What Can I Learn From Mother Teresa?

First, I have to say that I love reading biographies. When I read a biography of a person that made such a difference in the world, I always try to look for “clues” that they left behind. I know that we can learn a lot from others. I know that many of the “PeaceMakers” like Martin Luther King, Gandi, Mother Teresa, Jesus, etc. left behind great wisdom that we can apply to our lives today.

“What can these gurus teach me about life?” I ask myself. “What can I learn from them?” I’d encourage you as you read this short biography of Mother Teresa to ask yourself those same questions. Maybe you can find a gem of wisdom that can be applied to your own life.

As a writer, I was most intrigued when Mother Teresa referred to herself as a pencil—saying that God was doing the writing. She stated that she was merely the “instrument” for God to “work through”. It was an interesting analogy that many writers, painters and creators use when creating. Most say they just get into that “zone” where the “art” works through them. Many call this Divine Inspiration. But Mother Teresa was not an artist, she was a woman dedicated to helping others yet she consistently referred to herself as a pencil of God.

In truth, whether we are artists, social workers or laborers, we are ALL vessels and channels that God (Spirit) is working through. The canvas may be our medium, the book may be our medium, the pulpit may be our medium, or our everyday encounters with others may be our medium. How would God/Spirit express through you? I think this is an important question to ask ourselves.

And as we study the life of Mother Teresa we should remember that she is one example of “allowing” that presence of God to speak through her. What if we all allowed God to fully express through us? What would that look like? I know it would be different for each of us.

I know that Mother Teresa is an inspiration for us all to really “be” who we are meant to be. Some of us may not be ready to take on the magnitude of work that Mother Teresa committed to, but as Mother Teresa said herself, “We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love." Hopefully, Mother Teresa's legacy will inspire you to do your part by allowing Spirit to work through you to create a better world in the part of the world that you touch.

The Life of Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa was born in 1910 as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. She later changed her name to Teresa who was the "patron saint of Missionaries." She was born in Skopje, Macedonia and was the youngest of three children. Her parents were dedicated Catholics and played an important role in her religious upbringing and her later direction in life.

At age 17, she followed a call to be a missionary. She joined an Irish order, the Sisters of Loretto, a community known for their missionary work in India. She began teaching. Her first assignment was in Calcutta where she taught in a girls' high school and eventually took on the responsibility of being the principal. Even though many of the people in the area were very poor, most of the girls who attended this high school were wealthy.

In 1946, Mother Teresa contracted Tuberculosis and was sent to Darjeeling for rest. It was on the train to Darjeeling that she received her second call -- "the call within the call". Mother Teresa recalled later, "I was to leave the convent and work with the poor, living among them. It was an order. I knew where I belonged but I did not know how to get there." (Does this sound familiar? Sometimes we know what we are “called” to do but we don’t know “how” to do it…Maybe we can learn a lesson from Mother Teresa that the "how" isn't as important as the "what.")

In India there was no order of nuns at the time. So Mother Teresa had to talk to the Pope and Bishop and get their permission to start a “new order.” This was radical at the time because she basically had to get permission to leave the old order (Sisters of Loretto) and work independently in a new area. Then she also had to figure out how to “fund” her independent work on the streets.

Later in 1950, she formed a new order which became the Missionaries of Charity.

Mother Teresa said that “being unwanted” is the worst disease of all and she wanted to help dying people by making them feel loved.

In 1952 the first “Home for the Dying” was opened in a space made available by the City of Calcutta. Over the years, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity grew from 12 to thousands serving the "poorest of the poor" in 450 centers around the world.

In 1969, a documentary chronicling Mother Teresa's work in Calcutta was released. Overnight, Mother Teresa gained international prominence as a modern day saint. Mother Teresa gained international expansion through television. When interviewed by many people she often claimed that she did not care about the “cause” of a problem (ie: poverty, illness) but was only concerned about charity. She also made the decision to stay out of politics. (Until later in life she outwardly spoke out as a “pro-life” advocate.)

Mother Teresa was also not concerned with statistics. She said that when it came to the homeless she didn’t count the numbers but counted the ONE she was helping at the time.

Mother Teresa often was unable to physically help her patients, but felt that the most important thing she could do was sit with them and love them at their death bed. She would sit next to “patients” and stroke their hair and tell them how much they were loved.

"If you spend time with a person then that is as much an expression of love as what you can do for them."

Mother Teresa began giving speeches worldwide, helping to bring attention to the plight of the poor everywhere. In 1979, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with many other previous awards. Mother Teresa was one of the first people to start working with AIDS patients which at the time were viewed as outcasts and as “lepers.” At the time, most people didn't even want to "touch" people with AIDS and yet Mother Teresa would hold them and stroke their hair and tell them how wonderful they are.

Another interesting thing about Mother Teresa was that she was never concerned about money, personally. She just wanted enough money to be able to continue to help others. Throughout her life and the formations of all the Missionaries of Charity she raised a lot of money for the cause of helping the sick and poor. The money was always available to further her cause—in other words, she focused on the “cause” and the money was always there to support it.

It wasn’t until right before her death that she relinquished control of the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa was active up until the point of her death in 1997 at the age of 87 years old.

Summary of what I learned from Mother Teresa:

1) God is "working through" all of us at all times. We are all channels to Spirit.

2) We all receive a "call" or a deep desire and instead of wondering "how" we are going to do it we should focus on the call or the deep desire (the "what").

3) Money is a vehicle to continue the work that we are meant to do. If we focus on what needs to be done, the money will support us.

4) Sometimes there is nothing you can "do" for a person, but being with them is the most important.

5) We all deeply want to feel loved. That is the most basic human desire.

6) And last, when we are faced with "negative people" or people that are "not so loving" it is our "mission" to love them anyway. (See poem below...)


People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered,
Love Them Anyway
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives,
Do Good Anyway
If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies,
Succeed Anyway
The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow,
Do Good Anyway
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable,
Be Honest and Frank Anyway
What you spent years building may be destroyed overnight,
Build Anyway
People really need help but may attack you if you help them,
Help people Anyway
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth,
Give the World the best you’ve got anyway.

~From a sign on the wall of Shishu Bhavan, the children’s home in Calcutta.

Some other quotes from Mother Teresa:

"Seeking the face of God in everything, everyone, everywhere, all the time, and seeing His hand in every happening--that is contemplation in the heart of the world."

"Every act of love is a work of peace, no matter how small."

"I feel that we too often focus on the negative aspects of life, on what is bad. If we were more willing to see the good and the beautiful things that surround us, we would be able to transform our families. From there, we would change our next-door neighbors and then others who live in our neighborhood or city. We would be able to bring peace and love to our world which hungers so much for these things."

A Simple Path by Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa: A Life of Devotion - A&E biography
In the Heart of the World- Mother Teresa

© Lisa Hepner
Life Channels Staff Writer
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