I’m Irish. I was born in Ireland. I might, if the occasion called for it, qualify that descriptive by stating that I’m Catholic Irish. I was born in Ireland and raised Catholic, as were my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents… Seems a simple enough logic to me: place of birth dictates nationality.
It used to drive me mad in pre-9/11 America to hear people say they were Irish when they’d been born in North Carolina or South Dakota. Irish-American I could just about handle but I couldn’t for the life of me understand why plain old American didn’t suffice.
When I first discovered the Balkans a whole other level of confusion arose. But the relatively simple statement – I was born in Croatia and I’m Serb – accompanied by a 20-minute history lesson was enough for the penny to finally drop. Ethnicity and nationality – two different things entirely.
This also cleared up the mystery around Mother Teresa, an Albanian born in Macedonia. The site of the house she was born in is marked by four brass L-shapes set into the footpath. Nothing else remains. Inside the nearby memorial house there’s a model of what her home place looked like. Born on 26 August 1910 in Uskup (now Skopje), this tiny woman had a huge impact on the world. In 1928, as the 18-year-old Agnes Bojaxhiu, she decided to become a nun and left for Ireland to join the Loretto Sisters in Dublin. She took the name Sister Mary Teresa after St Thérèse of Lisieux (a particular favourite of mine). From Ireland she was sent to India – first to Darjeeling for her novitiate period, and then to Calcutta, where she taught at St Mary’s High School for Girls. She learned to speak both Bengali and Hindi fluently. In January 1948, she finally got approval to leave the order and set up on her own, working as a medical missionary in the slums of Calcutta.
With little more than six months’ of medical training she went to the slums in Calcutta to fulfill her mission: to aid the unwanted, the unloved, the uncared for. Two years later, in 1950, she set up a new order with just 12 members – The Missionaries of Charity. Over the course of the next 20 years, this tiny woman established ‘a leper colony, an orphanage, a nursing home, a family clinic and a string of mobile health clinics’. No matter what your religious beliefs, that sort of drive has to be admired. Starting out with just 12, by the time she died in 1997, ‘the Missionaries of Charity numbered over 4,000—in addition to thousands more lay volunteers—with 610 foundations in 123 countries on all seven continents’.
The Memorial House of Mother Teresa opened in Skopje in January 2009. It is built on the site where the old Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic church once stood – the church in which she was baptised. Designed by Vangel Božinovski, it is said to be a modern version of her original birthplace. It did nothing for me. It’s busyness contrasts sharply with the simplicity I associate with Mother Teresa and her way of life. But then again, I’m not an architect. And when I read what he had to say: It’s not only an architectural project, it’s a result of my admiration for the work of Mother Teresa as a citizen of Skopje. Here you have her non-religous life and her spiritual life mixed together. This house is not only a house, it represents the city as a whole, I wondered some more.
There’s a chapel on the top floor, which is quite unusual. The mesh of metal outside the glass reminded me so much of barbed wire that I felt as if I were in a prison of sorts. The only clear view to the outside is through the cross. Perhaps that was intentional. I don’t know.
And I didn’t now that she was born in Macedonia. And I didn’t know that she began her nunning in Dublin. And to my shame, I have for all these years thought that she founded the Little Sisters of the Poor and not the Missionaries of Charity. What I did know though was that she was plagued with doubts. [Christopher Hitchens wrote an interesting piece about her in Newsweek back in 2007 which he titled The Dogmatic Doubter.]
So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them—because of the blasphemy—If there be God—please forgive me—When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven—there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.—I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?
In her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1979 she gave one piece of advice: Smile at each other, make time for each other in your family. Not exactly rocket science but imagine how different the world might be were we all to do just that.