Page 6, 24th October 2003

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Page 6, 24th October 2003 — When Malcolm Muggeridge, a sceptical Western writer their lives. She

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When Malcolm Muggeridge, a sceptical Western writer their lives. She

led him to God and he introduced her on his own spiritual quest, met Mother Teresa, an unknown ascetic ministering to India's poor and dying, it was an encounter that would change both to the world as the Saint of Calcutta. Norman Imms, below right, recalls his own life-changing meeting with the founder of the Missionaries of Charity


the mother of the poor

omething Beautiful for God. This is one of Mother Teresa's favourite sayings. She used it when, after much persuasion, she agreed to subject herself to a BBC camera crew for the purpose of making a television programme about herself and her work. "Let us then," she said, "use the occasion to do something beautiful for God."

The extraordinary thing is that it has so worked out; I really believe that the very cameras — let alone us, the five individuals concerned:director, cameraman and assistant, sound recordist and myself — fell under her spell. We went along to the house of her Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta soon after arriving there. It was, even for Bengal, a hot, steamy day; the teeming streets seemed menacing, with a 24-hour general strike threatening. Her house, needless to say, is in one of the poorest quarters.

She was waiting for us in the courtyard. To say that I was pleased to see her would be an understatement. Ever since I interviewed her for BBC Television I have been longing to get closer to her in her life's chosen setting. As far as I was concerned, Calcutta might have been one of the world's beauty spots instead of one of its most desolate and tragic cities. The light that shines in her made, and makes. the days we spent with her stand out for me as a time of great happiness.

Like all her kind, she is immensely shrewd, practical and humorous, with no trace of sentimentality in her make-up. In making a saint. as it seems to me, God, as it were, takes as the basic ingredients the earthly rather than the transcendental qualities. He mixes common earth, as Our Lord did to put on the blind man's eyes. The saints are nearer to Mistress Quickly than to Virginia Woolf. We mentioned that in view of the probable general strike the following day we might not be able to start filming till the day after. "I'll come for you," Mother Teresa said, and

she did, in her rickety old ambulance, which drove up exactly on time to the entrance of our hotel.

We were almost the only vehicle on the road, and I should suppose, almost the only foreigners able to carry on with our work that day. It was weird driving through the empty streets, with everything closed, and even the people somehow subdued.

We began by filming the Sisters daily life, which begins at 4.30 am with meditation followed by Mass. Their chapel is very simple and rather beautiful, though the street outside is so noisy (except on the day of the strike, which, as it happened. fitted in well with our filming's exigencies) that, what with clanging trams, street cries and car hooters. it is often difficult to follow the words of the serviceS:

This, Mother Teresa contends. is appropriate. and in keeping with their situation — right at the heart of the world's tumult, among the poorest of the poor. Those beloved poor, so very dear to them all!

After Mass, the Sisters do their washing and other chores with great vigour. Everything is done vigorously. They each have a bucket: pretty well their only possession.

After breakfast they go off to their various outside duties — some to the derelict and dying brought in off the streets, some to schools and dispensaries, some to the lepers and some to the babies and children they acquire out of dustbins, or from midwives who have them left on their hands: all the unwanted children who come to them in increasing numbers as it becomes known that, however overcrowded and overworked they may be, none will ever be refused.

Before leaving, the Sisters fill their bags with bread, provided, I was proud to learn, by British schoolchildren. If any of them see these words, may I tell them how infinitely worthwhile their gift is. It is an austere and tough life, especially for the Sisters the majority, actually — who came from middle class Indian homes. Yet I never met such ''chanting, happy women, or such an atmosphere of


Mother Teresa. as she explained to me, attaches the utmost importance to this joyousness; the poor, she says, deserve not just the service and dedication, but also the joy that belongs to human love.

Notoriously the religious orders are nowadays short of vocations. Nor has permitting nuns to use lipstick and wear mini-habits served to reverse the trend. On the other hand, the Missionaries of Charity are multiplying at a fantastic rate; their CalCulla house is bursting at the seams, and each year three or four new enterprises are started, in India and elsewhere.

As the whole story of Christendom shows, when everything is asked for everything — and more — will be accorded; when little, then nothing. Curious. when this is so obvious that today the contrary proposition should seem to be more acceptable!

Accompanying Mother Teresa, as we did, to these different activities — to the dying from the streets. to the lepers, to the unwanted children (some of the babies so minute that it seems inconceivable they could survive, yet many did) I found I went through three phases.

The first was horror mixed with pity, the second compassion pure and simple, and the third, reaching beyond compassion, something I had never experienced before the awareness that these dying and derelict men and women, these lepers with stumps instead of hands, these unwanted children, were somehow not repulsive or pitiable, but rather dear and delightful; as if they might be friends of long standing, or brothers and sisters.

How can I explain it — the very heart and mystery of the Christian Faith? To soothe those battered old heads, to grasp those poor stumps, to take in one's arms those children consigned to dustbins, because it is His head. as they are His stumps, and His children, of whom He said that whoso received one such child in His name received Him.

On the flyleaf of the little manual of devotion the Sisters use which Mother Teresa gave me (a precious possession), she wrote: "Make us worthy. Lord, to serve our fellow men throughout the world, to live and die in poverty and hunger. Give them through our hands this day their daily bread, and by our understanding love, give peace and joy."

Such is that work, and such the spirit in which they undertake it I had various conversations with Mother Teresa before the cameras and away from them.

Her faith is a personal relationship with God and the Incarnate Christ; the Mass the spiritual fuel which keeps her going, the Church something she belongs to and serves as revealing and fulfilling God's purpose on earth.

The various conflicts and controversies now shaking it scarcely touch her; they will pass, she says, and the Church will remain to perform its divinely inspired and directed function.

Her efficiency is staggering; everything is perfectly organised and administered without any organisation or administration. Two Sisters with two old typewriters represent the total administrative staff.

Mother Teresa writes whatever needs to he written by hand in the night hours. Then, too, I suppose she makes her plans, or rather receives them.

She lets out things casually; as that she bought a printing press for the lepers so that they could print pamphlets and letters and make a little money. How, in God's name, I asked myself, did she know what press to buy and where to buy it?

And with those stumps, how could they set type? Fatuous questions! The press is there and working, the lepers are delighted with it.

She has a geography of her own — of compassion. Somehow she hears that in Venezuela there are abandoned poor; so off the Sisters go, and a house is set up. Now she has heard that the aboriginals and half-castes in Australia need love and care; they will be forthcoming.

When she is away in Europe or America she only longs to be back in Calcutta with her poor.

If you raise questions like the undesirability of pulling children out of dustbins when there are too many in India already, they do not seem to impinge. She looks at you with a kind of wonder, as if you said there were too many bluebells in the woods.

On leaving India after his visit there the Pope gave her his car, for the disposal of which she shrewdly arranged a raffle, raising enough money thereby to start building a settlement for her lepers on a piece of ground given her by the government at Shantinagar in Bengal. I don't believe she ever took a ride in it.

Walking with her among the people queueing at one of her dispensaries, I kept hearing the muttered word, "Mother!" It wasn't that they had anything to say to her or ask her; they just wanted to establish contact. I quite understood. The Sisters likewise need her presence; the ones away from Calcutta long for her visits.

Fr Andrew, an Australian Jesuit, has joined her to look after the Brothers, attached to her, who go to places — the Calcutta Railway Station, for instance, a strange wild, world of its own — where the Sisters might be at a disadvantage.

He was a perfect choice, a man of the utmost gentleness and sweetness with a house full of turbulent, cheerful boys.

To me, Mother Teresa represents love in action, which is surely what Christianity is about. Perhaps the geneticists and family-planners and abortionists will succeed in constructing a boiler-house set-up where Mother Teresa is unneeded, but even then I expect there will be some dropouts with wounds that need healing, wants that need satisfying, and souls that need saving. There she will be.

On the last day I saw her off in the early morning to Shantinagar, where she was having trouble with the building contractor. I left her seated in a thirdclass carriage (she has a railway pass provided by the government) with Sister Lourdes beside her.

Outside, the day had still scarcely begun. The Calcutta streets were strewn with sleeping figures; the day before's garbage piled up, and a few picking it over for anything edible.

Yet I swear that, thanks to Mother Teresa, I saw God's love and compassion shining down with the early morning sun as I never had in Piccadilly or the Rue de Rivoli or Park Avenue.

This article was first printed in The Catholic Herald on May 16, 1969. iswas plagued throughout my childhood and into my adult life with evere mental illness. Paranoid schizophrenia, manic depression and psychopathy were diagnosed at 27 years of age and despite having trained as a nurse and tutor, I never worked again.

Cathy, my wife, and our three children grew together — despite the serious difficulties that Cathy and the children had to cope with.

The years passed by, with support from our GP, Dr Chandy, and our local priest Canon Woodhouse. Life was not easy.

In my mid forties I saw a moving television programme entitled Foothold in Heaven, which featured Mother Teresa visiting London. I was so moved by her spiritual beauty and goodness that I knew I had to make contact. I was at my lowest ebb.

I wrote to Mother Teresa, at the Mother House, in Calcutta. Much to my amazement, she responded, and that was the beginning of a remarkable correspondence. I received 32 letters from 1989 to just before her death in June 1997.

I then started to telephone her wherever she was in the world; and she always had time to speak with me, reassuringly.

Mother Teresa then happily agreed to meet with me, first in Rome, then in London and Belgium. I met her three times in Rome, once in Belgium and four times in London. She never refused. She used to say every person she met was Jesus within. I thank God for Mother's friendship.

On each visit local people and family members would give gifts and money for her poor; she accepted joyfully in Jesus' name.

On my second visit to Mother Teresa, in Rome in 1990, a most beautiful experience took place. I believe it was the beginning of the healing within.

Mother came into the little room, adjoining the chapel and looking out into the courtyard beyond — and suddenly I became transfixed by her smiling face. There was not a wrinkle in her facial features and there was a haze surrounding her very being, blocking out totally the courtyard beyond. It was like a "spiritual spell-.

Mother then smiled again, and she told me I would be fine: "See your priest for confession." I don't know how long it lasted and I cannot remember any conversation passing our lips.

As the letters continued to flow, the visits to Mother came and went, and our telephone conversations continued, hut her health was failing rapidly.

Cathy told me to visit her in May 1997. She said: "Your old friend is dying, Norman, you must visit her in Rome to say goodbye." I dutifully obeyed my wife.

I arranged to meet Mother in Caselina convent in Rome. We talked together in the courtyard; she was using a wheelchair. I think the most poignant moment was when Mother and I slowly walked to the entrance of the chapel. Nuns were walking in and out to pray.

Mother Teresa asked me to kneel and she bowed, and we prayed together. I thanked God for my friend and all that she had done for me personally, and the world's poor. Thank God.

We then slowly returned to our seats. She told me I would be well soon, and insisted that I attend Mass early next morning, before returning to Britain.

On returning home to Peterlee, County Durham, I said to Cathy that she was right, and I thanked God for having seen Mother Mresa before her death.

On September 5, 1997 Mother Thresa died. I continued my work as a coworker for her order, but she was sadly missed.

On the same day two years later, I had a brief visit from Mother Teresa in a dream. She told me I was well now; I was healed, thank God.

On October 7, 2000, I visited the Mother House to pray at her tomb and to celebrate 50 years since she founded the Missionaries of Charity order.

Our doctors had written to Sister Ninnala, who had replaced Mother Teresa, and the postulator Fr Brian Kolodiejchuk Was in no doubt, after investigation, that it was a "miracle", but not a provable miracle, as mental illness could never be. Only physical miracles were acceptable. The Vatican, however, accepted the case as a strong "favour".

My friendship with the order continued, and after my first visit to Calcutta, I visited again twice in 2001, taking lots of God's love in 31 boxes from schools, shops and industry. People responded beautifully.

In 2002, thousands of people were involved from the North East, North West and Oxford; and 56 boxes (weighing more than a ton) were sent to Shishu Bhavan orphanage, two blocks from the Mother House. Cathy and I have never seen as much kindness front people of all religions and none. I will always thank God.

British Airways sent the 56 boxes from Newcastle to Calcutta free of charge.

I have been very fortunate to have known Mother Thresa, and by the time you read this I will have been among the hundreds of thousands of people in St Peter's Square witnessing Mother Teresa's beatification. Thank God.

Norman Imms

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