The saint of the gutters

September 18 2003 | by

RAIN. BLISSFUL RAIN. It fell from the Calcutta sky in the searing heat of an April afternoon, chasing the children out of the narrow shade of their slums and onto the sidewalk, their faces turned up, their mouths wide open to catch the drops. It was 1996.

This month, I am drawn again to the sights, sounds, and smells of Calcutta, India in those sacred weeks preceding Easter. I think of the rain and the steam that rose from the concrete and, amid the stench and dirt, the beauty of the lessons I learned there; lessons on suffering from the woman dubbed the ‘Saint of the Gutters’- Mother Teresa, who moves a step closer to actual sainthood this month.

The motherhouse

It was 6:00 in the morning when I arrived at the ‘motherhouse’— the central location for Mother Teresa’s network of worldwide service. Each day begins with prayer, and the volunteers drawn to Calcutta from all nations and denominations are encouraged to attend the morning Mass. I took off my shoes, as custom dictates, and proceeded upstairs to a large, stark room with a cement floor, an altar, a crucifix and bench seating in the back. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Mother Teresa.

She walked into the room slowly, processing with nuns from the order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity. Her bare feet appeared swollen and her head was bowed in prayer. As she took a seat on a bench in the back, she was barely distinguishable among the sea of the white sari’s with blue trim worn by the Missionaries of Charity.

Mother Teresa remained bent over in prayer in the early morning Calcutta heat for most of the 45 minute Mass. Windows in the room were open to the loud street below, but there was no breeze. April is among the hottest months in Calcutta. Beads of sweat formed on foreheads around the room.

In addition to her sari, Mother Teresa wore a bandage around one shoulder. She had fallen the week before and broken her collarbone, a particularly painful break. She looked pale and tired.

In my pocket I carried the note she had written to me months earlier. I had to written her, like thousands of journalists through the years, seeking an interview. In her note back to me, she politely declined, telling me she did not permit videotaping of the work of Missionaries of Charity, but invited me to come to Calcutta to “share in our works of love.” I wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to do the work which vaulted a humble nun into a ministry known worldwide.

My news station thought the invitation alone was remarkable, and sent two video photographers “just in case.” ( We later discovered everyone who wrote to her received a similar invitation!) The photographers kept their distance from the motherhouse, and began to videotape the scenes

of poverty near the Calcutta streets where Mother Teresa had begun her work nearly 50 years earlier.

Volunteer work

Inside the motherhouse, I prepared myself mentally and physically for a day of work. I was feeling sick, as the smell of curry wafted up from the streets through the open window. I was two months into a difficult pregnancy, and praying I’d made the right decision in coming to Calcutta.

Following Mass, and a simple breakfast of bread and tea at the motherhouse, the troops of volunteers rolled out to each of the five Missionaries of Charity “homes” in Calcutta. I chose to work at Prem Dahn, Mother Teresa’s home for the mentally ill and destitute. I walked over to the facility with several other volunteers who had travelled to Calcutta from as far as Australia and Ireland.

The massive building was divided into two areas - one for women and the other for men. The women’s section was nearly the size of a football field. We arrived as the nuns were cleaning up from breakfast. My first look inside was a stunning sight. Nearly 60 women, most of them emaciated from their days scraping for food on the street, were ready to be bathed. They were naked and crouched around a large vat of water in the centre of the cement floor.

We got to work immediately, each taking a sponge, a piece of soap, and a scoop. We were to wash them the old-fashioned way, scooping water, soaping their bodies and hair, and then rinsing with the scooped water.  One of the women next to me relaxed as the worker gave her a bath, and went to the bathroom on the floor. I was self-conscious - out of my ‘comfort zone’. My stomach began to lurch. I worried about disease, and the baby inside my womb. It was already more than 90 degrees in the room.

Do it with love!

I began to bathe a woman near me. I was unsure of my technique and wondered if I was doing it the right way. It occurred to me I was thinking more about myself than her. I approached a second woman to bathe her. As I poured a scoop of water on her, she recoiled and screamed, looking up at me in terror. I remembered that Prem Dahn was a home for the mentally ill. I wasn’t sure what to do. I looked around, feeling helpless, but no one paid much attention, so I tried again to bathe her. She screamed again. Finally, I put down the soap and scoop and did the only thing that popped into my mind. I gently put my hands on her back, relieved when she let me do so.

Tenderly, I rubbed her back, building trust. I wondered to myself about her life, her family and how she wound up penniless and alone. I massaged her for at least 5 minutes, as the other volunteers busily bathed women around us. Gently, I began the bathing process anew, and this time she let me do it. I took my time. The other volunteers bathed several women in the time it took me to bathe just the one. I dried her off and put a fresh gown on her.

And that’s when it happened - the moment I’ve reflected upon over and over in the years since. She looked up at me with the wisest eyes I’ve ever seen, loving and kind. It didn’t matter that I spoke English and she spoke Bengali. We had communicated in a universal language.

I remembered what I had read over and over in books about Mother Teresa. She had said, “ It’s not how much you do which matters, but how much love with which you do it.” When I had entered Prem Dahn, I had been thinking about myself, my nausea from the baby, my discomfort at bathing bodies as my first act of charity. This determined Hindu woman who shrieked at my first touch had helped me far more than I helped her. She taught me what it means to get out of my comfort zone, and to truly serve.

By week’s end, the scope of the suffering in Calcutta no longer shocked me, but never ceased to move me. I saw it in the faces of the dying. I saw it in the smiles of the children at Mother Teresa’s orphanage. I saw it in the eyes and acts of the volunteers around me.

During breaks, the volunteers would drink tea and try to communicate amid our language barriers. We discovered how diverse our group was. There were Hindus and Jews, Baptists and Buddhists, all drawn to the work started by a humble Catholic nun.

Then I met Amanda, a nurse from Canada, who stunned me when she said,” I don’t believe in God.” “You don’t believe in God and yet you are here in Calcutta to work with Mother Teresa?” She smiled. “ I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in this work!” It dawned on me that we were a microcosm of the world-all ages and backgrounds-various faiths and colours of skin - and yet we were all working together in harmony, none judging the other. Later I asked Mother Teresa about the range of volunteers drawn to Calcutta. “Isn’t it wonderful,” she said, “how God is working in their lives whether they know it or not?”

First interview in 12 years

By week’s end, I had earned the trust of Missionaries of Charity and Mother Teresa graced us with what would be her first extensive media interview in 12 years and the last before her death. I opened our conversation by asking about suffering.

“Mother Teresa, some people see suffering and wonder how a loving God can permit it. What do you say to those people?” She answered with a smile, her eyes fluid. “I say He who has suffered for love of us, now it is our turn to suffer for love of Him. Don’t you see, It is the connection we have to Jesus - a true, living connection.”

Mother Teresa brought up Matthew 25: Verses 35-36: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless and you took me in. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to see me. All of these things you did for the least, you did for me.”

Mother Teresa was convinced that Jesus was present in the “distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor”. Yet she called the poverty in America worse than the poverty of India. “Yours is a poverty of spirit”, she said. “It’s a poverty of loneliness, isolation and materialism, and it is much tougher to remedy than the poverty of hungry mouths to feed”.

She said the voice of God speaks in the impulses we get from time to time to reach out to people in need - the impulses we often ignore out of inconvenience: Someone we ought to call or visit: the elderly or sick or disenfranchised. “ But start first in your family”, she implored. “Be sure your family is loved and nurtured. Then go out to your neighbourhood, your community, your world”. She said it is not enough to feed the homeless and hungry if your own family is starving for your attention.

When I asked her about her own death, she said that “nothing is sweeter than going home to God in His time, when He calls”. Then she pointed out how wonderful it was that she fell and broke her collarbone in the weeks preceding Easter. “Wonderful?” I asked. “Yes, Jesus permitted me to share in his suffering in these holy weeks”. I have since come to understand those words with a new sense of clarity.

The beatification of Mother Teresa this month in Rome, means a miracle has been attributed to her divine intervention since her death. It also means the Pope has examined every aspect of her life on Earth, which wasn’t always divine. One of the periods which came to light was what she later referred to as her “dark night of the soul,” in the early 1960s, a period in which Mother Teresa felt hopelessly human.

Missionaries of Charity was growing, but Mother Teresa was undergoing a private spiritual crisis. She confessed it to the then Archbishop of Calcutta, who urged her to keep a journal, parts of which have now been made public. “I have a feeling of God not wanting me”, she wrote.” Of God not really being God. Jesus, forgive the blasphemy. I’ve been told to write everything: The darkness that surrounds me on all sides. I can lift my soul to God - no light - no inspiration enters my soul”.

Suffering in silence

She kept her suffering quiet and continued in her work of charity. It would be years before she worked through the darkness of her spiritual journey, finding joy. But her spiritual epiphany did not lead to an end of suffering, or even of the feeling of darkness. Years later she wrote: “I have begin to love my darkness for I believe it was a part - a very small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain here on Earth”.

Mother Teresa turned her struggle - her darkness - into an opportunity to become closer to Jesus who, in the Garden of Gethsemane, also had questions of God about his own suffering, and His “father’s will.”

The Christian writer CS Lewis wrote extensively on the subject of suffering and put it more starkly: “I suggest to you that it is because God loves us so much that He makes us the gift of suffering. Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. We are like blocks of stone out of which the sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of His chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us - perfect”.

Mother Teresa’s life is an example that perfection rarely exists in our world. It rains in every life. But there is eloquence in putting one foot in front of the other, in walking the walk even when faith falters, and in blessing the rain when it falls.

Updated on October 06 2016