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Wednesday, November 25, 1998

Mother Teresa is being laid to rest, a well deserved rest after a lifetime poured out for others. What a remarkable tribute that India, her adopted nation, should accord her a state funeral and that the Indian president should link Mother Teresa's name with Mahatma Gandhi in what she meant to that great subcontinent.

Mother Teresa is being laid to rest, a well deserved rest after a lifetime poured out for others. What a remarkable tribute that India, her adopted nation, should accord her a state funeral and that the Indian president should link Mother Teresa's name with Mahatma Gandhi in what she meant to that great subcontinent.

I have a precious handwritten note from her which sums up her approach to life: ‘Love one another as God loves each one of you. God bless you.’ She was sending me a message for my book, ‘All Her Paths Are Peace - Women Pioneers in Peacemaking.’ Some of the women in the book were friends of hers. Her message: ‘Peace is the fruit of service. Service is the fruit of love. Love is the fruit of faith. Faith is the fruit of prayer. Prayer is the fruit of silence.’

Born in Yugoslavia to Albanian parents in 1910, she became a Roman catholic nun when she was 18 and the following year went to India. At first she taught wealthy children but was moved by the plight of the poor. On a train in Darjeeling in 1946, she said, God spoke to her about leaving St. Mary's School in Calcutta where she ws the principal. ‘It was the hardest decision of my life to leave that lovely school and go the other side of the wall into the teeming city.’ She requested permission from the Superior of her Order, the Loreto Sisters, to leave the protected cloister where she taught to accept what she described as a call within a call to the poorest of the poor. ‘The message was quite clear,’ she said later, ‘I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. I knew where I belonged.’

At the ceremony awarding her the Nobel Peace Prize she said she accepted on behalf of the world's poor: ‘it gives me great joy and fulfilment to love and care for the poor and neglected,’ she said. ‘The poor do not need our sympathy and pity. They need our love and compassion.’ Under her leadership and inspiration, her Order, Missionaries of Charity, grew to hundreds of homes with thousands of nuns in their familiar blue and white striped sarees. Mother Teresa's views were always forthright even if not always accepted. She was an outspoken opponent of abortion which she called ‘the greatest destroyer of peace in the world today.’ She had a simplicity and directness in her care for the dying as in her dealing with Western sophisticates. I once saw a TV host so taken aback by her straightness that he couldn't continue an interview with her. ‘Being unwanted, being lonely,’ she told Western audiences, ‘this poverty is much harder to alleviate than the poverty of hungry people. If we are lonely or full of hate, a plate of rice is not going to satisfy.’

After a visit to Ireland, she said, ‘Religion is not the cause of disturbance. It is the human part of us that causes disturbance. My religion is not false, it is me that is false.’

A friend of mine found himself sitting next to her on a flight. Her hand luggage was a jute sack with two wooden sticks at the top as a clasp. It was bulging with letters. ‘My homework on the plane,’ she explained. She was answering letters from young women who were eager to give their lives to the Order. ‘It is a big responsibility and it takes much prayer and thought to be sure,’ she told him. ‘If that is not their clear purpose, they may undertake the work for a time but then they will die on the vine.’ Hers has not been a social work but a life given to reconcile people to God and to each other, she says. ‘Don't you think forgiveness is the greatest thing in the world?’ she liked to ask. ‘It is the key. There can be no reconciliation without it. We can only forgive when we have experienced God's forgiveness ourselves. That is our work.’

The humble approach of Mother Teresa, who called herself ‘a little pencil in the hand of God’ is illustrated by a reply she gave to another friend of mine who asked if she wasn't worried what would happen to her after she had gone. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I'm sure someone more helpless will come along.’