen to the will of God. God has created us to be loved by His love and not to be destroyed by our hatred.
In the short term there may be winners and losers in this war that we all dread, but that never can, nor never will justify the suffering, pain and loss of life which your weapons will cause.
I come to you in the name of God, the God what we all love and share, to beg for the innocent ones, our poor of the world and those who will become poor because of war. They are the ones who will suffer most because they have no means of escape. I plead on bended knee for them. They will suffer and when they do, we will be the ones who are guilty for not having done all in our power to protect and love them. I plead to you for those who will be left orphaned, widowed, and left alone because their parents, husbands, brothers and children have been killed. I beg you please save them. I plead for those who will be left with disability and disfigurement. They are God’s children. I plead for those who will be left with no home, no food and no love. Please think of them as being your children. Finally, I plead for those who will have the most precious thing that God can give us, life, taken away from them. I beg you to save our brothers and sisters, yours and ours, because they are given to us by God to love and to cherish. It is not for us to destroy what God has given to us. Please, please let your mind and your will become the mind and will of God. You have the power to bring war into the world or to build peace. PLEASE CHOOSE THE WAY OF PEACE.
I, my sisters and our poor are praying for you so much. The whole world is praying that you will open your hearts in love to God. You may win the war but what will the cost be on people who are broken, disabled and lost.
I appeal to you – to your love, your love of God and your fellow men. In the name of God and in the name of those you will make poor, do not destroy life and peace. Let love and peace triumph and let your names be remembered for the good you have done, the joy you have spread and the love you have shared.
Please pray for me and my sisters as we try to love and serve the poor because they belong to God and are loved in His eyes, as we and our poor are praying for you. We pray that you will love and nourish what God has so lovingly entrusted into your care.
May God bless you now and always.
God bless you,
M. Teresa, M.C.
Mother Teresa: Saint of the Earth
Mother Teresa once said: “In these twenty years of work among the people, I have come more and more to realise that it is being unwanted that is the worst disease that any human being can ever experience.” Mother Teresa suffered greatly. But she often said that it was her suffering that brought her closer to God, and better enabled her to carry out His work. She also felt that, in some way, her suffering strengthened her connection with those whom she worked most closely – those who most struggled with material, social and spiritual poverty. She did everything she could to ensure that nobody she met ever felt unwanted...
Professor Sanness concluded his Nobel Award Ceremony speech by paying tribute to the breadth of influence of Mother Teresa’s work and spirit:
“In our endeavours, on the national as on the international level, we have a lesson to learn from [Mother Teresa’s] work for individuals in distress. On the international level our efforts can only serve the cause of peace if they do not offend the self-respect of the poor nations. All aid given by the rich countries must be given in the spirit of Mother Teresa….
There would be no better way of describing the intentions that have motivated the decision of the Norwegian Nobel Committee than the comment of the President of the World Bank, Robert MacNamara, when he declared: ‘Mother Teresa deserves Nobel's Peace Prize because she promotes peace in the most fundamental manner, by her confirmation of the inviolability of human dignity’.”
Before her death, Mother Teresa made a public pledge, a promise of peace and guidance to all of us, and a further symbol of the omnipresence of her humanity: “If I ever become a Saint – I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven – to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”
Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C., Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta” (New York: Doubleday, 2007) 39.