Mother Teresa: Doing Small Things with Great Love
Mother Teresa, who is due to become a saint soon, was born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu on August 26, 1910 in the area that is now Macedonia and died September 5, 1997 in India, where she had spent many years caring for some of the world’s poorest people through the religious order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta (who was often known simply as “Mother”) became loved and respected throughout the world for the compassion she showed to people who were often neglected and mistreated by others.
Here’s a biography profile of Mother Teresa and a look at the miracles that believers say God has performed through her life and prayers from heaven.
Giving Herself Fully to God
As a girl, Anjezë expressed a passionate love for God and devoted her time and energy to learning more about him whenever she could.
It was around age 12 that Anjezë knew she wanted to become a nun, she later recalled, but she waited to act on that decision until she was 18 years old and ready to leave home to start the process.
Anjezë took her vows as a nun on May 25, 1931 in Dublin, Ireland, changing her name to Teresa (in honor of her favorite saint, Thérèse of Lisieux, whose practical ways of living out faith inspired Anjezë). Teresa then began her first assignment, as a teacher at a school for girls in Calcutta, India: Saint Mary’s Bengali Medium School, run by the Loreto religious order. She became a popular teacher there, mentoring many girls in her classes and eventually serving as the school’s headmistress.
Teresa tried to base all of her daily decisions on a single guiding principle: giving herself fully to God in whatever she said and did.
As she later wrote in one of her letters: “Why must we give ourselves fully to God? Because God has given himself to us. If God who owes nothing to us is ready to impart to us no less than himself, shall we answer with just a fraction of ourselves? To give ourselves fully to God is a means of receiving God himself.”
Hearing the Voice of Jesus Calling Her
A dramatic experience on September 10, 1946 changed Teresa’s life profoundly from that time on. While riding a train to a retreat she planned to take in Darjeeling, India, Teresa said, she heard the voice of Jesus Christ speaking to her clearly and directly in her mind, calling her “to satiate the thirst of Jesus by serving him in the poorest of the poor.”
Following that call meant having to leave her life as a cloistered nun (a religious worker who doesn’t mix with the public) and go out into the slums surrounding the school in Calcutta – home to people who were living and dying in extreme poverty.
Teresa said that Jesus continued to speak words of direct guidance and encouragement to her in her mind at various times for nearly one year afterward, while she was seeking official permission from the Catholic Church to change her vocation and establishing plans for the new organization that would become the Missionaries of Charity. She reported that Jesus urged her to reach out to people who were going through intense suffering, telling her: “Come, come carry me into the holes of the poor. Come be my light.”
Starting the Missionaries of Charity
In 1948, after finally getting permission from her supervisors to do so, she left the school and began working in Calcutta’s slums, living just as the poor people there did – dependent on the generosity of others for basic needs, such as food. Her work there laid the foundation for the Missionaries of Charity.
By the time the Catholic Church officially recognized the Missionaries of Charity in 1950, a group of volunteers had joined Teresa, dedicating themselves to caring for people who felt unloved and unwanted by society – those who were desperately poor, sick, and dying. Those were the human beings who were most vulnerable to being neglected and mistreated by their fellow humans who lacked the compassion that Jesus wanted humanity to have for each other, Teresa said.
Volunteers kept coming, donations kept coming, and Calcutta authorities gave the Missionaries of Charity a large building (an abandoned Hindu temple) to use as their headquarters. Whenever Teresa or one of her sisters encountered people dying on the street, they brought them to their building for whatever medical care might help them. Those who were beyond healing died with dignity. “A beautiful death is for people who lived like animals to die like angels – loved and wanted,” Teresa said.
Sharing Faith through Compassionate Action
Teresa and her fellow sisters at the Missionaries of Charity served people from all religious perspectives – Hindus, Muslims, Christians, atheists – equally, and never tried to convert anyone to Christianity through their words. However, Teresa explained, she hoped that through the process of simply loving people with the unconditional love that Jesus gave the sisters for them, some would be inspired to begin relationships of their own with Jesus, who thirsts for souls.
“’I thirst,’ Jesus said on the cross when Jesus was deprived of every consolation, dying in absolute poverty, left alone, despised and broken in body and soul,” Teresa said. “He spoke of his thirst – not for water – but for love, for sacrifice. … Just like the adoring angels in heaven ceaselessly sing the praises of God, so the sisters, using the four vows of absolute poverty, chastity, obedience and charity towards the poor ceaselessly quench the thirsting God by their lives and of the love of the souls they bring to him.”
Directing Attention Away from Herself and Toward God
Teresa’s efforts gradually drew lots of attention from people around the world as word spread about the extraordinary acts of kindness that she and her sisters performed every day in Calcutta's slums. But Teresa repeatedly refused media interviews for many years, directing reporters to talk directly to the people in need that she was serving rather than to her.
Why? She explained that she wanted people who were interested in her work to look beyond her to God himself. She said: “No one thinks of the pen while reading a letter. They only want to know the mind of the person who wrote the letter. That’s exactly what I am in God’s hand – a little pencil. God is writing his love letter to the world in this way, through works of love.”
Still, the attention persisted, and over the years Teresa became beloved around the world and revered as a living saint. In 1979, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her charity work.
When people would ask Teresa for advice about how to serve God well in their own lives, she told them simply to focus on doing their everyday activities with love. Everyone can play an important part in making the world a better place, Teresa said, regardless of whether or not they're doing dramatic work. One of Teresa's most famous quotes says it all: “Don’t look for big things, just do small things with great love.”
Struggling with Darkness
Many people were shocked to learn after Teresa's death in 1997 that she had struggled with spiritual darkness for most of the time that her charity work had shone such a bright spiritual light in the world. Private letters she had written over decades to spiritual advisors were made public, revealing that Teresa felt deep spiritual pain that started soon after she began the Missionaries of Charity and lasted for the rest of her life.
She described the depth of the pain in a letter to Jesuit priest Joseph Neuner: “Now Father – since ’49 or ’50 this terrible sense of loss – this untold darkness – this loneliness – this continual longing for God – which gives me pain deep down in my heart. – Darkness is such that I really do not see – neither with my mind nor with my reason. – The place of God in my soul is blank. – There is no God in me. – When the pain of longing is so great – I just long and long for God. … Let him [God] do with me whatever he wants as he wants for as long as he wants. If my darkness is light to some soul – even if it be nothing to nobody – I am perfectly happy to be God’s flower of the field.”
Teresa’s inner pain reflected in her letters helped her live out her mission because it made her more compassionate toward suffering people than she would be if she wasn’t suffering herself. She said that she eventually came to realize that the pain in her soul put her in touch with both the pain of Jesus on the cross and the pain of people living with brokenness like poverty and disease in this fallen world.
Participating in Miracles
After Teresa died, her Missionaries of Charity organization continued to expand its work helping poor and dying people around the world. Believers said that not only was Teresa's earthly work continuing, but her heavenly work answering people's prayers was now going on, as well.
Reports of miracles attributed to Teresa's intercession from heaven started coming in for the Catholic Church to investigate.
Pope John Paul II beatified Teresa (the first step toward sainthood) in 2003 after approving a miracle that involved the supernatural healing of an Indian woman, Monica Besra, from a large tumor in her abdomen. Besra asked some Missionaries of Charity nuns to pray for her illness to be healed using a pendant that Teresa had blessed when she was alive. After they did so, Besra reported, a beam of light shone out from a picture of Teresa in Besra's home and into Besra's abdomen. The radiant light beam eliminated the tumor completely, Besra said.
In 2015, Pope Francis approved the second miracle officially needed for Teresa to become canonized as a saint. That miracle involved the miraculous healing of a Brazilian man in 2008 from brain abscesses caused by an infection. While the man was in a coma, his wife prayed fervently for Teresa to help him. Then he recovered, and went on to have two children with his wife despite the fact that doctors said that he would be infertile after his illness.
Some other reported miracles involving Teresa's intercession include a Palestinian girl whose family reported that the girl was miraculously healed from bone cancer after Teresa appeared to her in her dreams, a French girl who credited her recovery from broken ribs after a car accident to the fact that she had prayed for healing while touching a medallion that Teresa had given to her when they met some years before, and a nun named Sister Rita Mascarenhas who said she was miraculously cured of paralysis from the waist down after she prayed for Teresa's help (using a piece of white cloth that a friend of hers had used to touch Mother Teresa’s body) and then seeing Teresa in a dream.
Looking toward the future, Mother Teresa had written in one of letters: “If I ever become a saint – I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from heaven – to light the light of those in darkness on Earth.”
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.