In Her Own Words


Whatever your religious or spiritual beliefs-or nonbeliefs-few can fail to recognize the compassion and selflessness of Mother Teresa, who has dedicated her life to caring for the poor. She is one of the most remarkable people this century has known. And while Grand Times magazine is nondenominational, we believe that Mother Teresa's work should be acknowledged. In doing so, we have veered in two ways from our usual editorial policy regarding cover stories. One is that the article on Mother Teresa is not an interview written by one of our staff but an excerpt from a book of her writings. These are her words. Given her fragile health at this time, there was not the opportunity to conduct an interview. The second is to publish material religious in tone. Although Mother Teresa is Catholic, and her writings are imbued with her beliefs, the excerpts we have chosen embody qualities that enrich the human experience universally.
- Editor, March 10, 1997

Born in southeastern Europe (in Skopje, capital of the Albanian republic of Macedonia) in 1910, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (Mother Teresa) became a nun (1928) and worked among the destitute masses of the Calcutta slums. In time, her work grew to span the globe, and she became one of the best known and most highly respected women in the world. Winner of many awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize and the Templeton Award for Progress in Religion, she is acquainted with popes, presidents, and royalty. She has never hesitated, however, to do the most menial tasks, and one of her oft-repeated themes is the need for humility. Today there are over 4,000 religious sisters and brothers internationally in the 107 houses founded by the Missionaries of Charity.

On Giving
I will tell you a story. One night a man came to our house and told me, "There is a family with eight children. They have not eaten for days."
I took some food with me and went. When I came to that family, I saw the faces of those little children disfigured by hunger. There was no sorrow or sadness in their faces, just the deep pain of hunger. I gave rice to the mother. She divided the rice in two, and went out, carrying half the rice. When she came back, I asked her, "Where did you go?" She gave me this simple answer, "To my neighbors; they are hungry also!" I was not surprised that she gave-poor people are really very generous. I was surprised that she knew they were hungry. As a rule, when we are suffering, we are so focused on ourselves, we have no time for others.

Some time ago I made a trip to Ethiopia. Our sisters were working there during that terrible drought. Just as I was about to leave for Ethiopia, I found myself surrounded by many children. Each one of them gave something. "Take this to the children! Take this to the children!" they would say. They had many gifts that they wanted to give to our poor. Then a small child, who for the first time had a piece of chocolate, came up to me and said, "I do not want to eat it. You take it and give it to the children." This little one gave a great deal, because he gave it all, and he gave something that was very precious to him.
Have you ever experienced the joy of giving? I do not want you to give to me from your abundance. I never allow people to have fundraisers for me. I don't want that. I want you to give of yourself. The love you put into the giving is the most important thing.
I don't want people donating just to get rid of something. There are people in Calcutta who have so much money that they want to get rid of it. They sometimes have money to spare, money that they try to hide.
A few days ago I received a package wrapped in plain paper. I thought that it might contain stamps, cards, or something like that, so I put it aside. I planned to open it later when I had the time. A few hours later I opened it without even suspecting its contents. It was hard for me to believe my eyes. That package contained twenty thousand rupees. It didn't have a return address or any note, which made me think that it might be money owed to the government.
I don't like people to send me something because they want to get rid of it. Giving is something different. It is sharing.
I also don't want you to give me what you have left over. I want you to give from your want until you really feel it!

The other day I received $15 from a man who has been paralyzed for 20 years. The paralysis only allows him the use of his right hand. The only company he tolerates is tobacco. He told me, "I have stopped smoking for a week. I'm sending you the money I've saved from not buying cigarettes." It must have been a horrible sacrifice for him. I bought bread with his money, and gave it to those who were hungry. So both the giver and those who received experienced joy.

Not so long ago a very wealthy Hindu lady came to see me. She sat down and told me, "I would like to share in your work." In India, more and more people like her are offering to help. I said, "That is fine." The poor woman had a weakness that she confessed to me. "I love elegant saris," she said. Indeed, she had on a very expensive sari that probably cost around eight hundred rupees. Mine cost only eight rupees. Hers cost one hundred times more.
Then I asked the Virgin Mary to help me give an adequate answer to her question of how she could share in our work. It occurred to me to say to her, "I would start with the saris. The next time you go to buy one, instead of paying eight hundred rupees, buy one that costs five hundred. Then with the extra three hundred rupees, buy saris for the poor." The good woman now wears 100-rupee saris, and that is because I have asked her not to buy cheaper ones. She has confessed to me that this has changed her life. She now knows what it means to share. That woman assures me that she has received more than what she has given.

On Work & Service
Someone asked me what advice I had for politicians. I don't like to get involved in politics, but my answer just popped out, "They should spend time on their knees. I think that would help them to become better statesmen."
Strive to be the demonstration of God in the midst of your community. Sometimes we see how joy returns to the lives of the most destitute when they realize that many among us are concerned about them and show them our love. Even their health improves if they are sick.

On Poverty & The Poor
In every country there are poor. On certain continents poverty is more spiritual than material, a poverty that consists of loneliness, discouragement, and the lack of meaning in life. I have also seen in Europe and America very poor people sleeping on newspapers or rags in the streets. There are those kind of poor in London, Madrid, and Rome. It is too easy simply to talk or concern ourselves with the poor who are far away. It is much harder and, perhaps, more challenging to turn our attention and concern toward the poor who live right next door to us.
When I pick up a hungry person from the streets, I give him rice and bread, and I have satisfied that hunger. But a person who is shut out, feels unwanted by society, unloved and terrified-how much more difficult is it to remove that hunger?
You in the West have the spiritually poorest of the poor much more than you have the physically poor. Often among the rich are very spiritually poor people. I find it is easy to give a plate of rice to a hungry person, to furnish a bed to a person who has no bed, but to console or to remove the bitterness, anger, and loneliness that comes from being spiritually deprived, that takes a long time.
A few weeks ago, I picked up a child from the street, and from the face I could see that little child was hungry. I didn't know how many days that little one had not eaten. So I gave her a piece of bread, and the little one took the bread and, crumb by crumb, started eating it. I said to her, "Eat, eat the bread. You are hungry." And the little one looked at me and said, "I am afraid. When the bread will be finished, I will be hungry again."

On Suffering & Death
In 25 years, we have picked up more than 36,000 people from the streets and more than 18,000 have died a most beautiful death.
When we pick them up from the street we give them a plate of rice. In no time we revive them. A few nights ago we picked up four people. One was in a most terrible condition, covered with wounds, full of maggots. I told the sisters that I would take care of her while they attended to the other three. I really did all that my love could do for her. I put her in bed and then she took hold of my hand. She had such a beautiful smile on her face and she said only, "Thank you." Then she died.
There was a greatness of love. She was hungry for love, and she received that love before she died. She spoke only two words, but her understanding love was expressed in those two words.

From No Greater Love, by Mother Teresa. 1997 by New World Library. Excerpted by arrangement with New World Library. $21. Available at bookstores everywhere, or call 800-972-6657, Ext. 902.

Photographs from Works of Love Are Works of Peace, a photographic record by Michael Collopy. 1996 by Ignatius Press. Reprinted by arrangement with Ignatius Press. $34.95. Available at bookstores everywhere, or call 800-651-1531.