ON MOTHER TERESA OF CALCUTTA
Recently Mother Teresa of Calcutta was made a saint by Pope Francis. If I am to be honest the whole business of saints in the Catholic Church irritates me. The Church of England at its inception did away with all this rigmarole except for Biblical saints. I thoroughly agree with this.
I do not believe we can find intercessors in the saints. I believe it is enough to turn to God in prayer and he will listen. Besides underneath the doctrine of praying to saints lies the pernicious idea that saints have more merit than they themselves need for salvation, and if we cohort with them, some of that excess may rub off on us and assist us to get to heaven. This idea (probably not officially held anymore but nonetheless tolerated) is in blatant denial of the central doctrine of the faith that all are sinners and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ alone is sufficient for us all. He died, as scripture says, once and for all. Further scripture says there is one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ, not Jesus Christ and a myriad of saints.
Nonetheless, there are people who really do advance in holiness far beyond the rest of us. When I was in my mid-twenties I wanted to meet such a person and Mother Teresa was the best candidate alive. So I went to India. I spent four weeks in Calcutta. During this time I worked in the Hospital for the Dying Destitutes which was located in part of a functioning Hindu temple dedicated to the goddess Kali.
Mother Teresa was born in what is now Skopje, Macedonia in 1910. She was of Albanian decent. These were very violent, hard years and the Balkans were at the epicentre of the struggles that led to the First World War. As a child the young woman who would later adopt the name of Teresa heard missionary stories and desired to become a missionary herself. I frequently too as a child heard missionary stories. We even had a missionary from our own church, Upminster Baptist Church. The young Albanian became a nun and after her training in Ireland was sent to Africa where she ran a school for local children for 17 years.
Then, in a vision she had, she felt called to serve the poorest of the poor. When she shared her ideas with her colleagues and superiors she was strongly discouraged, and likewise when she turned to bishops and archbishops. The answer from them was No, No, No. If you want to understand anything about Mother Teresa, it is that here was a feisty woman. I was told that she was a very difficult woman, often very harsh, too direct, stubborn in the extreme. Now these are generally considered negative characteristics. However, for a saint they are usual.
In Mother Teresa, as in almost every saint, you will find a person who fought her authorities. The church as an authority structure always opposes God. Those who get to positions of authority generally, though not always, like that position and don’t want any wild ideas to upset things. Therefore, the authorities are always the static element, the No element, the enemy of the Holy Spirit. This applies not only to the Catholic Church, but all churches, including our own. It is part of the mystery of the Holy Spirit, that those whom he touches are given power to overcome the natural reservations and opposition of ordinary people. As saints aren’t ordinary, they are always overcomers of resistance.
As Teresa could not do what she wanted, what she felt God was calling her to do, she left her nuns’ order and went out alone, unsupported, into the slums of Calcutta, to care for the dying destitutes of that city. These were people who had nobody and were just left to die on the streets. Mother Teresa found a place where she could care for them, the Temple of Kali, and then fetched them from the streets and cared for them in their last few days, showing God’s love for the poorest of the poor.
The year I went to see her was 1984. The hospital was a very small area with about thirty or forty patients, all lying on green camp-like beds tightly packed together. There were pillars here and there and the room, it was no more than a room, was an L shape with the entrance at the bend of the L. It was probably at one time the lobby for the temple. The area near the door was separated by a wall from the rest of the hospital so that the entrance by design did not give a view of what was within. In this part, separated off , though I did not know it at the time, were placed those patients nearest death. All were very ill, but the ones likely to die in a day or two were put here to give the others a little bit more dignity.
In the month that I worked there my duties were to clean the patients and change bedding, dress bed sores, feed those who could no longer feed themselves and generally help where needed. There were probably about four volunteers at any one time. All the patients were male.
Some patients looked very ill. Some did not look ill and I wondered why they were there; perhaps to get a hot meal, I thought. One of the least ill, as I thought, a young attractive-looking man, surprised me most. However, one day I arrived early in the morning to hear he had died during the night. He had TB.
Frequently a patient would be cleaned up, and immediately afterwards soil himself again. I remember cleaning one man several times, for him to immediately soil himself. The last time I blurted out in anger and frustration: “I thought he was supposed to be dying?” I learnt afterwards that he understood English. I remember this outburst with deep shame and know that I committed a terrible sin when I said those words.
There was a boy of about 16 who was placed in the area behind the wall near the entrance. He had only one arm, having I assume lost the other in an accident. My job was to feed him as he lay flat on his bed, and turn him frequently so that his bed sores might be alleviated. These sores were so bad that you could see the bone. I dressed them and turned him as instructed. He was also a half-wit, not being able to communicate in anything more than grunts.
In attending him I thought to myself, he enjoys his food. It would be better for his sores if he sat. So I sat him up. At first he would slide over and showed no inclination to use his good arm to feed himself. However, I persisted and refused to feed him, so that gradually he began to use his good arm to place the spoon to his lips and eat. I stood him up too, something that evidently had not happened for a long time. Gradually I took him outside and walked him round. What was remarkable is that in three weeks, with the attention and kindness I was showing him, his awful bed sores completely healed, something which is utterly remarkable. It goes to show what love and hope could do in this poor discarded boy with nothing to live for. Suddenly he wanted to live, and soon he was moved away from the beds of those expected to die soon.
One day I came from one side of the L to the other and saw ahead of me a woman, I thought, kneeling in prayer. This was Mother Teresa. She was not kneeling, rather standing, so short was she. I had the opportunity to talk to her on one occasion for about half an hour.
There are many who opposed her becoming a saint. She had very conservative religious views, such as that abortion is murder. Many don’t like these seemingly harsh views and write her off. For me it is all part of the package. She took very seriously the faith which she lived and was prepared to die for. I am immensely grateful to have had the chance to meet her.