The life of one of recent history's most admired women is a life of love. Mother Teresa taught the world the meaning of charity.
Anyone questioning the meaning of love need not look further than the life and works of Mother Teresa. Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Macedonia, (the former Yugoslavia), and this Angel of Mercy understood the meaning. The woman who would go on to show the world the definition of compassion began with her earthly life on August 27, 1910.
Throughout her life, she tried to teach others the love she knew so well. From her mouth came quotes such as "God admires us not for what we do but for how much love we put into what we do. Together let us build a chain of love around the world." With some who heard her message, it made a difference.
Agnes' family was an affluent and loving one. She was the youngest of three children. Her parents, NikollÃ« and Dranafille Bojaxhiu had relocated to Yugoslavia from their former home in what is now Albania. Agnes was about 12 when she first knew that she belonged to God. She prayed for six years and became a nun at the age of 18. The Irish order she joined did missionary work in India and was called the Sisters of Loretto. When her vows were said to join the order, Agnes chose the name Teresa, after the canonized 16th century saint, ThérÃ¨se of Lisieux.
As a teacher, Teresa taught her students catechism, history, and geography at St. Mary's High School, near Calcutta. By 1944, she was the principal of the same school. Her teaching was brought to an abrupt halt when she contracted tuberculosis and was sent away for a much needed rest.
It was during her recuperation period that Teresa was given her second calling from God. In a later interview, Mother described the calling. Her words were "I was to leave the convent and work with the poor, living among them. It was an order. I knew where I belonged but I did not know how to get there."
Teresa was granted permission in 1948 to leave the Sisters of Loretto and continue her work at Calcutta. She taught poor children and learned the basics of medicine in order to treat the sick in their homes. Teresa was given the moniker "Saint of the Gutters" for the work she was doing.
Soon after, some of her former students joined her and they worked with people, the hospitals in the area had, rejected. They obtained a room so that the people they were helping did not have to die in the gutter. In 1950, the group became known as the Missionaries of Charity. The goal, as Mother Teresa described it, was to offer "free service to the poor and the unwanted, irrespective of caste, creed, nationality or race."
Mother Teresa turned what had formerly been a temple in Calcutta into a Home for the Dying in 1952. It was called the Nirmal Hriday Home for Dying Destitutes in Calcutta. Nirmal Hriday means "pure heart."
Mother Teresa was awarded the Pandra Shri prize for "extraordinary services" in 1962. Money from awards such as this was always used to advance her work. She opened clinics, hospices, and homeless shelters and did everything she could to make the lives of people more tolerable. Her goal was, in fact, quite simple. She wanted people to be able to die with dignity, and with a feeling of peace. She explained this further in her own words: "In my heart, I carry the last glances of the dying. I do all I can so that they feel loved at that most important moment when a seemingly useless existence can be redeemed."
Another award was bestowed upon her in 1971, the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize, and then in 1979, the Nobel Peace Prize was hers.
After learning of winning the Nobel Prize, Mother Teresa answered with a very humble "I am unworthy." She also opted to donate the $6,000 that would have been used for a ceremonial banquet to be given to the poor in Calcutta. Her life's work was explained in her own words when she accepted this high honor: "To care for the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society."
Mother Teresa established a hospice for AIDS victims in New York in 1985 and more of the same were started in Atlanta and San Francisco later. She was awarded the United States' highest civilian award, that of the Medal of Freedom and was awarded an honorary US citizenship in 1996. Only four people before her had received that title. Her awards from the United States were not yet finished, however, and she was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal in 1997.
Mother Teresa suffered from heart problems for a substantial amount of time. There was a heart attack during a visit with Pope John Paul II in 1983 and a more serious attack of her heart in 1989. With the 1989 attack, she was given a pacemaker. Pneumonia in 1991 led to heart failure, and in 1996, she was hospitalized for malaria and a chest infection and also underwent heart surgery.
Cardiac arrest claimed the life of this remarkable woman in Calcutta on September 5, 1997. The last earthly words to be uttered by her were "I can't breathe any more."
Did she have a secret to such a loving and giving life? If there was one, it was rooted in the way she regarded people. She saw Jesus in everyone. Every wound she bandaged, every hand she held, and every dying soul she offered dignity to, in her mind, she was doing these things for the body of Christ. To many of us, the life she led seemed full of unpleasantness, but to Mother Teresa, she was living the only life that would give her pleasure and fulfillment.
Her uncomplicated and heartfelt words often gave a glimpse into her spirit, and perhaps in her words, her secret lies. "I will never understand all the good that a simple smile can accomplish" she said. And she practiced it with offering smiles wherever life's journey led her.
Mother Teresa lived love. It poured from her like a fountain. She explained it all in two quotes concerning love. "There is no greater sickness in the world today than the lack of love" and "The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread." Yes, she had a secret. Her answer was contained in that four-letter word called love.
In a fitting tribute to Mother Teresa after her death, Michael Coren of The Financial Post said, "Though the diminutive nun was hardly physically attractive in the conventional sense, she was in fact the most beautiful woman in the world." Many people then and now echo Coren's sentiments.