Saint Teresa of Kolkata wasn’t just humble and kind. Her faith demanded a depth of courage few can fathom. She was bold, daring, and very much in the thick of it; she didn’t shirk the ugly realities of this world but carried the grotesquely abused and broken in her arms.
She wasn’t always welcome everywhere she went—what could one little nun do for anyone? Rather than looking to our critics to determine if our work is worthwhile, we have the opportunity to face needs in our midst and strive to do what is in our limited power. Every effort made in charity has the potential for vast impact, as she stated: “The moment we give it to God it becomes something infinite.” She was also a great entrepreneur—starting with nothing and building one of the most impactful and holy enterprises of the 20th century. This article will explore some of the ingredients of how she did it.
How was this tiny woman so resilient and effective?
As of 2020, the Missionaries of Charity have over 5,200 members serving in over 700 houses across more than 130 countries. They have served millions of people directly, and by their testimonies and prayer, billions indirectly. But to suggest that St. Teresa was consoled by these numbers would be very wrong indeed.
Early Life and Budding Gifts
Moved to do missionary work as a young woman, St. Teresa left Skopje in Macedonia at the age of 18 to join the Sisters of Loretto, a missionary congregation of sisters based in Ireland. She was soon assigned a teaching position in Calcutta, and there she worked diligently for nearly twenty years. The community there marveled at her “charity, unselfishness, and courage, her capacity for hard work and a natural talent for organization,” and she became a guiding light among her colleagues and students, eventually being appointed principal of the school. 1
Starting with the Need
Before she was St. Teresa or even Mother Teresa, she was Sister Teresa with the Sisters of Loreto in Calcutta. As a teacher, she had one day off a week from teaching, during which she was allowed to catch up on rest, prayer, and other tasks to rejuvenate her for the work of teaching children, administering the school and cleaning the convent. Most of the other sisters in the convent took advantage of this time to read, catch up on correspondence, and rest. The sisters, mostly from Ireland and other parts of Europe, lived in a convent that was simple by European standards but would be considered somewhat luxurious relative to their surroundings. It was the 1940s in Calcutta, India, one of the densest pockets of poverty on the planet. During the early 1940s, the city faced indirect economic and civic fallout from World War II. From 1942 to 1943, the Bengali famine took the lives of at least 2 million people and untold wasted bodies flooded the Calcutta streets in search of food and livelihood.
Sister Teresa faced destitution and graphic poverty each day as she walked from St. Teresa’s Primary School, where she taught middle class girls, to the convent. Her students were by no means wealthy but at least they could attend school, which was better than most. She was assigned to Calcutta in 1931 and had served dutifully in schools and administrative roles with the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish missionary congregation. But she yearned to do more for the extreme poor of the streets of Calcutta, the untouchables as they are known in the brutally stratified caste system.
Moved by the incredible poverty and need around her, Sister Teresa began going to the slum areas of Calcutta known as the bustees to visit with the extremely poor. These were not the poor who came to the school who had a place to sleep and a regular meal, but the ones hidden in makeshift encampments beside roads and train tracks, the ones no else wanted to see. Though difficult for her, she eventually made a habit of these weekly visits. She came to see the plight and struggle but also the generosity and joys of the very poor. She came to love them not as a vague collection of “poor people out there” but as the mother who shared rice with her neighbor, as the boy who could not afford school and whose leg infection only got worse. Sr. Teresa would bring rice to this mother and ointment to this boy. These visits continued for years. Something was building within Sr. Teresa to do more for her destitute friends.
“Call within the Call”
It was in 1946 that St. Teresa received her “call within a call,” a direct revelation from Christ to found the Missionaries of Charity. Of course, Christ found in her a ready and willing spirit, and with the same energy she had brought to teaching she turned to this new task of embracing Christ in the poor. Perhaps it seems she had a late start on her life’s work, but her years with the Sisters of Loretto were a crucial period of formation, and the joy she experienced as a teacher sustained her in the trials to come.
Many Catholics are aware that St. Teresa experienced a dark night of the soul, in which she experienced torturous loneliness and paralyzing depression. But few realize that she entered into this night as she founded the community and remained within its shadowy folds until her death.
It took two years for Christ’s private intimation regarding the Missionaries of Charity to meet with the approval of the bishop in Calcutta. When St. Teresa eventually walked out of the Sisters of Loreto in 1948 to found the Missionaries of Charity, she had five rupees, no medical training, and a natural aversion to the grotesque—not necessarily the set one would hope for in such a pursuit! She leaned into her tried and true work ethic, took nursing classes, and trusted that the Lord would accomplish His work through her.
For two more years, Mother Teresa ministered to the poor alone before former students joined her. It was another two years before the Diocese recognized their congregation, and another two years until the Missionaries of Charity founded the first house to serve the dying. Consider that it took almost six years before she founded the first established location of the Missionaries of Charity—a seeming eternity for any entrepreneur! The vast enterprise and global recognition of her work, thus, had very humble beginnings and she was schooled in the path of patience.
Ingredients to Sustain the Mission
- Love of Jesus: “I Thirst”
Perhaps more than anyone or anything else, when St. Teresa spoke, she spoke about Jesus. She spoke of her love for Jesus, her offering to Jesus, her strength derived from Jesus. “All for Jesus” she would often say. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, she spoke of Him. In her conversations with the dying men and women of the Kolkata slums, she spoke of Him. She had a deep and mystical insight into Jesus on the cross. In each Missionary of Charity chapel throughout the world, there’s a large crucifix with the words “I Thirst” written beneath. These two words uttered by Jesus from the cross became a spiritual battle cry for the Missionaries of Charity.
Mother Teresa wanted, through her work and the lives of her sisters, to satiate Christ’s thirst for love, thirst for souls. What one cannot do for oneself or for a “cause”, one can do for love. Because of this deep love undergirded by faith, Mother Teresa allowed love to carry her to untold places of sacrifice, self-gift, and mercy. This love for Jesus was not a platitude or Valentine-shaped heart. But rather an abandonment to give to others in the midst of emptiness and despite the void of not feeling the warm sensation of love.
- Community “horarium”
The communities have adhered closely to the schedule that St. Teresa established, allowing neither work nor recreation to dominate their day, but following her example in prayer and rest. No matter where she was in the world and how much work she had to do, St. Teresa set apart three hours every day to spend in prayer—before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, if she could manage to find Him. She writes on the importance of taking time to listen to Christ:
“Until you can hear Jesus in the silence of your own heart, you will not be able to hear Him saying “I thirst” in the hearts of the poor. Never give up this daily intimate contact with Jesus as the real living person—not just the idea. How can we last even one day without hearing Jesus say “I love you”—impossible. Our soul needs that as much as the body needs to breathe air. If not, prayer is dead—meditation only thinking. Jesus wants you to each hear Him—speaking in the silence of your heart.”2
The Missionaries of Charity maintain a harmonious integration of:
- Sacraments and prayer
- Recreation and community
This daily, integrated rhythm of life helped to sustain her and the sisters for the long-term. They were rejuvenated for mission through prayer, community, and times for rest. Serving the poor was not a burnout sprint but a lifelong marathon of love.
- Support: Intercession of Our Lady and the Saints
Saint Teresa also turned to the saints for intercession and inspiration. She admired the portrait of her patron, Saint Therese of Liseux, every time she walked into her bedroom in Calcutta and reflected regularly on her humility and boldness. Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s daily examen strengthened her ability to recognize the good things God was doing in her life and how she was responding to Him. This dialogue between her heart and Christ allowed her to be sensitive to His desires. St. Teresa had a particularly strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom she asked, “Keep me in your most pure heart”. St. Teresa summarizes the importance of a relationship with Our Mother in the following way:
“Our Lady was the first person to hear Jesus’ cry “I Thirst” with St. John, and I am sure Mary Magdalen. Because Our Lady was there on Calvary, she knows how real, how deep is His longing for you and for the poor. Do we know? Do we feel as she? Ask her to teach… Her role is to bring you face to face, as John and Magdalen, with the love in the Heart of Jesus crucified. Before it was Our Lady pleading with Mother, now it is Mother in her name pleading with you—“listen to Jesus’ thirst.”3
The Vows and “Word of Honor”
In St. Teresa’s Albanian culture, “besa,” meaning “word of honor” or “to keep one’s promise,” demanded that people honor their commitments. More specifically, it meant that if you gave your word to someone, you gave yourself.4 Thus, St. Teresa didn’t approach her relationship with Christ as a mere contract of goods but a private self-gift very much embedded in her daily behavior. Of course, St. Teresa held her religious vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and wholehearted service to the poorest of the poor in the highest estimations. She and the Sisters renewed their promises daily.
“Be the One”
Another important lesson that St. Teresa emphasized in her communications with the Missionaries of Charity was that they respond to Christ in Psalm 68:
“My heart had expected reproach and misery. And I looked for one that would grieve together with me, and there was none: and I sought one that would console me, and I found none.”
Everyday we choose to ignore or embrace Christ—consider Him as if He was standing in front of you, the first face you see every morning. Will you do what you can with any given day to be the one?
Sharing in Saint Teresa’s work
The Missionaries of Charity’s work is hard, physically and emotionally. They continue to invite volunteers to join them in their day-to-day routine around the world. With the Missionaries of Charity, one experiences the wear and tear of manual labor, confrontation with physical and psychological illness, and spiritual dryness that often accompanies such discipline and denial of self. Of course, on top of this, the sufferings of the dark night of the spirit plagued St. Teresa. Like everyone else, St. Teresa could not make herself so busy that her pain was buried, and she couldn’t just pray it away.
After eleven years in the dark night of the spirit, St. Teresa experienced a moment of relief, and light broke into her darkness. She wrote: “For the first time in these eleven years, I have come to love the darkness. For I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth.”5 Ultimately, it is a gift to be so close to Christ that we share in His suffering. Let us remember that suffering is not the worst thing. St. Teresa explains:
“The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference towards one’s neighbor… People today are hungry for love, for understanding love which is much greater and which is the only answer to loneliness and poverty.”6
How will you quench his thirst?
We have the opportunity to imitate St. Teresa as entrepreneurs of the Spirit when we seek to address the unmet human and spiritual needs around us in the concrete circumstances of our lives. We are strengthened in this pursuit by creating a space for Christ to share Himself intimately, and seek to accept suffering and hardship with grace. We honor our commitment to Christ by embracing opportunities to serve, remembering the support of Mary and the saints and Jesus’ vast thirst for love in the poor and broken.
2 Gaitley, Fr Michael. 33 Days to Morning Glory. Pp 70-71.
3 Ibid. P 74.
4 Ibid. P 79.
5 Ibid. P 68.
6 Ibid. Pp 82-83.