01.07.2009

Hard Love

Wrapped in the emblematic blue-bordered sari, Mother Teresa's wrinkle-wreathed face symbolised hope, courage and compassion for almost 50 years. She inspired the world by caring for people living in desperate poverty in Calcutta's teeming slums, earning the sobriquet "Saint of the Gutters". Among those whom she inspired was an Australian teenager, Colette Livermore.

From an early age, Colette had been keen to study medicine. Then, shortly before her HSC exam, she saw the film Something Beautiful for God which depicts how Mother Teresa heard the call of Christ to serve the dying, sick and homeless in riot-torn Calcutta. This film resonated deeply with Colette's ideals.

"It seemed like a beautiful ideal to live a simple life in a community among the poor, to support and help each other, to respond to each person in need as a sacred and holy person and to have time for prayer and reflection," Colette, now Dr Livermore, recalls.

She believes that life is a lottery and by joining Mother Teresa she hoped "to bridge the chasm between the lifestyle we experience in Australia and the hardship encountered in other parts of the world".

Shelving her plans to become a doctor, 18 year old Colette joined the Missionaries of Charity. This was the order set up by Mother Teresa in 1948, which today has thousands of sisters serving the destitute in 133 countries. Mother Teresa was awarded numerous prizes including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. On that occasion she urged her audience to give until it hurts: "...and so this is very important for us to realise that love, to be true, has to hurt." Many considered Mother Teresa to be a living saint.

In Melbourne, Colette was introduced to the Missionaries' Spartan life, where the working day began at 4.40am. Her worldly goods comprised three sets of clothing, eating utensils, bucket, soap tin, pegs, discipline bag and holy books.

Such privations weren't a trouble for Colette, but she struggled with the order's emphasis on blind obedience which often contradicted its aims of responding to the poor and the desperate.

"Someone would come in need and you were trained to respond to them and your whole spiritual path was to respond to them, but often you would be told that this is the wrong time, the wrong day or this is not the right person. These sorts of things would throw me into turmoil like a crisis of conscience," Colette explains.

Nevertheless, Colette persevered and at the age of 21 knelt before Mother Teresa in Fitzroy's All Saints Church and began her life of commitment to the order as Sister Tobit.

Colette has written a book titled Hope Endures, which details her 11 year journey as a nun in Mother Teresa's order. There is almost a gospel quality to the encounters described in the book of nuns working with leprosy sufferers and giving hope and dignity to the dying and desperate in Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, India, Hong Kong and the Australian Outback.

Some of her enduring memories, says Colette, come from her time in Manila where she worked in a home for poor, sick people. "The people in the tahanan (home), most of them had tuberculosis and they were very thin, emaciated; they struggled to breathe. But often they had a good sense of humour and we got to know each other well. Some of them died, but some of them became well."

Two of the patients, Felicitas and her husband Reynaldo, both had TB. Given proper care and medicines both recovered, and when Felicitas gave birth to a little girl, she called her Obit, after Sister Tobit. Colette jokes that she feels sorry for the child to bear such a name!

While in Manila, Colette began visiting a nearby slum, located at the bottom of a huge garbage tip, called Barrio Magdaragat. The people here lived a precarious, disease-ridden existence and were often at the mercy of the elements. The stench from the garbage, where people scavenged for their livelihood, was overwhelming and Colette said she never heard a bird's song in that polluted place.

"In the garbage dump, we would find children who were very sick and malnourished and bring them back to the convent and give them better food and medicines," she recalls. "There were lots of things that felt worthwhile doing." When there was flooding during the monsoon season, families would be displaced from their homes and the Missionaries of Charity often stepped in providing cooked food and rations.

On one occasion, Colette was sent with a German film crew who were making a documentary about the barrio. She took the opportunity to visit a sick child who the nuns had previously taken to hospital. Entering the shanty, she found the six year old girl very sick from dysentery, pneumonia and dehydration. Her pregnant mother was nursing another younger child, who was also sick. The nuns rushed to the nearby Tondo Hospital carrying the sick little girl. Her plight touched the hearts of the film crew who donated money for medicines. Sadly, it was too late for the little girl, who died that night.

But not all interventions were so bleak. Colette continues, "There were times when we were able to save the lives of children. We received a lot of richness back from them - their courage and their patience in putting up with really terrible circumstances."

Despite all this good work, Colette feels there was a paradox at the heart of Mother Teresa. The order's motto was "One heart full of love," but within the community Colette experienced what she described as "institutionalised harshness".

"I've had a lot of contact with ex-Charity sisters and many of them have said they have never been spoken to as harshly as when they were in Mother Teresa's order.

"It seems to me such a contradiction that we were treated in a way that was contrary to the Gospel of Love and then we were asked to put up with it for the sake of the gospel!"

Part of the reason, she feels, is because Mother Teresa was trained in a very rigid order and was strongly influenced by St Ignatius of Loyola, an ex-soldier who founded the Jesuit order. She emphasised how Christ bore his sufferings without complaint and expected her nuns to display full obedience to their superiors. This resulted in an inflexible system. Transgressions resulted in the nun concerned receiving a humiliating dressing down which she had to endure silently.

"Humiliation was considered a spiritual tool, but we know very well in psychology that low self esteem and not addressing the underlying issues is not the way to become a mature human being," says Colette. This led to what she described as "simmering anger and resentment" in the community.

At times, Colette found herself at odds with her superiors because she felt the need to respond to urgent calls for help no matter what hour of day, or where her current duties might lie.

One day, the nuns found a homeless woman suffering from active leprosy in a bus stop shelter. With part of her face eaten away and her legs bleeding from open sores, she was a terrible sight. Colette took the woman back with them, hoping to convey her to a settlement that cared for such people. But she was severely reprimanded for intervening because caring for lepers wasn't part of her duties.

"We took all sorts of precautions to avoid cross infection, but we were still really scolded and humiliated for doing what you'd think is the quintessential reason for being a Missionary of Charity - to respond to a leprosy person in need off the street," says Colette, her frustration still clearly evident.

Such incidents happened all the time and caused her great turmoil. "One of the biggest sources of suffering for me was that you were told this was Christ in the disguise of the poor, but very often the superior would block you from responding."

She contemplated leaving the order a number of times; once she expressed her decision to Mother Teresa, but was told to fight the temptation. She felt bound by her solemn vows to God to serve the poor and to live a religious life. Cut off from friends and family, she lacked a clear perspective.

Then there occurred an incident in Manila, when Colette was first year novice mistress, that shook her resolve. At the time, no new admissions were allowed in the children's home on the nuns' day of recollection. Nevertheless, on this very day, a very sick child was brought in. The novice who admitted the desperate parents came to Colette for guidance.

"I wasn't supposed to admit that child, but I knew that if we didn't do something straightaway the child would probably die. He was obviously very sick, dehydrated, in a lot of trouble."

Colette said she had a very big argument in order to admit the child. He eventually recovered, but the fallout from this incident was that Colette was relieved from her position of novice mistress.

When Colette wrote to Mother Teresa about this incident, she received a reply from another nun reminding her how Mary had watched Jesus die on the cross, accepting the inevitable. She was reminded that obedience came first.

"To me that was totally unacceptable."

Unbeknown to her nuns, for years Mother Teresa had been battling what she described as "tortures of loneliness" and unremitting doubt. Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, published after her death in 1997, portrays her in a very different light to the strong, charismatic woman the world thought it knew.

"Where is my Faith - even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness and darkness - My God - how painful is this known pain - I have no faith..." Mother Teresa wrote in desperation to her confessors.

Mother Teresa died a woman of faith; yet her internal struggles reveal she paid a high price. Quoting the philosopher Simone Weil who said too much suffering can debase us, Colette says, "In every life and in everything we do we have to keep some sort of balance."

Since leaving the order in 1984, she returned to her first career and now practises as a medical doctor. She enjoys study, self development and forming friendships, which she feels help to create a fulfilling life.

So what gives her hope these days? Colette laughs, "Lots of things. Friendships, the beauty of nature, reading - all the normal things - and the realisation that things can improve."

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