Editor's Note: In 1996, Professor Mary Poplin traveled to India to work with Mother Theresa and the Missionaries of Charity. Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me about Meaningful Work and Service is a memoir of her summer with the sisters -- how they deepened her relationship with God and helped her discern her own calling back in the U.S. Here's an excerpt of Chapter 3.

I always tried to get to Mass a little early so I could sit near Mother Teresa’s stool. I think I was hoping that some of her spirit would rub off on me.

One morning during Mass, a well-dressed Indian woman rushed in and threw herself at Mother’s feet. She began to bow to her and kiss her hands and feet. Mother Teresa’s face became stern and she pointed to the crucifix on the wall directly across the room. At first I thought she was motioning that the Mass was in session and that the woman should be more reverent. But the woman continued her adulation.

Then I saw Mother take the woman’s hands in hers and point them to the crucifix. She said something in a language I did not understand and then firmly in English, “It is not me, it is him. Give your thanks to him.” The woman stopped, looked up, looked at Mother, looked at the cross, sat still for several minutes and then left.  

Mother Teresa often referred to herself as “a pencil in God’s hand.” She believed that everything she was able to do was done by God’s power working through her. Many people perceive Mother Teresa as someone who looked out at the poor and responded to their suffering with her own kindness, love and energy. This is not at all how Mother saw her calling. When anyone complimented Mother, she would always say, “It is him, his work.” She meant this literally—God did the work through her.

For most of the twenty years prior to her work with the poor, Mother Teresa taught at a wealthy girl’s school in Calcutta run by the sisters of Our Lady of Loreto, an order she had joined at eighteen.

On September 10, 1946, at the age of 36, during a train ride to Darjeeling for her annual retreat, she heard the voice of Jesus calling her to leave the order and gather Indian sisters who would radiate his love to the poorest of the poor, the sick, the dying and the street children. This same voice repeated itself over the next several months. Mother rarely spoke of these experiences except to a few confessors and direct superiors.1

After almost two years of working with her superiors and various ecclesiastical authorities, she successfully acquired permission to leave the order and work in the streets. On August 17, 1948, she set out alone with five rupees to receive medical training. On December 21 of that same year, she walked into the slums. It was not until October 7, 1950, that the Missionaries of Charity were officially established.

She wrote in her journal about her first day on the streets in December 1948:

What dirt and misery — what poverty and suffering. — I spoke very, very little, I just did some washing of sores, and dressings, gave medicine to some. — The old man lying on the street — not wanted — all alone just sick and dying — I gave him carborsone and water to drink and the old man was so strangely grateful. . . . Then we went to Taltala Bazaar, and there was a very poor woman dying I think of starvation more than TB.

What poverty. What actual suffering. I gave something that will help her to sleep — but the woman longs to have some care . . . confession and holy Communion. — I felt my own poverty there too — for I had nothing to give that poor woman — I did everything I could but if I had been able to give her a hot cup of milk or something like that, her cold body would have got some life — I must try and be somewhere close to the people where I could easily get at things.2

Once when a reporter asked Mother to describe her life, she began with her childhood in Skopje, Albania. Then she explained her move to join the Loreto sisters in Ireland, her transition to India a year later and her life as a sister of Loreto. As she related the shift to serve the poor, she stopped and said, “And that was the end of my life.”

Muggeridge says, “It was the end of her biography and the beginning of her life.”3

She believed the Missionaries were only able to do the work they do by the power, love and mercy of God. I came to understand why this must be true.

Most social workers—like me in my early adult years — move in and out of private middle class lives to serve the poor, generally receiving payment for the work. By contrast, the Missionaries live the lives of the poor.

Their everyday routine is feeding, cleaning and tending the sick, the dying, and the poorest of the poor — with no salary. No abstract system of food stamps or special programs supplement their efforts.

To me, the work would have soon become boring, physically grueling and even discouraging, but not for them. Mother Teresa said, “A Christian is a tabernacle of the living God.” That is the way they saw their work—as him “dwelling in them.”4

She also said, “I wouldn’t touch a leper for a thousand pounds; yet I willingly care for him for the love of God.”5  

Father John Bettuolucci alludes to the distinction between social work and religious work when he writes:

“Social action without prayer and conversion to the Lord lacks power and the ability to produce long-lasting change in the socio-economic conditions of the poor. Likewise prayer and evangelism without social action leads to pietistic withdrawal from the realities of the human condition and an escape from social problems rather than a confrontation and challenge to change.”6

I thought of how differently I frame my life than these sisters even though I am a Christian. I forget that God wants to make his home with me, direct my steps and give me his power to do his will. I often think I chose my own work by my good sense and careful control of circumstances, rather than that God formed me for specific purposes. I flatter myself that it is out of my own goodness that I do things for others.

Nevertheless, when I am most honest, I confess that many of the “good” things I do are really as much or more for me than for those to whom they are given. I find it hard to live out what the apostle Paul said, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”7

Yet Mother’s life reveals that the more yielded we are to God, the more clearly we will grasp our calling. The more we empty our focus on ourselves, the more he can fill us.

Mother Teresa said that “humility is nothing but the truth”8 and that accepting humiliation is “the surest way to be one with God . . . Humiliation because we know we have nothing in ourselves. You see what God has done. I think God is wanting to show His greatness by using our nothingness.”9

Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century wrote, “Humility is that virtue by which a man has a low opinion of himself because he knows himself well.”10  

I have come to understand that my lack of humility limits my life. My pride not only gives me the illusion that I am the master of my fate, but it also causes me to limit what I will attempt. Knowing my natural limitations, I narrow my work accordingly.

Yet Mother saw her “nothingness” and God’s greatness, and in due course established a worldwide organization. She could say with Paul, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”11  

Mother Teresa’s journey with Christ was a rigorous one that required a deep awareness of her own human frailty. One of her most fervent, lifelong prayers was that she would never say no to Jesus. Today her order, one of the most demanding in the Catholic church, is also one of the most vigorous. For the many that hunger for a disciplined, just and righteous life, Mother and the Missionaries demonstrate that such a life is possible.

Published February 20, 2009


Excerpted from Finding Calcuatta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me about Meaningful Work and Service by Mary Poplin (InterVarsity Press). (c) 2008 by Mary Poplin. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com.