This biopic of Mother Teresa may not make you want to enroll in the nearest convent. But it does help you admire Agnes Bojaxhiu, born in Skopje (now part of Macedonia) , in 1910.
She decided as a teenager to become a nun, and left home at age 18 to travel to Ireland, where she learned English, and trained to become one of the cloistered Sisters of Lareto, whose mission was to teach schoolchildren in India. Sent to Darjeeling, she learned Bengali as a novitiate, then became a teacher at the Lareto school in Calcutta, where she taught for twenty years, and rose to principal. The movie actually begins here, where Sister Teresa (Juliet Stevenson) became increasingly concerned about the poverty surrounding their school, which was essentially a private boarding academy for privileged, upper-caste families. On the way to her annual retreat at Darjeeling, she has a kind of epiphany on the train ride, where she felt that God was calling her to serve the poor.
The Mother Superior was not happy with the idea. She felt that Sister Teresa had taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and the latter required her to continue her teaching at the school, and her life of spiritual discipline at the convent. Sister Teresa felt that she had to pursue the “calling within a calling” that God had clearly given her, so she appealed through the Catholic hierarchy, all the way to the Vatican, where she was eventually given permission to labor temporarily outside the bounds of the convent.
Meanwhile, much had evolved in the Indian culture. World War Two had brought many changes, among them the push for independence. But social conditions continued to worsen, and in whole sections of Calcutta, people lived in abject poverty and deplorable hygienic conditions. Sister Teresa decided that this was where she needed to work. And so she just started living in the slum, doing what she could to help: teaching street children the alphabet, serving as a midwife, giving attention to the sick where there were no hospitals or clinics, receiving instruction from one of the few physicians willing to teach her some basic medical skills.
Her appeal to the Vatican had put her in touch with the bishop of the archdiocese, who introducted her to a wealthy layman who helped her with borrowing a place to live, and to begin setting up her clinic. At first, many of the residents of the slum were suspicious, since they were Hindu, that she wanted to proselytize their children, but she assured them that was not her intention. Eventually, her tireless caring won them over, and some of her former students from the Lareto school came to join in her untiring efforts for “the poorest of the poor.” She also experienced conflict when trying to convert an abandoned Hindu temple into a hospice, but by that time the municipal authorities stood behind her, because they knew how much suffering she was alleviating in their community.
It was during this period that she continued writing letters to her spiritual advisor/bishop advocate, letters which contained a surprising amount of doubt and spiritual struggle. She said she often felt abandoned and alone, even by God. Of course, she missed the community of the other nuns at the Lareto convent. And her hometown government, now Albanian, refused to grant permission for her mother and sister to leave the country to visit her. Her temporary permit to labor outside the bounds of the convent was expiring, and she decided her mission work was too important to leave, so she applied to the Vatican to establish a new religious order: Missionaries of Charity. That organization now has 4500 sisters and is active in 133 countries. Now she was Mother Teresa, and in 1979 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, where she quoted the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. But it's the Letters, which became public after her death, that endear her to the minds of many who struggle with their own “dark nights of the soul.”
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Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Supply Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Mabank, Texas