There is a small sunlit courtyard at the center of the Mother Teresa House, and at the center of the courtyard is a small staircase leading upward to a singular, plain room – Mother Teresa’s bedroom, if it could be called that, where she slept. The room is the size of a large walk-in closet, with a plain, brown-checkered cot on the left side. A framed picture of Jesus’s thorns hangs above the cot. There is a small set of files, a writing desk and a wooden table and bench.
The next morning, Kenny and I have walked a few blocks from our hotel to the Mother Teresa House. The House is so modest and unasuming, you would walk right past it, were it not for a simple sign reading:
Missionaries of Charity
54A A.J.C. Bose Road
Kolkata – 700016
Mother Teresa was a Catholic nun famous for ministering to the destitute of Calcutta’s slums. Nicknamed the “Saint of the Gutters,” she became a humble icon for poverty worldwide.
Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, August 26, 1910 in Skopje, Macedonia. Her father died when she was around 8 years old, leaving her mother to provide for the family. Agnes was interested in missions and religious life from a young age, and at 18, she decided to leave home to join the Sisters of Loreto in Dublin, Ireland, as a missionary.
It was one year later when she first set foot in India, teaching at a school in Darjeeling. Mother Teresa says it was on that train from Darjeeling to Calcutta in September of 1946 when she experienced, “the call within the call” – specifically that she was to follow Christ into the slums and serve him among the poorest of the poor. She took her vows at 26 in Calcutta, where she officially became “Mother Teresa,” after Therese de Lisieux, the patron saint of missionaries. She never saw her mother and sister again.
Kenny and I peer in the tiny bedroom, again, watching the sunlight stream in. There is a window, and I look down to watch nuns washing clothes with buckets of water on the pavement in the courtyard. The room sits above the kitchen, and although it was swelteringly hot, its humble occupant never complained, a sign says.
Mother Teresa started the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 and opened the first Home for the Dying in Calcutta. Four years later, she opened the Children’s Home of the Immaculate Heart for Children and the Missionaries of Charity organized leprosy clinics throughout Calcutta. She became known worldwide for her tireless devotion to the world’s poor, earning her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. She suffered a heart attack in 1983, and had an artificial pacemaker put in in 1989, but kept working tirelessly for nearly a decade more. It was in this small bedroom that Mother Teresa died in 1997. She spoke five languages – Bengali, Albanian, Serbian, English and Hindi.
Missionaries of Charity had only 13 sisters at its inception, but more than 610 missions in more than 120 countries at the time of Mother Teresa’s death. As an acknowledgement of her work, she was granted a state funeral, including a funeral procession on a gun carriage also used to carry Mohandas Gandhi. Small, quiet and humble, she wound up being one of the most remarkable figures of the 21st century.
Down the small staircase and to the right is a room with the tomb of Mother Teresa. Kenny and I remove our shoes and enter the room, empty except for two Sister of Charity nuns dressed in the white robes with blue sashes. It is a plain, rectangular white coffin made of marble. A rosary in the shape of a heart and a wreath of red poppies adorn the tomb, as well as the inscription:
“Love one another as I have loved you.” John 15:12
26.8.1910 – 5.9.1997
OUR DEARLY BELOVED MOTHER
FOUNDRESS OF THE MISSIONARIES OF CHARITY
We stand in silence, for a long time, watching the small candles flicker on the grave. Such a small and unassuming grave for so profound of a person.
When Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize, she was asked, “What can we do to promote world peace?” She responded simply, “Go home and love your family.”13
In her Nobel Peace Prize lecture, she famously said, “I want you to find the poor here, right in your own home first. And begin love there. Be that good news to your own people. And find out about your next-door neighbor – do you know who they are?”
“[Christ] died for you and for me and for that leper and for that man dying of hunger and that naked person lying in the street not only of Calcutta, but of Africa, and New York, and London and Olso – and insisted that we love one another as he loves each one of us. It is not enough for us to say: ‘I love God, but I do not love my neighbor.’ St. John says you are a liar if you say you love God and you don’t love your neighbor. How can you love God, whom you do not see, if you do not love your neighbor, whom you see, whom you touch, with whom you live.”14
I think about these words as we make our way outside, down the hot, crowded sidewalk. My little sister was born when I was four, and we have a home movie where my mom is filming me sitting on my Dad’s knee right before her birth, asking me what I am planning to teach the new baby. Ride a bike, have a tea party, braid hair…there was no wrong answer to this question, really.
I think for a minute – you can see the little wheels turning in my mind. After all, it had to be something good.
Then I look into at camera and say firmly, “I’m going to teach her to love.”
Aww…how sweet. (It’s true folks, we have it on camera.)
But before you think I was a saint, however, let me remind you…I was barely four. I had no idea what love was, much less how to teach someone. If you fast-forward 18 months later, we have a video of me lovingly stuffing pine needles down the back of her hoodie to see how many I could cram in before she started fussing. (The answer? A lot.)
The truth is, the concept of love is simple when you are young and gets harder as you grow older. I was thinking the other day about the words used to describe love in the Bible and how plain – even odd they are when compared with words our culture uses to describe love:
Love it patient. Love is kind.
It does not envy.
It does not boast.
It is not proud.
It is not rude.
It is not self-seeking.
It is not easily angered.
It keeps no record of wrongs.15
By contrast, pop culture tells us:
Love is passionate.
Love is impatient.
It is all-consuming.
It is blind, jealous.
Love is hard.
It can be devastating.
It sometimes fades over time.
It’s amazing how deep the world’s version of love is rooted in our brains – even if we’re Christians, even if we know that there is a better version. Because, let’s be honest, love sometimes feels the way the world describes it – blissful, ardent, violent, single minded, reckless, consuming. Of all the adjectives I can think of to describe love, kind and patient wouldn’t necessarily be at the top of my list.
India, in fact, has one of the world’s most famous monuments to love – the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. It has been called a “jewel of Muslim art in India,” and is one of the wonders of the modern world.
The Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1632 by a Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, in memory of his wife, who died a year earlier after giving birth to their fourteenth child. He spent the next 20 years building the monument on the bank of the Yamuna River. It was a massive undertaking, enlisting 20,000 workers by some accounts, and around 1,000 elephants.
The Taj Mahal is laden throughout with precious stones such as crystal, turquoise, amethyst and jade. It holds the fake tomb of Mumtaz, Shah Jahan’s wife, with the real tomb being outside near the gardens, due to Muslim burial tradition that the graves cannot be decorative or ornate.
Sadly, Shah Jahan met a tragic end. He was deposed by one of his own sons, who exiled him to a nearby tower. He spent his last days under house arrest, in the view of the magnificent monument he had built for his wife.
I think of the Taj Mahal and the Mother Teresa House – two very different monuments to love. How my four-year-old self somehow knew love was the most important virtue and my thirtysomething year old self is still trying to get it right.
“Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary,” Mother Teresa once said. “What you need is to love without getting tired. Be faithful in the small things, because it is in them that your strength lies.”16
Love without getting tired. Or as Paul puts it, “Do not grow weary in doing good.”17
Over and over Jesus tells us:
If you love me, you will obey what I command. Whoever has my commands and obeys him, he is the one who loves me.
If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.
If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love.
My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.
This is my command: Love each other.18
Even as an adult, I realize that I am still refining the process of how to love. I’m still trying to bend my love in the paths I Corinthians 13 describes, wishing it had originated in those virtues to begin with and that I wasn’t having to correct the trajectory mid-course.
I’m still trying to absorb everything Jesus and John said about love.
I think of my four-year-old self, and to my sister (and the reader) I guess I should finally say, “I’m sorry. I’m not sure I can teach you how to love.” But there is One who can.
And he will show you the most excellent way.
*Start at the beginning: read the full journey here.*