Mother Teresa once told me, "has a special place in my heart."
Only since her death have I fully understood why this was so.
I had the humbling experience of passing an
afternoon with "the Mother" in 1994. At the time, she
had already spent nearly half a century in the slums of Calcutta,
feeding the starving, nursing the diseased, and literally lifting
the dying out of the city's gutters.
Nevertheless, I thought she was testing the
limits of even her powers when she telephoned to tell me that she
had decided to come to Oxford to rouse the University's students
from their jaded reveries. As President of the University's Student
Union, I happily if recklessly pushed several Peers of the Realm
off my schedule to welcome her.
I was not alone in my enthusiasm.
When she shuffled into the Union Society which
hosted her visit, the Victorian chamber which had at times stood
half empty before princes of state and industry, groaned at the
joists from the force of students who filled it well beyond its
She stood frail and bent before the crowd, coaxing
out her words. Yet, she was the only one equal to the occasion.
She lifted spirits with her words. She rebuked undergraduate languor
by her example. She dared the gasps of the crowd through her pronouncements.
Never in my experience had the chamber been so alive, or so hushed.
Later, after the pomp of her official visit
was over, we walked through the gardens of one of the monastic Halls.
I questioned her on her decision to open an arm of her Mission in
Parkdale. "Why not?" she asked.
I explained that I had only come to Britain
to study at the University, that I had been born and raised in Parkdale
and intended to return after graduation. "My community does
suffer from many of the evils of poverty," I conceded, "but
surely, there can be no comparison to Calcutta."
She slowed to press her palms together in the
gesture of namaste towards a group of picnicking young women whom
we came upon unawares. Most scrambled to their feet; a few nervously
attempted curtsies; all managed to spill a good deal of Pimms on
themselves. The obvious former debutantes amongst them may have
committed the entirety of Debrett's Correct Form to memory, but
they were clearly ruing the absence of a chapter on how to reply
to a saint-in-waiting.
"Poverty," she replied as we walked
on, "is not the evil. Lovelessness: that is the evil. Hunger
is bad, very bad, but spiritual hunger..."
She went on to describe one of the first Calcuttans
carried into her Mission. "We could not save his life. But
when he died, he died knowing that he was loved, that he was worth
someone's love. The people in your Parkdale might never know this
man's body's pain. But are there no unloved people in your Parkdale?
And who suffers more if, when they die, they die without ever knowing
even the one day of love that he did?"
As much as she was committed to relieving the
material deprivation of the poor, Mother Teresa's real dedication
was to the deeper cause of relieving their spiritual isolation.
However, while I appreciated that despair could lurk in any city,
I still could not see why, when the time came to expand her Mission,
she chose to reach out to a neighbourhood in Canada, in preference
to any of the haemorrhaging cities of India.
It was not until my pause at her death that
I felt the scales fall from my eyes.
The poor of Calcutta suffer so grotesquely and
so publicly that it is impossible for them to pass unnoticed. They
must be acknowledged by the balance of their society, if only to
By contrast, the poor in the developed world
are largely housed, if in squalor, and fed, if badly. Their destitution
is great enough to degrade them, but not so great as to intrude
upon the lives of others. They are, for most Torontonians, a silent,
invisible, utterly unreal people.
This, I believe, is what drew Mother Teresa
to Parkdale, and why it held that "special place" in her
heart. It is terrible to live without ever having known love, without
ever feeling worthy of another's love. But how much worse is it
to live without even existing in the eyes of others, without ever
feeling worthy even of contempt?
By coming to Parkdale, Mother Teresa was not
seeking the poorest of the material poor, but the poorest of the
spiritually poor. She brought the message to Parkdale that we are
worthy not just of acknowledgement, not just of love, but of a love
that reached across the globe.
And ultimately, I believe that Parkdale's "special
place" in her heart won a love that will endure beyond the