KOLKATA, India — On a winding, narrow alley just off one of Kolkata’s main thoroughfares sits the simple mission where Mother Teresa spent her days in service — in her words — to “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.”
Tucked away in a mostly gray building steps from the blare of car horns, the Sisters of Charity go about their business of doing laundry, attending Mass and watching over waves of tourists that come to see where the beatified Albanian nun lived and worked for much of her life.
It is here she also took her final breaths, as she had wished, among the sisters with whom she toiled.
The actual “Mother House,” to which many a rickshaw wallah will offer rides from around Kolkata, hardly appears to be a pilgrimage site of sorts for Roman Catholics and other faithful.
A cramped exhibit, laid out in numbered panels in one of the mission’s rooms, tells the story of Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, who became Calcutta’s patron saint, beloved for her compassion and criticized for some of her stances, and how she went from being a Darjeeling schoolteacher in 1929 to focusing on missionary work in eastern Calcutta. Struck by the crushing poverty of the region and witnessing some of the partition-related violence, Mother Teresa never wavered in her dedication to the neediest people.
From the modest concrete courtyard, rickety wooden steps once led directly to Mother Theresa’s bedroom. Furnished with just a twin bed, a table that served as a desk and a bookcase, the room measued perhaps 10 by 12 feet, and offered a cross-breeze from windows on two adjacent walls.
The tomb that holds her remains sits in a small chapel area, where visitors and Sisters of Charity offer prayers. Bright, yellow flowers are used to spell out messages of support or remembrance atop the white marble sarcophagus.
Having been raised Roman Catholic, I have long known the story of Mother Teresa and her work with the lepers of Calcutta — a noble cause, I thought, even as an elementary-school student with a simplified understanding. Yet while I came to realize that my religious education was more by rote than by faith, I had always held a soft spot for the nun who toiled so ceaselessly in a faraway land to bring comfort to others. So it came as a surprise to me, following her death in 1997, to read that the most seemingly faithful among us could harbor such profound doubt.
In a letter to a spiritual confidant, according to a collection of letters published in “Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta,” Mother Teresa wrote, “Jesus has a very special love for you. [But] 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 … I want you to pray for me–that I let Him have [a] free hand.”
That doubt served to make her more human to me, and even as I take issue with some of her political stances, I can admire the devotion and dedication of someone so giving.
Update: After I had published this blog entry, I came across a Salon.com article, titled “The West’s big lie about Mother Teresa: Her ‘glorification of suffering instead of relieving it’ has had little impact on her glowing reputation,” which addressed some of the issues I had alluded to in greater detail.
Speaking on world tours, her fatalistic attitude toward poverty, combined with an insistence on remaining “apolitical,” defined her disinterest in confronting the structural causes of destitution. She presented to the West a perfect role model: a do-gooder who didn’t threaten to challenge the status-quo. In the words of Kolkata-born journalist Mihir Bose, “She’s part of the western agenda, it makes the West feel better; ‘this is one of us, once again rescuing the third world.’”