The man closest to me was on the brink of death, with festering stumps for limbs. His features were gnawed away by leprosy, and his watery eyes devoid of life.
He was just one of many lepers awaiting treatment outside a clinic run by the Missionary Brothers of Charity on the outskirts of Calcutta. But as I went to pass by him, something in him called to me. Or was it that I heard again Mother Teresa’s insistent voice saying: “Touch a leper with your compassion”? I found myself cupping his face in my hands as I had seen her do so often to all kinds of people.
There was nothing extraordinary about my gesture. What was extraordinary was the response it evoked in him. His ravaged body came to life. His face between my hands lit up, and all his companions on the bench beside him were reaching out to me, smiling with unaccountable joy. “In order to understand, you have to touch. To know the problem of poverty intellectually is not really to comprehend it.” I had heard Mother Teresa say these words on numerous occasions. I had even quoted them myself. But it was only at times like this that I really knew their meaning.
Something Beautiful for God. Mother Teresa loved to put people to work, preferably in one of her homes for the dying. She knew that it was only by entering into relationship with the poor that people would understand the apparent nonsense of dealing with a person’s immediate hunger and not tackling the root causes of poverty. She cautioned, as well, against being so desperate to provide efficient medical aid that we forget to offer a warm, consoling hand. For Mother Teresa, caring for the poor meant loving in the now and not focusing only on conventional concepts of results. They might have been valid pursuits for others, but not for her.
Thirty years ago, when I was new to writing, she told me that if a book brought just one soul—just one—nearer to God, then it was worth all the heartache that went into it. Though I accepted this as a commendable principle, in practice I found myself striving for more worldly recognition, only to be briskly reminded that I, like her, was not called to be successful but to be faithful. I was to do small things with great love.
Simultaneously intuitive and practical, Mother Teresa had a disconcerting way of looking into you and knowing who you were, of seeing both your gifts and your shortcomings. At first, she told me that I must have the experience of working in the home for the dying, but when afterwards I was taken ill, she quickly discerned that my particular role in our doing “something beautiful for God” together should be different. Some of the letters written by those who shared in the work through prayer and suffering ought to be published. It would help people “to love Jesus more,” she said. Perhaps I could arrange that?
“You Did It to Me.” Whatever she did to the poor she was doing for love of Jesus: for and to the Christ who in St. Matthew’s Gospel had identified himself with the hungry, thirsty, grieving, and imprisoned. But what did this mystical vision mean in practice?
The effect of her luminous smile and presence on others was clear. Crowds would press in upon her just to touch or be near her. But when I first saw her standing at the top of the staircase in the motherhouse dispensing what with characteristic humor she called her “business cards,” small prayer cards on which were printed quotations such as “You did it to me,” I could not help wondering whether this was the religious equivalent of a celebrity signing autographs. People went away manifestly uplifted after the briefest of exchanges, but did she really value them?
I had my answer when I ran into her unexpectedly in a colored township outside Cape Town. We had met only twice previously: once in one of the sisters’ houses in London, when we talked for just ten minutes, and once in Rome at an international gathering of her Co-workers when distant smiles were all that we exchanged. But now, years later and in a completely different environment, she not only remembered me but knew my name. “He has carved you in the palm of his hand. He has called you by your name,” she liked to quote Isaiah. Everyone was indeed special to her, as they were to God.
“What Mother Wants, Mother Gets.” I never saw Mother Teresa pass by a person in need. “Let the poor eat you up” was a principle by which she lived, even when she was unwell and increasingly frail in her advancing years. She was as uncompromising in this as in many other things. “What Mother wants, she gets” was a truism widely accepted by those who knew her. She was not only humble and small but also strong-willed, resolute, forthright, and seemingly fearless because God was on her side.
This assumed union of intention was not always easy to deal with. With her sisters, whom she loved dearly, she could be exacting in the extreme. Obedience, for example, was to be “prompt, simple, blind, cheerful, for Jesus was obedient unto death.” Despite her verbal insistence on family coming first, she did not always understand the exigencies of secular life, expecting people to drop everything instantaneously when required.
But at the same time, she lived the self-sacrifice she asked of others. Once aware of a hurt, she would do her utmost to rectify it, tirelessly and regardless of personal cost. Even in her old age, she could be caught cleaning the sisters’ toilets. After heart surgery in February 1992, she “convalesced” in Rome. It was bitterly cold in the unheated convent, but the only concession she would allow was having torn-up cardboard boxes placed as insulation on the otherwise bare stone floor. I was there to escort a long-standing friend of hers in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. I watched the invalid Mother Teresa striving to console her and could not but be moved.
Smile and Pray. Increasingly she identified the poverty in the pauper and the princess alike. We were all in our different ways poor. There was no need to seek the suffering Christ in the destitute of Calcutta. He was there in our own neighborhoods, our own families, and even within us. Over the years, I witnessed her growing emphasis on the need to respond to this spiritual poverty. After her death, I realized the extent to which she had known the same poverty herself: in her experience of the “via negativa,” of divine presence through humanly perceived absence. Rationally, she might have recognized her inner thirst, apparently unquenched, as a privileged form of communion with the poor and with the crucified Christ. “The closer you come to Jesus, the better you will know his thirst,” she could maintain, but at other levels her sense of alienation was agonizing.
But if the letters published posthumously speak of Mother Teresa’s spiritual “darkness,” they are also punctuated with references to joy and happiness. And it was joy that she consistently showed to the world. “Joy,” she said, “shows from the eyes. It appears when one speaks and walks. When people find in your eyes that habitual happiness, they will understand that they are the beloved children of God.” This was her form of proselytizing.
When it was hard to smile, the solution lay in prayer. Prayer was her “simple” secret: prayer rooted in silence, consisting not of many words but of the fervor of the heart of Jesus turned constantly towards God. In the car, she would finger her rosary beads and if necessary maintain a conversation at the same time. I have seen her, after a full day that had begun at dawn, enter the chapel, shrunken and exhausted, and re-emerge a little later two inches taller and ready to appear at a demanding public ceremony that evening. If she did not always feel the presence of God in the way she had in 1946 when he called her into the slums, through prayer she still received the energy necessary to do his work and produce extraordinary fruits, the same fruits by which she informed others they would know whether or not someone “belonged to God.”
Toward an Understanding of the Heart. Prayer enabled Mother Teresa to meet Christ in every form of poverty and see beauty through the darkness of the slums or of despair. And to the answers she received in prayer she was completely faithful. When in 1991 I asked her permission to write about her life, everything in her wanted to say “no”—and for valid reasons. Nevertheless, she would pray about it. After a week, I received a summons. Apparently the answer was in the affirmative, and from then on, she could not have been more open, wanting to take me with her wherever possible, gently but firmly calling me, more by a kind of osmosis than by words, to an understanding of the heart—not the heart as the seat of the emotions but the place of direct knowledge, the heart as referred to by St. Paul who said, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be opened that you may know.”
Kathryn Spink was a longtime collaborator with Mother Teresa. A new edition of her book,Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography (Harper One), is being released to mark Mother Teresa’s centenary. In addition to her writing and travels, she maintains a Web site: www.kathrynspink.com.