Monday, March 28, 2011

Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiuof Was Here

“We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”
--Mother Teresa

I don’t know about you, but I spent the longest time utterly confused about Mother Teresa.  I mean, I knew she lived to serve others—something that earned her the Nobel Peace Prize—but when it came to the particulars, things were fuzzy.  I would hear her referred to as “Mother Teresa of Calcutta,” but then I would look at her picture and wonder, is she Indian?  She didn’t really look like it to me, and I just never knew what the deal was.

Then last year, as I approached 40, I got off on a “what-the-hell-am-I-going-do-with-the-rest-of-my-life?” kick, which in turn led me into a brief but intense obsession with none other than Mother Teresa.  This included several trips to the Manhattan Beach Public Library, a careful reading of Mother Teresa’s book, A Simple Path, and a couple of long weekends spent reflecting on the relative next-to-nothing contributions I’d made to the world thus far.

It was during this time that I learned that Mother Teresa is from these parts.  She was born in Skopje, Macedonia, and was then-named Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiuof (which is also a bit confusing for the ignorant, because to me that sounds kind of Chinese).   I’ve since been told that her given name is of Turkish-Albanian origin, and that Gonxha means “rosebud” or “small flower.”

Statue of Mother Teresa in Skopje.
I also learned how Mother Teresa ended up in India, which I’ll briefly recount here for those who, like me, never knew.  After she left Skopje at 18, then-Agnes joined the Sisters of Loreto convent in Ireland, where she trained as a novice and eventually became a nun under the name Sister Teresa.  Meanwhile, she was sent to India where she lived in a convent and taught, among other things, geography, in a nearby schoolhouse.  Eventually she was appointed the school’s headmistress. 

Then, at 36, on a train ride from Calcutta to Darjeeling, Mother Teresa received what she called “a call within a call.”  She was told to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them.  And that she did.  Long story short, she got the go-ahead from the Vatican, packed it all in (save for a couple of saris, a pair of sandals, and a bucket for washing), and went to live in the Calcutta slums to minister to “the poorest of the poor.”  Soon she founded the Missionaries of Charity, opened a “Home for the Dying,” and spent her time caring for others until her own death in 1997.  By that time, her ideas and good works had spread throughout the world—to approximately 600 missions in 123 countries—including the founding of hospices, orphanages, schools, and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy, and tuberculosis.

Some people say negative things about Mother Teresa—primarily relating to her stance on certain social issues, or times when she had some doubt—but if there’s one thing everyone must acknowledge, it’s this:  here was a woman who didn’t just talk the talk; she walked the walk, in that one pair of sandals, right down in the slums alongside the poor and wretched.  She saw people lying in the street, dying, with no one else in the world to care for them, and she did what should have been done:  she built a home for them, took them off the street, and touched them with caring hands so, at the very least, they wouldn’t have to die alone and without dignity.  From all that I read about her work on the ground, the woman was a living saint as far as I'm concerned, and even if you told me on good authority that Mother Teresa spent her evenings getting drunk and swinging half-naked from chandeliers, my high opinion of her would not be altered one iota.

Last week I went to the place in Skopje where Mother Teresa once lived.  The actual house in which she grew up no longer stands on account of the 1963 earthquake.   All that is left is a patch of grass—surrounded by shopping malls—with a small memorial plaque telling us that this is the place where Mother Teresa kicked around as a child.  The patch has a metal barrier, but I found a place where I could walk on the edge of the grass, thinking, in a sense, that I was following in Mother Teresa’s footsteps.

Actually, I’ve been thinking a lot about that very thing lately.  I wonder what I would do were I to get a similar Call From Above one day.  Would I be able to do what Mother Teresa did? 

In some ways, I’m kind of partway there now:  I try to help out where I can, I’m pretty touchy-feely, even with strangers, and—in reference to the quote above—most times I walk around the world wearing a warm smile.  I’m down to two pairs of pants in my backpack, and the rest of my stuff is sort of half-forgotten in a tiny storage unit half a world away.  At this point it wouldn’t take much to ditch everything and head off to Calcutta, though—I must admit—I would sorely miss my neon-pink I-Shuffle, currently dedicated solely to Michael Jackson songs.  Sometimes it's been the only thing that can get me going in the morning.

The fact is, right about now I would welcome the kind of specific direction Mother Teresa got when she was almost my age.  But I must tell the truth—I would be pretty bummed if God told me to go live in a slum in India for the rest of my life.  I imagine I’d find myself bargaining over that one.  I really want to help, God, but would you instead consider something in the way of, let’s say, public-school teaching in Florida?

Personally, I think that would be a pretty good compromise.  Being a graduate of Florida’s public school system myself, I know for a fact they could use the help from someone who’s since learned a thing or two.  Plus, with all the world-traveling under my belt—that I’ve come through safely, thanks be to God—I could easily teach geography, just like Mother Teresa did.  

Thus far, though, things have been largely silent in the Call From Above department.  So, for now, I count my blessings and try to live the best way I know how, pending further instructions.

Back in Skopje I also visited the Mother Teresa Memorial House in the city center’s Plaza Macedonia.  At the end of the tour, I sat for a time with the visitor’s guest book, first looking at the other comments and then trying to come up with my own.  I mean, what do you say about a person like Mother Teresa?  (A lot of people wrote things like, “I love you, Mother Teresa” or, simply, “Thank you,” but—being a budding writer and all—I wanted to say something more.)  I thought about what I liked about Mother Teresa’s story the most, and then wrote this:  “The world could use a lot more people like you, Mother Teresa.  Thanks for the example.”  I know--pretty lame--but God knows there are times when I don’t work well under pressure.

Dove sculpture at Mother Teresa Memorial House.
I think the thinking behind my words was this:  if we were all to give more and take less—both in terms of ourselves and our possessions—maybe we’d be living in a world different from the one Mother Teresa knew; one where the sick and elderly don’t die in the street, or where abandoned kids don’t languish in orphanages.  And while there will always be suffering, I'm sure, perhaps the effort to relieve it could be spread more evenly, so as to give the overworked Mother Teresas of the world a much-needed break. 

And when that day comes, I highly recommend a long stroll around Lake Ohrid, where today both the heavens and the sun are shining down on me.  I’m now sitting on the water’s edge, having a cappuccino, and wondering if Mother Teresa ever got the chance to groove to a song like Billie Jean.  I hope so.