WALKING WITH THE EXCLUDED
By Fr Ross Jones SJ, Rector of St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point
Not many would seek to rejoice under the epithet “The Saint of the Gutters”. Yet it is such a fitting one for St Teresa of Calcutta, whose feast day was celebrated on 5 September. A newly-proclaimed liturgical day, as she was raised to sainthood only seven years ago by the present Pope.
Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born in 1910 in Skopje, now in Macedonia. She embraced a desire to work in India, so moved, aged eighteen, to Ireland to join the Loreto sisters there, to learn English and to prepare herself for mission. It was with the Loreto sisters that she chose the name Teresa, after St Thérèse of Lisieux (but adopting the Spanish form of her name), the Patron Saint of Missions. Later in her life, there was to be significant parallel between these two sisters who became saints.
Teresa was missioned to the Loreto girls’ school in east Calcutta. There she took her final solemn vows and (as was the custom then) became Mother Teresa. Eventually Teresa became headmistress, crowning a career in the school of twenty years. This was a well-appointed school in its resources, with green lawns and spacious buildings. It served the upper classes. However, Teresa was increasingly challenged in encountering the poor at her door – the abandoned, the orphaned, the sick and the dying. Movements in her heart began.
Experiencing what she referred to as “a call within a call”, Teresa sought permission to leave the Loreto sisters in order to found the Missionaries of Charity. Soon many women joined her nascent congregation. There are some six thousand of them worldwide today, including in Australia. They serve in homes for the dying, hospices for HIV/AIDS patients, clinics for leprosy and tuberculosis. They run mobile clinics, dispensaries and soup kitchens They conduct orphanages and schools.
Mother Teresa has not been without her critics – but that is so often the way for people with a high public profile, who challenge the thinking of some, or lack of action of others. The prestigious British medical journal, ‘The Lancet’, was once very critical of the medical care and hygiene in some of the sisters’ hospices. Hindu nationalists in India argued that her object was not service, but conversions and forced baptisms. British author, journalist and the most militant of atheists, Christopher Hitchens, produced a scathing documentary on Mother Teresa and her congregation. He and others have accused the Missionaries of Charity of minimal financial accountability. Added to that, Mother Teresa had accepted money from some heads of state with poor human rights records, like the late Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier. Mother Teresa’s response was said to have been, “I can turn bad money into good,” which further provoked her enemies since it sounded like money-laundering or “the end justifies the means”.
Mother Teresa’s stance on some moral issues was traditionally and solidly Catholic. This certainly fuelled her detractors. She spoke out strongly and regularly against contraception and abortion. There were certainly many advocates promoting contraception in nations like India, where population size and poverty were so closely related. In 1979, Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In her address on that occasion, she declared that “The greatest destroyer of peace is abortion,” which was also an incendiary remark.
There is an Australian link with Mother Teresa and her Missionaries. Our Australian Jesuit Province began a mission in India in 1951. It was in Hazaribag, now a Province in its own right. One of the early Melbourne-born missioners was Ian Travers-Ball SJ. Ian studied in India and was ordained there in 1960. Having worked with the Missionaries of Charity for a number of years, Ian sought leave from the Jesuits in 1963 to work with Mother Teresa in establishing the Missionaries of Charity brothers. He took the name Br Andrew and became the General of that congregation.
Ian’s life parallels Teresa’s. Both took vows to join and commit themselves to their respective religious orders. But later, in their shared Ignatian tradition, both discerned that God was calling them elsewhere. “A call within a call.” That is the nature of discernment. One sifts the movements of the head and the heart reflectively and prayerfully to discern where the good Spirit is leading. But there are no guarantees with discernment as to the outcome. No certainties that this choice is a lifetime script. Contexts may change and God’s Spirit may open up another door, where a sense of the magis may be pointing to a greater good.
There is another parallel in Teresa’s life. This time, with her patron, St Thérèse of Lisieux. When the latter died at such a young age, her superiors were keen to explore her correspondence and spiritual journals. She was known to be such a prayerful and spiritual person, almost a mystic, so her writings (presumably) would be rich. But the sisters were horrified to discover that Thérèse wrestled with what spiritual writers over the years have termed “the dark night of the soul”. Long periods where God is not close, but is actually absent. When prayer seems to strike a stony wall. When God does not speak.
Thérèse’s superiors thought that this would not be at all edifying for Catholic readers: “If the saintly are like this, what chance have I?” So what did they do? They sanitised the collection. They bowdlerised it. They cut out the record of all the lived experience that described our sometimes tough reality. Thankfully, the good sisters published the full version some years later.
And what of Mother Teresa? When her diaries and journals and the correspondence with her spiritual director were collected, they were found to be shot through with similar “dark nights of the soul”. In one letter to her spiritual director Teresa wrote: “As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear, the tongue moves (in prayer) but does not speak.”
Elsewhere, she describes her prayer life in terms like “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness” and “torture”. “The smile,” she writes is “a mask or a cloak that covers everything.”
What are we to make of such descriptors? Well, I think American Jesuit writer, James Martin SJ, put it well in writing about Mother Teresa. He concluded: “(Her spiritual journal and letters) may be remembered as just as important as her ministry to the poor. It would be a ministry to people who had experienced some doubt, some absence of God in their lives. And you know who that is? Everybody. Atheists, doubters, seekers, believers, everyone.”
So what do all these lives say to us today? Maybe this. We discern where God is leading us as best we can. We learn that (this side of heaven) no one is perfect. We do the best we can with what we have. We always take risks whenever we seek to do good. None of us has “God-in-a-box” – our God can be elusive (or we look in the wrong places). And that perhaps our most fail-safe way of finding God – as our young men so frequently realise here – is to discover God’s face in the faces of those who are the least in the measure of this world.
This article was originally published in a recent edition of ‘The Gonzagan’ newsletter for St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point.
Feature photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.