She Gave up Her Own Life to Better the Lives of Those Who Were Suffering
Even when your goal is one higher than yourself, the road to get there can be paved with troubles, doubts, and hardship. But oysters teach us that if you keep on working, you will eventually find a pearl inside. We believe that people are like oysters and that we can channel our difficulties and obstacles in such a way that we take an ordinary – and sometimes not so ordinary – life and turn it into a pearlescent legacy. In honor of this unique human quality, we are publishing a series looking at women who have lived their lives like pearls. This is another installment of the Living like a Pearl series. Find the other stories here.
When we think of people living their lives like pearls, it is often because we see them overcome difficulties. But there are those rare pearls whose difficulties were not given to them by birth – through a difficult childhood or a traumatic experience – but by choice. Mother Teresa is such a person.
She was born on 26 August 1910 in the Ottoman Empire, and there isn’t much written about her childhood years except that she felt the calling to devote her life to religion at a young age. She was fascinated by stories of missionaries and left home at 18 to become a nun, never to see her mother and sister again.
It was in 1948, after having worked as a nun for 14 years, having learned Bengali and English and taken on Indian nationality, that she started her work with the poor in all earnest. She says she experienced a ‘call within the call’: that the Lord had told her to leave the convent where she worked and live among the poor to serve them.
Though she had made sacrifices for her work before, this was where the real difficulties began for her. She wrote in her diary:
‘While looking for a home I walked and walked till my arms and legs ached. I thought how much they must ache in body and soul, looking for a home, food and health. Then, the comfort of Loreto [her former congregation] came to tempt me. "You have only to say the word and all that will be yours again", the Tempter kept on saying. ... Of free choice, my God, and out of love for you, I desire to remain and do whatever be your Holy will in my regard. I did not let a single tear come.’
Her first year was difficult. Doubts, hunger, and a lack of money all stood in her way. But she persevered, and two years later she obtained permission for a congregation which would become the Missionaries of Charity. And two years after that, in 1952, she opened a hospice in an abandoned temple. She followed it with a hospice for those with leprosy, and then a children’s home.
It seems that she hungered to make not just one city, not just one country, but the world a better place. Through her letters, it is clear that she also experienced doubts and wrestled with her faith. Yet she continued opening more hospices, homes, and congregations.
Despite deteriorating health in older age, she continued her work her labor of love – just like an oyster layering an implanted bead until the very end. So that when she passed away on 5 September 1997 at the age of 87, the Missionaries of Charity operated 610 missions, including hospices, homes for HIV/Aids and leprosy patients, as well as orphanages, schools, counseling programs for families, and soup kitchens, in 123 countries across the world. A pearl of an institution, helping millions of people.