Recent Canonization of Mother Teresa Brings Memories, Realizations for IEM CEO

Author: Madhu Beriwal, President/CEO of IEM

When she learned that Mother Teresa had been declared a saint, IEM CEO Madhu Beriwal was taken back to memories from her childhood, which brought home a powerful realization of the impact that Mother Teresa has had on her life. What follows are Madhu’s reflections after hearing this news on September 4, 2016. 

Mother-Theresa-wikipedia.orgI met Mother Teresa in the 1960s. She was famous in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and well-known in India, but word of her ministry had not yet traversed around the world. When I say “met,” it is both saying too much and too little. The all-girls school I attended in Calcutta (sorry, old habits die hard) raised money for her charity and she came to collect it.

Truthfully, we enjoyed raising the money. The school held a fete, a fair, with games, crafts, and food. Parents and siblings attended. A good time was had by all. It seemed almost incidental that the money raised would be given to Mother Teresa.

So, she came. Several hundred girls stood at attention in the Assembly Hall. As was usual, they fidgeted and moved, their regulation shoes creating a high rustling sound. Starched white uniforms moved stiffly, adding their own sound to the low cacophony.

When Mother Teresa entered, it was hard for the girls at the back to see her. She was a small woman, barely 5 feet. She moved very silently on her bare feet, her body encased in the signature white and blue sari. We did not hear her enter. But we sensed her. There was a pull, a presence—an awareness of her that was remarkable. I have met famous men and women before “meeting” Mother Teresa and since “meeting” her—Sir Edmund Hillary, Shri Vinobha Bhave (a pioneer of the Indian Bhoodan or “Land Donation” movement), famous singers, and Presidents of the United States. None created the sense of a soul by their singular presence.

She spoke very softly. The hundreds of girls had to stand absolutely still, making no noise, barely breathing, to hear what she had to say. She spoke of the leper colonies where people with this dread disease were abandoned. She spoke of the destitute and the friendless on the streets of Calcutta. She spoke of the desperately poor. She made us see the City we lived in but did not see. She made us feel, she made us cry.

Years later, I attended the Calcutta all-girls college run by the Loreto Order of Nuns. I heard that Mother Teresa came to India from Ireland as a nun in this order. But, the beautiful, serene marble-clad buildings of the Loreto order did not sit well with her sense of ministry and poverty. Increasingly, she left the safe walls of the convent to attend to the sick and the poor. When she finally broke with the Loreto order to form her own Ministry, her name became forbidden at the Loreto College.

With the clarity of several decades I can see the impact of that early meeting with Mother Teresa on my own life. No, I did not give up secular comforts for a life of service to others. Such sacrifice was not possible for me—I was not cast in her image. I could not endure the path of pain, of endurance, and mission that she followed.

I did absorb a lesson that has been a thread through my life—each life is a gift. Make something of it—eschew the expected, the easy, the cultural norm. Create your own path, and stay true to it. Don’t let culture, traditions, glass ceilings, and naysayers shape what you do.

It hasn’t been easy, and it continues to not be easy. But, when the world seems to press on me from all sides and I feel that moving forward is impossible, I think about what she endured, what she chose, what her ministry accomplished. And that shames me to continue forward—not pursuing happiness but seeking results, creating outcomes; doing my best to leave this world a little better than I found it.

–Madhu Beriwal, September 4, 2016


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