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Friday, May 18, 2012

Remembering the ‘beautiful’ sufferer


Book Review: Even the most rabid critics of Mother Teresa will admit she set a standard for those who aspire to make a mark in the field of humanitarianism.

It’s one of those books you read and know instantly that it would be unforgivable not to play your part in helping the suffering people. Malcolm Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful for God is about Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her Missionaries of Charity, acclaimed for serving “the poorest of the poor.”

The author bases this 156-page book on his 1969 film by the same title on Mother Teresa’s works in India, and includes the transcript of his conversations with her alongside other writings about and by her.

In 1946, at the age of 36, the nun was going on a retreat when God called her to give up the comforts of the convent and serve Him in slums among the poorest of the poor. She heeded the call, starting out with five street children in Calcutta. A year later, the number had multiplied, and some other nuns followed her there. In 1952, she opened the first Home of the Dying in Calcutta in an abandoned temple. Her first patient was a woman who had been “eaten by rats and ants,” and here, many other dying destitute were nursed to show them that they were not forgotten; that they too were children of God worthy of human and divine love.

By the time Something Beautiful for God was first released by Fontana Books in 1971, the Missionaries of Charity had spread their wings to other Indian towns, in Australia, Latin America, Roma, Tanzania, Greece and Jordan tending to HIV/Aids, leprosy and tuberculosis patients in their orphanages, soup kitchens, schools and hospitals. And at the time of her death in 1997, Mother Teresa had not only won a Nobel Peace Prize (1979) for her humanitarian work, but her charity organisation was operational in 123 countries where the chain of affliction and destitution was biting hard.

“The Saint of the Gutters” as she was fondly known, had evidently taken altruism and pragmatism to unprecedented levels. You should see some of the pictures in the book, of her enfolding frail children in her loving arms, or of her charity sisters cutting the nails of leprosy patients or on their knees because it’s from daily prayers that they drew sustenance and strength.

Muggeridge captures it succinctly: “I only say of her that in a dark time she is a burning and shining light; in a cruel time, a living embodiment of Christ’s gospel of love; in a godless time, the Word dwelling among us, full of grace and truth. For this, all who have the inestimable privilege of knowing her, or knowing of her, must be eternally grateful.”

While some people blame God for the sorrowing world, Mother Teresa proved that with concerted effort, suffering could be wiped out of the face of the earth. It does not take money (because Mother Teresa started out with only five rupees) but Christian love shining on our faces, in our hearts and through our lips. She proved that what the poor need more than food, and shelter (though these too are needed,) is to be wanted.

“The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for, and deserted by everybody,” she once said. “The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference towards one’s neighbour who lives at the roadside assaulted by exploitation, corruption, poverty and disease.”

It’s for this reason that she had a place in her heart for all the poor and deprived who she saw as “children of God, for whom Christ died, and so deserving of all love...”

The late critic Christopher Hitchens once dismissed Something Beautiful for God as a hagiography, accusing its author of credulity. But who can blame Muggeridge for being so influenced by Mother Teresa’s “love in action” that he even changed from agnostic to believer? A man with a theory cannot gainsay a man with an experience, so I cannot blame Muggeridge for rightly extolling Mother Teresa.

--Saturday Monitor, April 21, 2012