There is no way to know how many millions of people Mother Teresa reached out to. Perhaps it does not matter. But there was great need in the world, and she was there, writes RUKMINI CHAWLA.
EXCEPTIONAL human beings exist everywhere; sometimes in secret corners of the world, and sometimes as the focus of the world's attention. They give of themselves in whatever way they are able to. It does not matter, I believe, how much they give, but the manner in which they give, with what intent they reach out. And then sometimes, history is graced by an individual who comes and changes the very essence of humanity. Mother Teresa is a name that comes easily to one's mind. It has been five years since Mother Teresa passed on, at the age of 87. Her death, as much of her life, was accorded honours that kings dream of, but to Mother, these glories meant little. Occasionally, she was even impatient with public attention and its demands on her time, each moment of which could be spent loving an unwanted child, saving a life, helping a dying person go with compassion and dignity. She also focused much time and attention on innumerable administrative matters that inevitably arose in the Missionaries of Charity all over the world. In fact, at the time of her death, the organisation was working in 126 countries, and has since gone up to 129. There is no way to know how many millions of people Mother Teresa reached out to and perhaps it does not matter. But there was great need in the world, and she was there.
For years before she died, people had inquired about the fate of the Missionaries of Charity after her passing away. But for Mother, this matter was irrelevant. She believed that this was God's work, and He would provide. For others though, this answer was inadequate, and questions lingered. Recently, I found myself wanting to return to Calcutta (Kolkata). My previous visit had been to see Mother in hospital, where she was very ill. It was the last time I met her; she died a while after.
In Calcutta, when I entered Motherhouse, Mother's home and the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity, I did so with a sudden stab of anxiety. Could things actually be the same without Mother, I wondered. As I walked around the familiar courtyard inside, nothing there seemed to have changed. There was however a bronze life-sized statue of Mother that now stood outside the chapel. One arm was outstretched, the palm facing downwards as if in a blessing. I was told it was a gift from someone. One of the first Sisters I had the occasion to meet was Sister Gertrude, Mother's second postulant, who joined her in 1949. Mother, with a practical bent of mind that helped her in her work through the years, foresaw then the need for a doctor, and encouraged young Sister Gertrude to study medicine. As I sat with Sister Gertrude, I asked if they still received as many visitors as the time that Mother was alive. But even as I asked her that, I saw a group of foreign visitors arrive at the door, cameras in hand. A few minutes later, two Indian women slipped in and made their way to Mother's statue. They both first bent to touch her feet and then grasped her hand, their eyes closed. After a few minutes, they moved to the chapel within, where Mother lay buried in a simple, cemented tombstone. Sister Gertrude said matter of factly, "First they came to see her, now they come to see her tombstone."
In conversation with Sister Lisa a little later, I ventured to ask how it felt to be without their foundress. Her face lit up as she said, "Now that Mother's physical presence is not here, we strive even harder to follow her teachings. When parents go away and leave the children at home, the children have to be even more responsible. And so, we are all working harder than ever to fulfil Mother's dream. Our work is for God, but we will always be our Mother's daughters." While I sat with Sister Lisa, I noticed another visitor walk up to Mother's statue and place her head below Mother's outstretched palm.
The next few days were spent visiting various homes and meeting Sisters and Brothers. At Shishu Bhawan, I ran into Sister Marjorie after years, as warm as always. Conversation quickly turned to Mother, and Sister Marjorie said, "You know, when Mother was alive, we did not see her very often, she had so much work and so much travel. But now, in spirit, she is always here with us. I talk to her whenever I have a problem and she helps in so many ways." Nirmal Hriday, the home for the destitute, ill and dying at Kalighat, has always deeply affected me. For a place where the poorest of the poor come to die, and often in great physical or emotional agony, there is a profound sense of peace and acceptance here. It is hard to walk out of this home without being changed in some way, even for the little time one has spent as a visitor. In myself, I am suddenly aware of more love and gentleness than I otherwise feel capable of. These changes have little to do with me, but everything to do with Mother's own special aura of love. Each ill and dying person is a part of it, and anyone else who comes here is also drawn into it. Beyond the food, shelter, clothing and medication that all her poor received, Mother gave the ultimate gifts of love and compassion; all the things that the world could not, or would not, give. Tending to the suffering body was not enough; she had to reach the wounded heart and the broken spirit within. This, to me, was Mother's power; how she constantly transformed pain and suffering into love and healing. Mother had said of Nirmal Hriday, "You feel the presence of God there, and they [the poor] feel the love they get. Like one of them said, `I've lived like an animal in the street but I will die like an angel,' with love and care."
When I stepped into Nirmal Hriday this day, it seemed unchanged too. Every bed was taken. Near me, a man lay with his eyes closed, barely aware of the action around him. A mere skeleton, he was dying. A drip was hooked to his thin arm. Two volunteers from Europe bathed him and changed his soiled clothes. They were big, strapping men but their touch was gentle. An Indian lady sat by his head, focused on keeping his face free of flies. I sat down beside her and she told me that she had been a volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity for the last 22 years. She came to Kalighat every morning to do her share of Mother's work. I watched the face she was protecting, and could not fail to see the peace upon it. Watching the Superior, Sister Georgina, at work, I did not think she would be able to manage even a moment for me; her tasks seemed endless. But yet, she managed to give me all the time I needed with her. We talked in the midst of a flurry of activity; about a hundred inmates were being tended to by a handful of Sisters and several volunteers. A couple of Brothers had also arrived to assist the Sisters. I asked Sister Georgina if she felt that things had changed after Mother's passing away. "Oh yes," she said. "More and more poor people are coming to Kalighat than ever before." I asked why, and with a twinkle in her eye she said, "Well, now that Mother is in Heaven, she finds it much easier to send the poor right to our door!"
The few days I spent in Mother's world made it clear to me that truly, nothing has changed. No longer constricted by her body, Mother's spirit is all pervasive. Her presence and her power are undeniable. She is clearly and constantly at work, touching her poor through the Sisters and Brothers she has left behind. For me, being in Mother's world is being very close to God.
The signing of Mother Teresa's beatification decree at the Vatican recently is only the papal approval of her "supernatural powers". Her beatification will come into effect only after a ceremony scheduled on October 19, 2003, church sources in Kolkata have said.
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