BOOK REVIEW: Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa taught me about meaningful work and service

By Mary Poplin

8053Deep down, my absolute favorite thing to do is shop. As I write this, I’m internally scheming how to get the biggest bang for my buck on my next errand. I like things, especially pretty ones, and acquiring them makes me feel good. As I’ve come to recognize this passion of mine, I’ve found it nagging at me a bit. I know people who hate to shop. On top of that, they also hate to accumulate clutter. Their personality enhances their ability to live simply. Not me. I feel better with full bookshelves, cupboards, and drawers. I find malls comforting and thrift stores exhilarating. Quite likely, my pension to store up treasures here on earth runs a bit too deep.

Enter: Mother Teresa, Mary Poplin, Ron Sider, and Shane Claibourne. Since recognizing the grip that my materialism has on me, I’ve embarked on a slow (and slightly reluctant) quest to examine it. I owned the book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (by Ron Sider) for about five years before I had the guts to actually read it. Then I joined the crowd reading Irresistible Revolution to find myself completely captured by its fresh and clear vision. This fall, I came across Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa taught me about meaningful work and service by Mary Poplin. I’ve long admired Mother Teresa’s work and wisdom; and have also wanted to hear more from Mary Poplin since she spoke on education and poverty at the university where I teach. In spite of my reluctance, my worldview is being reshaped by such books, and my shopping habits are certainly being redefined!

Whereas Rich Christians is factual and data-full, Irresistible Revolution is passionate, funny, and, well, irresistible and revolutionary, Finding Calcutta is simple and focusing. It seems hard for these traits to not follow anything touched by Mother Teresa. Mary Poplin, an education professor, spent her sabbatical as a volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity in 1996, a year before Mother Teresa died. Her book is a reflection on how her time in Calcutta shaped her newly found Christian faith. Writing on themes such as “the church as flawed and finite”, “the vow of poverty and service to the poor”, and “do all things without complaining or disputing”, Poplin provides a glimpse into the daily world and perspective of the Missionaries of Charity.

While Mother Teresa’s words often pierce to the core of an issue, her simple lifestyle illuminates what our complicated lives lack. “There were few toys or books at the centers,” writes Poplin. “The lack of toys concerned no one except an occasional volunteer, like me. I realized more clearly how Americans are accustomed to having so many things that we have trouble coping without them. In the United States, we are entertained day and night; we can hardly live our own lives for living others’ lives – fictional or real – through movies, television, and the news. Both children and adults who have many things constantly want more, and then in a short while, we are restless and bored again.”

While acknowledging the need for Christians to live the type of “revolutions for love” that the Missionaries of Charity practice, Poplin also recognizes that this won’t look the same for everyone. She calls the Sisters of Charity “a class unto themselves”, but also believes that “there are ways we would need to imitate the missionaries in order to be effective”. How does this look? A few of her observations:

  • Commit their lives to God and the Holy Spirit
  • · Follow a leader with a distinct call and submit themselves to this
  • · Keep themselves from worldliness while working “deeply in the troubled heart of the world”
  • · Love selflessly
  • · Pray, worship, and study unceasingly

While on one level, Finding Calcutta is a reflection of one woman’s interaction with Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity, it is also a deeper call to the readers to discover their own ‘Calcutta’ and to live there with the same measure of abandon. With shocking statistics and passionate pleas, Claiborne and Sider’s books stirred me out of a numb slumber. I am grateful for their perspective, but also left overwhelmed by what to do next. The charge is large and my capacities are small. The simplicity and focus of the sisters in Finding Calcutta helped me acknowledge that the small ways I move toward offering my life (even addressing those darn shopping addictions) can be as “beautiful for God” as an irresistible revolution.


2 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa taught me about meaningful work and service”

  1. Is it not a shock to find when reading such works that our hearts are indeed deeply moved and yet not in a way which results in guilt, hopelessness and despondency. How good it is to feel real compassion for the poor, have a real passion to help them, integrate these urges where we are and not be bogged down by the woes of the world.

    Thank God Jesus is saving the world and we don’t have to. We just have to do what He tells us and that will do nicely.


  2. Hi Jody, Thanks for this post – thought-provoking as usual! Useful as I wrestle with a pull to the ‘developing’ world, and the tug back to all the convenience and entertainment of my urban life here. I’ll have to read this book. — Susie


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s