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Book Review: Walking in Mother Teresa’s footsteps

By Sister Jean Peerenboom, OSF

Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service by Mary Poplin (IVP Books, $15).

Mother Teresa has more than likely changed many lives during her grace-filled time on earth. Mary Poplin was one person whose life changed dramatically in her two-month encounter with the sainted nun, and she needed to share her story.

Though Finding Calcutta has biographical information about Mother Teresa, it is not a biography. It is a spiritual travelogue on how two months in Calcutta led to a lifetime conversion for Poplin.

“It is the story of how God used Mother Teresa and her Missionaries to cause a crisis in my own life which revealed more clearly my purpose and my calling. Mother called it ‘finding your Calcutta,’” Poplin says.

Poplin went to Calcutta in the spring of 1996. She worked for two months as a volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa was 86 years old at the time; Poplin was 44. Poplin grew up Protestant, left the church, tried the Methodist Church as an adult, but didn’t really find Christianity until her stay in Calcutta. She was spiritually searching when she wrote to Mother Teresa in 1995. There is no doubt it was a positive experience for her and she ably shares it in this book.

“I learned to serve Jesus by serving people,” she writes, “or that serving people and serving Jesus are one and the same.”

She also reflects on how Christianity can fit into modern culture and vice versa. People shouldn’t have to walk in two worlds is the message in her conclusion. There are ways to incorporate Christian values and she learned to do this in her teaching when she returned to university teaching.

Some of the lessons she shares include:

Spirituality vs. religion: “Some of the young volunteers seemed lost in a world that offered them more choices than direction,” she says. “They wanted to be countercultural, but did not know why or how. They wanted to believe that all religions make people good, and they desperately wanted to be good.” They described themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious.”

“I believe Mother Teresa drew them because they already had become disillusioned with the world, and their lives felt uncertain and meaningless. She was someone who knew her purpose in life. They admired her work but had little understanding or teaching about the Christ that led and sustained her.”

Some of these young people ignored her talk of Jesus and her requests that they attend Mass, “chalking it up to an old woman who did not understand their world. They were unaware that this was the most important thing they could learn from her.”

Reframing her thinking about life as a Christian: Poplin came to understand that social workers and others move in and out of private middle class lives to serve the poor, while the Missionaries of Charity “live the lives of the poor” every day, all day for no salary. “To me, the work would have soon become boring, physically grueling and even discouraging, but not for them. Mother Teresa said, ‘A Christian is a tabernacle of the living God.’ That is the way they saw their work – as God dwelling in them.”

Poplin began to think of how differently she would work if she really saw each person as a “hungry, hurting Christ. What if every time someone came to me with a problem, I responded as though Christ himself had approached me? What if I saw everyone all day long as in need of a touch from God, and what if I were yielded enough that God could actually use me to give his touch?”

The transforming work of the Spirit: While working in a nursery run by the Sisters, she cared for a very ill infant. “In those moments, I saw this child for the first time as he really was, as the Missionaries saw him – Jesus in the distressing disguise of a poor, lame, hurting child. I must tell you that the moment I saw him weeping and realized the wretchedness in my heart, I knew it was sin. … I asked Christ to forgive me and change me.”

Mother Teresa also taught her not to give in to discouragement and how God’s love abounds. It is an uplifting book, written in a realistic fashion not sugary sweet. She admires Mother Teresa without fawning over her.

A word of caution, beware of the Scripture interpretation. Poplin is enthusiastic about her new-found religion and a few times I was uncomfortable with the way Scripture was used, especially in the chapter on abortion.

But overall, Poplin’s lessons are worthy of our attention. She concludes: “Mother Teresa showed me that no job is too small, but my spirit may be. She showed me that it is less about the actual work and more about the attitudes and the spirit in which we do it. …”

The way “Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity evangelize the world: by living out the invincible, incomprehensible, almost unbearable love of Christ.”

That’s an interpretation we can all live by.

Sister Jean Peerenboom is the former religion/books editor from the Green Bay Press Gazette. Sister Jean is a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross. She writes a monthly book review for the Holy Cross Family Blogspot.

To read all of Sister Jean Peerenboom's book reviews, click here.

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