A Revolution of Love: The Meaning of Mother Teresaby David Scott
In this Mother Teresa biography by David Scott, we meet the Mother Teresa that we would never have met simply from television interviews or news images. A complex figure, Mother Teresa found her life's work only after years of false starts and by overcoming great practical difficulties. Her love for the poor was accompanied by a stern critique of the rich and
In this Mother Teresa biography by David Scott, we meet the Mother Teresa that we would never have met simply from television interviews or news images. A complex figure, Mother Teresa found her life's work only after years of false starts and by overcoming great practical difficulties. Her love for the poor was accompanied by a stern critique of the rich and powerful. And she lived much of her life in an anguished dark night of the soul. Discover the real Mother Teresa in this inspiring yet unsentimental biography of her life
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Read an Excerpt
The Scent of Sanctity
You know my God. My God is called love.
A Mother Made Blessed
What’s so special about Mother Teresa? Why did everybody from the president of the United States to your neighbor next-door call her a “living saint”? Why, now that she is dead, is the Roman Catholic Church ready to affirm with finality that she is dwelling in heaven, near to the face of God, a saint we can ask prayers from and pattern our lives after?
If we go with the official definition of a saint from the Catholic catechism, we would say she is worthy of sainthood because she “practiced heroic virtue”—that she lived by faith, hope, and love, and was prudent, just, temperate, and fortitudinous, or brave. Pope John Paul II said as much on October 19, 2003 when he beatified Mother Teresa during a solemn ceremony before a throng of 300,000 devotees in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.
Technically, the pope declared Mother Teresa a blessed, not a saint. On the Catholic ladder of sanctity, you find the blesseds one rung down from the saints, who’ve made it all the way to the top. Practically speaking, however, there’s not much difference anymore.
In fact, there were rumors that John Paul wanted to skip the preliminary step of beatification and go directly to the canonization stage—inscribing Teresa of Calcutta’s name right away in the canon, or register, of saints. Vatican officials, worried lest he appear to be bending the rules for an old friend and confidant, reportedly talked him out of it.
Nonetheless, now that Mother Teresa has become Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, you can name churches after her, pray for her help, read her writings as bearing a certain divine stamp of approval, and make her your role model—as you would with any saint. There just won’t be a feast day in her honor on the Church’s calendar. Not until she is made a saint, that is. But all the experts agree that it’s only a matter of time before that happens.
None of this, however, helps us figure out what qualifies her for such lofty stature in the first place.
It cannot be because she led a stirring life. She has no dramatic conversion story. She wasn’t knocked off a horse and blinded by a brilliant light and voice from heaven, as St. Paul was. We find with her none of the high sexual drama that Augustine confessed. There is none of the shuttle diplomacy of Bridget of Sweden or Catherine of Siena. Unlike St. Thomas More, she didn’t have her head chopped off for standing in the way of a lusty king’s ambitions. Her contemporary, Padre Pio, declared a saint in 2002, was a stigmatic, one whose hands and feet bore Christlike wounds. Teresa wasn’t one of those either.
Mother Teresa was simply a cradle Catholic raised in a pious, generous home, who went off at age eighteen to be a nun in the missions in India. Some years later she was riding on a train and she heard a voice that she took to be that of Jesus telling her to leave her religious order to serve the poor. So that’s what she did.
But the work that made her famous, while admirable, wasn’t all that exceptional, especially not for a nun. You can find plenty of people doing what she did—taking care of the sick and the dying, finding homes for abandoned children, defending the poor, the unwanted, and the unborn.
There is no denying she was a devout, deeply prayerful woman who knew her Bible. But a great spiritual master, a poet laureate of the soul—these things she was apparently not. She was a saint of the commonplace—a sound-bite saint—uttering gnomic things such as, “Do something beautiful for God” and “Many people are talking about the poor, but very few people talk to the poor.”
“Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent,” the great essayist, George Orwell, wrote of Mahatma Gandhi.
And there have always been plenty of people ready to bring up Mother Teresa on charges of being a great fakir in whom can be found much guile, a kind of Trojan horse for reactionary popery and medieval morals, a peddler of religious Prozac for the poor.
That’s not unusual. Saints always attract their share of detractors and devil’s advocates. The sermons of St. John Vianney so incensed dance-hall proprietors in his nineteenth-century French town that they used to send ladies of ill repute to sing lewd songs outside his window about how he had sired love-children by them.
A lot of people didn’t like what Mother Teresa stood for either. She drew fire from a loose coalition of atheists and agnostics, abortion advocates, and others who wanted the Catholic Church of the late twentieth century to start endorsing a lot of things it had never endorsed before—women priests, birth control, violent revolution, divorce, and more.
What really seemed to rankle her detractors was the success of the religious order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity—more than 4,000 nuns serving the poor in 123 countries by the time of her death in 1997, along with another 400 or so religious “brothers” and thousands of lay volunteers.
What her opponents couldn’t explain, some tried to chalk up to corruption and ill-gotten gain. But even these folks couldn’t turn any real dirt on her.
One of Orwell’s brightest disciples, British journalist Christopher Hitchens, tried the hardest. But his 1995 exposé, The Missionary Position, when shorn of its antireligious cant, actually exposed very little: her hospices for the destitute dying needed modernizing; she kept the names of those who gave her money confidential along with the amounts of their donations; and she sometimes supped with sinners and accepted contributions from them.
Reality with Mother Teresa was far less sinister: she worked hard, prayed a lot, lived simply, and died as she lived—her personal effects consisting of a prayer book, a pair of sandals and a couple of saris, the trademark blue and white linen habit of her order.
What Becomes a Saint
Is this enough to make you a saint—to lead a simple, prayerful life and do good unto others? Yes and no. Inevitably, with this line of questioning, you wind up taking a sort of reductionist approach to sainthood, as if being named a saint is like getting the gold watch for a lifetime of loyal Catholic service.
To really understand why the Church wants to call Mother Teresa a saint and to understand her meaning for our times, requires putting out into the depths of the Catholic psyche and imagination. Other religious traditions esteem holy men and women, (mostly men it must be said): Buddhists have bodhisattvas and Hindus their gurus; Jews have tsaddikim and Muslims their awliya’Allah. Only in Catholicism do we find holy humans at the center of the cult and culture of the religion, as if hardwired into the deep structures of believers’ identities.
“Our Church is the Church of the saints . . . Those who have once realized this have found their way to the very heart of the Catholic faith,” the Catholic essayist and novelist Georges Bernanos wrote in the 1930s.
The outsider sees only what they label as kitsch—St. Christopher medals on dashboards, “Thank you, St. Jude!” ads in the classifieds, animal and throat blessings, Madonnas with puppy-dog eyes and flaming hearts. But even these more exuberant expressions of popular piety reflect a sensibility that’s authentically and uniquely Catholic.
Catholics hold that God, the maker of the universe, came down from heaven and became a real flesh-and-blood man named Jesus; that He grew from an embryo in a mother’s womb, experienced all the joys and anguish of human existence, save for sin; that He died and rose, body and soul, into heaven. Catholics believe that this same Jesus every day becomes their real food and drink, that He comes to their altars always and everywhere His Church remembers His death and resurrection in the Eucharist.
God does all this, Catholics believe, because He wants human beings to share in His very own life. This is the essence of a short prayer the priest prays silently at the altar before every Eucharist: “By the mingling of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.”
Think of the saints as God’s answer to that prayer. The prayer itself grew out of a slogan used in the early Church, a kind of snappy shorthand for what Catholicism is still supposed to be all about: “God became human so that humans might become divine.”
Catholics believe that because Jesus shared our human life, we can share His. Because He became human, humans can aspire to the divine. Jesus showed not only the face of God, but the true face of the human person and thus the glorious place that men and women hold in God’s creation. “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” That was another important slogan in the early Church, attributed first to St. Irenaeus, a bishop in late second-century Lyons.
The saints embody what Irenaeus was talking about—the human person most fully alive, living the life that Jesus came to give, a divine life in human skin. If dogmas and doctrines are the theorem, the saints are the proofs of Catholicism.
The saints aren’t angels. Nor are they like Hindu avatars—incarnate visitors from the Godhead. The saints are human. All too human in some cases. When the Church declares somebody a saint, it is not saying that the person never sinned or made a mistake. It doesn’t mean that the saint said, did, or thought the saintly thing in every circumstance.
You can take the saint out of the world, but you can’t take the world completely out of the saint. Saints can be as blinkered as the rest of us in their social and political opinions and as prone as others to the prejudices of their time and place. Sainthood doesn’t even guarantee that these people were much fun to be around—some are known to have been quirky, cantankerous, and temperamental.
Saints, in short, are still sinners. But we don’t have to go so far as to embrace Ambrose Bierce’s cynical definition in The Devil’s Dictionary: “A saint is a dead sinner, revised and edited.”
Flaws and all, what sets the saints apart from the rest of us is their powerful thirst for the holy, for total communion with God. They stand out because of their constant struggle to rise above the selfish limits of their human nature, to love with all their strength, to live by the grace of God alone.
We don’t know what secret sins or temptations Mother Teresa struggled with. Certainly her visible sins and failings were negligible. We suspect she may have confessed to a sin similar to the one Orwell guessed to be Gandhi’s—“vanity . . . the consciousness of himself as a humble, naked old man, sitting on a praying mat and shaking empires by sheer spiritual power.”
Mother Teresa did appear to be keenly aware of the persuasive moral power that lay in her stooped, diminutive appearance, her poverty, and her prayerfulness. And people were sometimes surprised at how little she suffered fools and how relentless and demanding she could be in pursuing her objectives.
Bob Geldof fronted a rock band called the Boomtown Rats and spearheaded celebrity concerts in the 1980s to raise money for Africa’s needy. He met Mother Teresa in Ethiopia and came away with these thoughts:
There was nothing otherworldly or divine about her. The way she spoke to the journalists showed her to be as deft a manipulator of media as any high-powered American public relations expert. She does a sort of “Oh dear, I’m just a frail old lady” schtick. . . . There was no false modesty about her and there was a certainty of purpose, which left her little patience. But she was totally selfless; every moment her aim seemed to be, how can I use this or that situation to help others?
Supposing this is an accurate description, is this mix of calculation, ambition, and media savvy inconsistent with holiness? Hardly. Did she, as Orwell wondered about Gandhi, compromise her religious beliefs by mucking around in the worlds of politics and media to achieve her objectives? Maybe a little. Does it disqualify her from sainthood? If you think so, you’re laboring under a gingerbread, holy-card idea of sainthood. The mistake is to equate divinity and sanctity with otherworldliness—as if the truly holy don’t need to have an action plan or to be briefed before meetings. As if the saint has somehow risen above the cares and realities of this world.
The saints of any day and age don’t renounce the world so much as they put it in its proper perspective—as no lasting city but rather a place of pilgrimage and testing. Saints see earthly life as a passage on their way home to the Father. The saints may have their hearts in the heavenly highlands, but they always have both feet planted on this earth. Which is why the saints have always been known to give till it hurts when it comes to helping relieve earthly sufferings and misery.
In Mother Teresa’s case, media glare and attention were part of the cross she had to bear. But even this she transfigured with a perfect Catholic gesture: she would tell journalists that for every photo they snapped she asked Jesus to please take a suffering soul out of purgatory.
“For me it is more difficult than bathing a leper,” she said of meeting the press. But, she added, “the press makes people aware of the poor, and that is worth any sacrifice on my part.” We have no good reason to doubt her sincerity in any of this. Why should a twentieth-century saint be above using political means and the mass media to spread the fragrance of divine compassion in the world?
It seemed though, that people preferred to paint Mother Teresa on a stained-glass window, as a figure more ethereal than real. You had the feeling that people were trying to make themselves feel better, looking for ways to dismiss her witness, trying to get off the hook of living up to her example. Sometimes, they would invoke her name as a kind of apologia for their own apathy: “What do you think I am? Some kind of Mother Teresa?”
But Mother Teresa couldn’t be dismissed that easily. She still can’t. People came away from her touched and moved. They couldn’t quite describe it, but they knew they’d been in the presence of a holy woman. It wasn’t only her reputation, some pious power of suggestion. People felt that way even when they didn’t want to.
One day in Calcutta, she took a woman in off the street. The woman’s body was a mess of open sores, infested with bugs. Mother Teresa patiently bathed her, cleaned and dressed her wounds. The whole time the woman never stopped shrieking at her with swear words, insults, and threats. Mother Teresa only smiled at her.
Finally, the woman snarled, “Sister, why are you doing this? Not everyone behaves like you. Who taught you?”
Mother Teresa said simply, “My God taught me.” The woman asked to know her God. Mother Teresa kissed her on the forehead and replied, “You know my God. My God is called love.”
When God Wants a Saint
Mother Teresa had about her what an older generation of Catholic writers termed “the odor of sanctity”—something like the sweet smell of spiritual success. This book is an effort to follow her scent, to track Mother Teresa down the trail she left behind. You are not about to read a systematic study, a critical biography, or an inquest. This is more a series of meditations on her life and her times, which happen to be the times we’re still living in.
This book starts by taking seriously the Catholic assumption that saints aren’t born and they aren’t made. They’re sent. Catholics don’t believe that saints just spring up randomly, like wildflowers in the garden of a culture. They are not the products of their training, hard work, and perseverance, like a concert cellist or a golf pro might be. They are not beneficiaries of a special honor conferred by the pope or the Church.
The Church doesn’t make saints. In fact, the Church’s exhaustive saint-making procedures—combing over every word the candidate ever uttered in print or in conversation, interviewing all known associates and contacts, studying behavior, habits, and personality traits—are designed only to figure out whether or not God has made this person a saint.
Even after the person’s cause is studied extensively, God still has the last word. The pope can’t canonize or beatify anybody unless he can prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the candidate is in heaven and has God’s ear. The only way to really prove this is to find a miracle, usually a cure or healing, that can be chalked up to the saint’s heavenly influence or intercession.
Mother Teresa would still be languishing in the “venerable” department of the Communion of Saints if it had not been proven that an Indian women’s huge stomach tumor vanished after she prayed for Mother Teresa’s help.
This is where we get uncomfortable. We like to believe we’re in charge, that we can find an earthly cause for every effect, a rational, scientific explanation for everything. But to understand the saints, we have to suspend our disbelief. It’s part and parcel of the Catholic worldview to believe that history is His story, a divine work in progress, and that everything from your individual biography to the fate of nations is moving according to God’s design and purpose.
According to the great Catholic spiritual masters, God “writes” the world the way human authors write a book. The big difference is that God can do more than just imagine scenes, plot, characters, and dialogue—He can create them. If God wants light, His word is His command: “Let there be light.” If God wants the sea to split and Pharaoh’s armies drowned, He makes it happen. If He wants a prophet, He goes to a vineyard and plucks up a farmer named Amos.
Now, that doesn’t mean that Amos has to follow God—he is free to say no. The point is that God didn’t stop calling men and women like Amos, didn’t stop “writing” the world on the last page of the Bible. The Bible itself promises that God will keep adding chapters to the history of His Church until the end of time. Think of the saints as key players in God’s narrative strategy. “It’s all God’s doing. When God wants a saint, He makes one,” St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote in her memoir.
Granted, in the making of saints God seems to be repeating Himself a lot. After all, Catholics believe that with Jesus, the Word made flesh, God told us everything we needed to know—about who He is, who we’re meant to be, and how we’re supposed to live.
If God has said what He had to say, why do we need the saints? The short answer is that we don’t, necessarily. Jesus remains with the Church, as He promised—in the sacred Scriptures, in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and in the poor and dispossessed. That’s all Catholics need to find true happiness in this life, and salvation and bliss in the life to come.
So we’re free to ignore the saints. We don’t have to believe any alleged miracles; we can go a lifetime without praying for the saints’ intercession before the throne of God. Nonetheless, the saints are another face of Jesus. In the saints, God keeps His conversation with humanity going, keeps His face ever before ours. The saints are God’s answer to the question of what Jesus would do in a given time and place.
“In the life of a saint, we have a microcosm of the whole work of God,” wrote Cardinal John Henry Newman, himself now a candidate for the holy rolls. In the saints, God reassures us of His love, shows us another way out, lights a path for us in the falling dark of the world.
God’s Good News
Not all saints are created equal. Sainthood, like politics, is all local. That’s why you’ve never heard of the vast majority of those in Butler’s Lives of the Saints or 99 percent of the nearly 2,000 saints and blesseds named by Pope John Paul II in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Most saints are hometown heroes, local boys and girls made good—very good. That’s not at all to diminish them. Every saint reflects the glory of Christ. But most were made saints because they were able to translate the gospel into a way of life that spoke in a special way to their time and place.
Some saints—a handful in the past 2,000 or more years—are sent to bear a message that transcends their moment and culture. They’re raised up at critical junctures in history, when great gospel truths are in danger of being hijacked by heretics or plowed under by Christian indifference and forgetfulness.
These saints function something like the chorus did in an ancient Greek play—giving us the divine Author’s commentary on events as they unfold in the Church or on the world stage. These saints speak God’s truth, in actions and in words, to the powers and principalities of their day. And in that they speak to believers of all ages.
Augustine was one of these rare saints. So were Francis of Assisi and Thérèse of Lisieux. There are many others, of course, many of them martyred for the message they were sent to deliver.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta will be numbered among these special saints. The good she did wasn’t done in a vacuum; the prayers she prayed weren’t prayed without context. In the chapters that follow, we’ll see that through her life God cast a searching light on the world and the times we live in. Fine details of her life seem choreographed from above. Early episodes sound themes that are picked up later. Chance encounters become signs pointing to larger meanings.
Mother Teresa will be known as the first saint of the global village, of a world made smaller by money and media, travel and entertainment.
As the highways and waterways of the Roman empire paved the way for the Christian gospel to be preached to the ends of the known world, the communications networks of the information age brought Mother Teresa’s face into every living room when that gospel had withered in influence, was fading from the collective memory of the West.
Unlike any other saint in history, in her lifetime she became known the world over, from mansions in the Hollywood hills to dirt hovels in El Salvador. That’s because unlike any saint before her, Mother Teresa was sent by God, not to her isolated nation or region, but to the whole world.
She was sent to help us see our globalized world as something of a false idol, a kind of mock mirror of Catholicism, history’s first global religion—the word catholic meaning, of course, “whole” or “universal.”
Catholics envision humanity—with all its different cultures, races, and even religions—as a single world family, a people loving one another and loving God. Mother Teresa showed us how far our world is from that. She showed us a world cleaved apart by blood and class, caste and creed, a world that fixed an impassable gulf between those who have too much and those who have nothing at all. She showed us a world in which people don’t matter, especially the weak: the baby in the womb, the poor, the sick, the old. She showed us a world of people torn apart from within, not knowing who they are or what they should be about, not knowing what meaning there is to life, if any.
Mother Teresa became a household name in this world because God needed a witness, needed to send some sign that He is still on earth and that hope is growing like a seed beneath all the bleak contingencies of our days.
To carry out her task, she made herself transparent. We could see right through her—to Jesus. God made her to be the face of Christ in an age that couldn’t remember what He looked like or why He came in the first place.
But she wanted us to see something more. She wanted to be our mirror. Whenever she fielded the inevitable question: “What’s it like to be a living saint?” she always shot back, “I’m very happy if you can see Jesus in me, because I can see Jesus in you. But holiness is not just for a few people. It’s for everyone, including you.”
She came preaching universal holiness in a universally unholy time. Beneath all the messages she was sent to deliver, this was her most sublime: that God didn’t share in our humanity so that a chosen few could be raised to the altars by the pope at St. Peter’s. God has global ambitions. He wants to create a new humanity, a race of heroes and saints, a race that includes you and me.
Mother Teresa called for a revolution of saints, of holiness. What is holiness? Nothing but love as an all-consuming lifestyle. “Holiness,” she said in both words and actions, “is the acceptance of God with a smile, at all times, anywhere, and everywhere.”
Holiness is to give yourself to God, to give up all those things you don’t need, all those things that don’t lead you to God, and to spend your days serving your neighbors.
“Today, be the sunshine of God’s love,” she would say. “You are God’s Good News; you are God’s love in action. . . . Each time people come into contact with us, they must become different and better people because of having met us. We must radiate God’s love.”
It was on the question of holiness that Orwell finally wrote off Gandhi and his approach to the world. “The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection,” Orwell argued. “Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood never felt much temptation to be human beings.”
As Orwell saw it, holiness was unnatural and inhuman; the would-be saint was a failed human being in flight from the responsibilities, attachments, friendships, and loves that make life worth living. What’s more, he said, faith and holiness are “incompatible” with work for a better world. “One must choose between God and Man,” he said.
Why spend time worrying about Orwell’s opinion? Because he was his generation’s most humane and eloquent spokesman for a humanism without religion—for the belief that men and women could live like brothers and sisters without believing they were children of the same God.
Also, most people, if forced to be candid, would have to admit that they share Orwell’s suspicion about saints—Catholic, Hindu, or otherwise. We live in a culture that venerates great athletes and performers, that celebrates their years of training and self-denial in pursuit of bodily perfection, Olympic crowns, and other earthly garlands. But athleticism of the soul, any striving for self-mastery and perfection in the spiritual life, strikes most people as a little weird. Most of us would agree with Orwell: we don’t want to be saints, and we’re leery of people who do.
Orwell got it exactly right about so much in our troubled times. But Mother Teresa was sent to prove him, and the rest of us, dead wrong on this point.
In a life given to God in prayer and selfless love of the poor, she showed that it is possible to cast yourself into the arms of the living God and still burn with the love of your neighbor. She shattered the myth that the holy person is unconcerned with the misery and suffering of this world.
Indeed, she said, the world will be saved only by saints, by people trying to become holy. There would be no peace in the world, or in any of our hearts, until we return to God and God’s goals and ideals for human existence. “Only holiness,” she said, “will be able to overcome all the sufferings and miseries of people and of our lives.”
Mother Teresa was sent to teach us that holiness is our true human nature, the natural condition in which men and women are created. Holiness was not only possible, but desirable and necessary. We were made for holiness. She even gave us sound bites:
This is the perfect will of God for us: You must be holy. Holiness is the greatest gift that God can give us because for that reason He created us.
Sanctity is a simple duty for you and me. I have to be a saint in my way and you in yours.
Mother Teresa talked this way. She spoke the language of the Bible, made it sound so natural and ordinary. It wasn’t anything new she was sent to tell us. She reminded us that long before the followers of Jesus were called “Christians,” they were simply called “saints.” She said the same thing St. Paul used to say at the start of his letters: “You are called to be saints.”
These weren’t just words, either. She made sainthood seem within our reach, a call we could respond to. All we had to do was what she did—to give ourselves over to the mystery of God, to seek His will, not our own, to make every moment count. To do it all for Jesus.
What’s so special about Mother Teresa is that she came to show us the glory that could be ours if we were fully alive. She came to give us another chance to see Jesus. Another chance to become truly human.
Love Like a Child’s
There are many people who can do big things, but there are very few people who will do the small things.
The Hidden Life
This is one of the only stories we have from Mother Teresa’s childhood:
One night she was sitting around the table after dinner with her brother and sister, swapping jokes, telling silly stories. Their mother sat with them for a bit, not saying much, then got up abruptly and left the room. The next thing they knew every light in the house went dead. Mom had cut the power off.
“She told us that there was no use wasting electricity so that such foolishness could go on,” Mother Teresa told a biographer with a hint of irony and wit. For her it was light parable of origins, an explanation of her own no-nonsense style.
As episodes in the lives of the saints go, however, it’s a disappointment. It certainly lacks the drama of St. Francis stripping bare in the Assisi town square to prove he doesn’t need daddy’s money anymore. There is none of the pathos of St. Perpetua nursing her baby in a dank prison cell before being fed to the lions.
But with Mother Teresa, we don’t have a lot to work with. Other saints who lived in the twentieth century—martyrs such as Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein, visionaries such as Padre Pio and Faustina Kowalska—give us tales of spiritual and moral combat, battles with the dark side of human nature and with the forces of evil.
With Mother Teresa we have pictures. Hundreds of them. Public posings, as if she was running for some spiritual office—laughing-eyed holding babies; clasping the face of a dying, stick-figure man; sharing a confidence with an anonymous low-caste constituent; half kneeling, half curled up on a gray chapel floor, chin in her chest, hands folded in prayer. She was the first saint whose story was told in coffee-table books.
People loved to take her picture as much as she loathed being photographed. They treated her as if she was a living reliquary, focusing on pieces of her body: the wrinkled fingers like stuffed grape leaves working her rosary beads, the gnarled leathery feet, the face that looked like it was chiseled from thousand-year-old oak roots.
Though she was an odd bird in the firmament of world celebrity—an old woman without money, standing army, or sex appeal—she was easily among the most recognizable people of the century. Her face was so ubiquitous that it could get embarrassing. Can you imagine another saint having to fax a Nashville coffee shop and ask it to cease and desist from advertising that her wizened likeness had miraculously appeared in one of its sticky buns?
But if a picture tells a thousand words, it worked the opposite with Mother Teresa. Even the ones in color seemed to come out black-and-white. Her eyes told us everything and nothing all at once. We all know what she looked like. We know next to nothing about how she got in the frame to begin with.
Though she lived in the age of satellite communications, the World Wide Web, and 24-7 cable news networks, she may as well have been ensconced behind medieval garden walls for all we know about her life, especially her beginnings.
With saints of centuries past, biographical black holes are understandable. They either wrote their own life stories, or their legends were passed on by devotees. In most cases, what we know is what these saints wanted us to know or what their posthumous handlers believed would be “edifying” for us to know.
That’s why hagiography, as writing about the saints is known, all too often strikes us as all too pious and not quite real. Which is not to say that what we read about the saints is a lie. It just means the wrinkles and warts get airbrushed out. What makes saints like the rest of us—their foibles and faults, struggles and failures, their true humanity in other words—often gets left on the cutting-room floor.
What is baffling is that this brand of hagiography was permitted to persist in the case of Mother Teresa—a saint of the information age, a Nobel Prize winner who mingled with prime ministers and popes, the rich and the famous, who made powerful enemies both inside and outside the Catholic Church with her radical views on everything from abortion to war. You would think that every rock in the garden of her life would have been overturned, every room tossed, closets ransacked for skeletons, relatives and close associates shaken down for incriminating details.
People tried, of course. Fed up with the “drenching sycophantic publicity,” British journalist Anne Sebba set off on a forensic fishing expedition, skulking around graveyards in Mother Teresa’s hometown in Albania. Sebba came back with what she described as a shocking finding: that Mother Teresa’s late mother was fifteen years younger than her father, and that Mother Teresa’s older sister was born when her mother was just fifteen.
In her 1997 book, Mother Teresa: Beyond the Image Sebba tried hard to pin the charge of “cover-up” on Mother Teresa—insinuating that she ordered the dates changed on her mother’s and sister’s gravestones so as “not to advertise to the world that [her] mother had conceived at such a tender age.”
Sebba didn’t have any evidence of a conspiracy but that didn’t really matter, because the charge itself was kind of silly. After all, in the early 1900s there was no shame in being a teenage bride and mother—it was common for families in that part of the world to marry off their young daughters in arranged marriages.
But that’s how it always seemed to go with Mother Teresa. Even people who wanted to pillory her couldn’t find any basic facts about her life. You’d read their exposés and come away knowing way more about their own hang-ups with the Catholic Church than you did about Mother Teresa.
The truth is we don’t know much more about Mother Teresa of Calcutta than we do about those early virgin-martyrs who get a paragraph in Butler’s Lives of the Saints.
Her authorized biographers seem forced to hurry through her formative years in a matter of a few uninformative pages. Dates don’t add up or are kept vague. Sentences begin: “She was a born . . .” Fill in the blank with whatever you want—“leader,” “missionary,” “saint,” and so on. It makes no difference; nobody can prove it anyway. Instead of character studies we’re forced to read stereotypes, like this about her mother: “Drana was always busy, if not working in the home or helping others, she would be saying the rosary.” Invariably, at the end of a short chapter or two, you read a line like: “The young Mother Teresa, who first felt a calling to the religious life at age twelve, entered the convent at eighteen.”
The blame, to be fair, rests squarely with our subject. All of her biographers begin with a sort of disclaimer, as if to say that they tried but couldn’t get close to her. “Over the years she had been consistently terse in her response to questions which endeavored to probe her personal life and motivation,” Kathryn Spink apologizes in advance of her >Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography.
Eileen Egan, a friend who traveled extensively with Mother Teresa, could do no better. Her 448-page biography, Such a Vision of the Street, is the best of the bunch. But even she devotes less than fifteen pages to the years before Mother Teresa became a nun, and much of that is taken up with background about Albanian Catholicism and politics. Her subject, she says, “was always reticent about details of her personal life.”
But even supposedly independent journalists treated her with kid gloves, granting her an immunity from scrutiny scarcely conceivable for other public figures. Mother Teresa became a sort of godmother to Lady Diana, the Princess of Wales, and the two died in the same week in 1997. We could never imagine the press allowing Diana to get away with such generic, evasive answers as:
We were a very, very happy family.
No one thinks of the pen while reading a letter, they only want to know the mind of the person who wrote the letter. That’s exactly what I am in God’s hand—a little pencil.
Even the brilliant Malcolm Muggeridge, who exposed the brutality of Stalin’s Russia and skewered with gimlet eye politicians and cultural figures, was caught with his critical guard down. His Something Beautiful for God, catapulted Mother Teresa to international fame, and remains probably the finest interpretation of her life. But even he was reduced to making statements about her past that had no basis in the biographical record and could not possibly be verified. “As a child,” he once wrote, “Mother Teresa was . . . already conscious that some special mission would be required of her, and preparing herself to undertake it.”
The truth is that nobody really knows what she knew or when she knew it or how she became the person she became. That’s part of her mystery, and a big part of her message for our times.
The Limits of Biography
Here is what we know: Mother Teresa was born Gonxha Agnes on August 26, 1910, in Skopje—in present day Macedonia. She was the youngest of three children born to Nikola and Drana Bojaxhiu.
She was an Albanian Catholic, born in the year of the great Albanian uprising, and during her first years, her home city was invaded by Serbians who spent days on an ethnic tirade—raping, torturing, and murdering her neighbors and kin. Her official biographers are vague about the possible impact these events had on the family. “The Bojaxhiu family were very much caught up in this turmoil,” writes one. “But as a family they were financially and lovingly secure.”
Mother Teresa grew up initially in the comfort reserved for the prosperous bourgeoisie. Her father must have been a prominent figure—when he died all the shops and offices in the town closed for his funeral. He was a successful merchant and investor, served on the town council, and was often out of the country on business.
A generous man, especially with the poor and the Church, Nikola’s passion was Albanian independence. He hosted political strategy sessions in his home, was friends with legendary freedom fighters and patriots, and apparently helped bankroll the movement to establish an Albanian state in the Kosovo region. That’s what apparently got him killed. At a political fund-raising dinner in 1919 he was poisoned, presumably by angry Yugoslavian authorities.
The circumstances surrounding his death were chaotic and strange, and only one of Mother Teresa’s biographers even reports them. Nikola came home from the fund-raiser very ill. Drana, sensing he was dying, hurried young Agnes out the door to summon their priest to give Nikola the last rites. Agnes got to the church, but the priest didn’t answer his door.
For some reason, Agnes then fled to the train station. There, standing on the platform, was a priest nobody had ever seen before. He rushed with her back to the house. The priest anointed Nikola with holy oil and prayed over him the prayers of the dying. Then he walked away into the night. Nobody got his name. They never saw him again. Nikola was dead by morning.
After Nikola’s death, his business partners grabbed his share of everything and ran, leaving the Bojaxhius in financial straits. Drana took to supporting the family by sewing and rug making. Her children called her Nana Loke (“mother of my soul”). She was, by all accounts, a remarkable woman. In addition to becoming a successful entrepreneur, she went to Mass daily at the Church of the Sacred Heart down the street, brought food to the poor, opened the family dinner table to the homeless, and gave refuge to women in need. She would tell her children, “When you do good, do it quietly, as if you were tossing a pebble into the sea.”
Mother Teresa, in the few remarks she made about her childhood, always mentioned her mother’s hospitality.
We had guests at table every day. At first I used to ask: “Who are they?” and Mother would answer: “Some are our relatives, but all of them are our people.” When I was older, I realized that the strangers were poor people who had nothing and whom my mother was feeding.
For her part, Mother Teresa seems to have been a serious, bookish, and sort of sickly girl, prone to whooping cough and other infections. The name her parents called her, “Gonxha,” means “flower bud” in Albanian. Her brother, Lazar, said she was the kind of kid sister who wouldn’t tell mom when you stole from the cookie jar but still tried to make you feel remorseful about it. Young Gonxha loved music, played a pretty mean piano and mandolin, wrote some poetry, and acted in a few plays.
She was very active in church, singing in the choir and taking a leadership role in a young-ladies society devoted to the Virgin Mary. The parish priest, an energetic Jesuit named Father Franjo Jambrenkovic, encouraged the rosary and other devotions. He started a library and made sure that Agnes and other young people read Catholic books, newspapers, and magazines. He preached often about the Church’s missionaries, especially local priests serving in India.
With her mother, Agnes made yearly pilgrimages to the nearby mountain shrine of Our Lady of Cernagore in Letnice. On one of these occasions, perhaps on the day Catholics commemorate the Virgin Mary’s Assumption into heaven, Agnes felt the first stirrings of her call to religious life while praying before a statue of the Virgin. Mother Teresa said she began praying about what to do with her life when she was about twelve. “Sometimes I doubted that I had a vocation at all,” she said. “But in the end I had the assurance that God really was calling me. Our Lady of Letnice helped me to understand this.”
Attracted by what she had read of their work in India, she decided to join the Sisters of Our Lady of Loretto. Lazar, who by then was a lieutenant in the Albanian army, told her she was throwing her life away. She wasn’t intimidated. “You think you are important because you are an officer serving a king of two million subjects,” she replied. “But I am serving the King of the whole world! Which of us do you think is in the better place?”
When she told her mother, Nana Loke locked herself in her room and didn’t come out for a day. When she emerged, she said to Agnes, “Put your hand in His . . . and walk all the way with Him.” Agnes set sail for India in late 1928 and never saw her mother again.
We know only slightly more about her adult life than we do about her childhood. Of course, we have her writings and public talks. And pictures, lots of pictures.
Not the “Big” Teresa
Mother Teresa insisted on living a private, interior life, even once she hit the big time. Especially after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she could have been a real player in global affairs, with loads of moral capital to burn on issues she cared about deeply, such as AIDS, poverty, and abortion.
God, it would seem, delivered to her an international bully pulpit. But she refused to mount it. It is strange, when you think about it. In an over-exposed, celebrity-obsessed culture, God raised up a world-famous saint who ducked the limelight and had no appetite for autobiography.
Since St. Augustine, who practically invented the genre, saints have filled libraries with their life stories. Mother Teresa left us no confessions, no journal of her soul. Her spiritual correspondence, such as it was, consisted of exhortative letters sent to her nuns, and one-line notes she scratched to supporters, things like, “Let us do all for Jesus through Mary.”
Did God miss an opportunity here? Wouldn’t He have wanted His saint to broadcast her story to the world, to tell us how much she had in common with us, to hold herself up as a role model? Why didn’t she tell us what she was like growing up, about the scars left by the tragic death of her dad? Or about her relationship with her mother, and growing up in a single-parent home? Did she ever have a boyfriend? What demons did she wrestle with? Did she ever feel low-down and lonesome?
She gave us nothing, and we should wonder why. She lived in the very times we live in, and yet God sent her as a stranger just passing through, her life destined to remain a closed book. If you are inclined to think that God must have His reasons, you might say Mother Teresa’s first miracle was living in this day and age and being able to fly beneath the radar, to preserve her zone of personal privacy.
Even the skeptic has to concede that a highly unlikely set of circumstances conspired to draw an iron curtain of hiddenness around her:
Would-be muckrakers stumbled in their own muck. Journalists who should have known better observed self-imposed gag orders. There were no whistle-blowers, no believable tales told out of school by disgruntled former co-workers. Even Communist thugs and tyrants seemed to have been called in on this job, to ensure that nobody could check her family history. By the time anybody knew who she was, the Communists had swept into power in Albania, establishing a totalitarian police state, making it impossible to interview friends and family or check records and dates. The forces of nature, too, behaved as if carrying out some unspoken mandate; when an earthquake leveled her childhood home and neighborhood in 1963, it was like a divine conversation stopper, God forever interring her past in rubble and ruin.
We are left without a clue. Except for one thing: her name. In an instance of self-disclosure so isolated and rare that we need to stand up and take notice, she made her official biographers duly report that she took the name of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and not St. Teresa of Ávila. “Not the big St. Teresa but the little one,” she said without volunteering or apparently being pressed for further explanation.
In the Bible, when God changes someone’s name, it signals a change in that person’s destiny. Abram becomes Abraham, the father in whom all nations will be blessed. Jacob becomes Israel, namesake for God’s chosen people. Simon becomes Peter, the first pope, the solid rock of the Church.
It is the same in religious life. Often, when a woman becomes a nun, she leaves behind her birth name and takes the name of a saint. It’s both a sign of her new God-given identity and a kind of declaration of intent to imitate that saint’s virtues, to follow Christ in the particular manner that saint did.
So who was this Thérèse, beloved by Catholics as “the Little Flower,” and why did Agnes Bojaxhiu pick her to be her patron? We will never know about Mother Teresa’s motives. She seldom quoted Thérèse or spoke about her.
But Thérèse’s story is one of the great ironies in Catholic history. Little Thérèse was born near the end of a century in which the Christian civilization of the West seemed to be taking a dive, the century in which Nietzsche pronounced that God is dead and that Christians had killed Him; the century when Darwin announced his “discovery” that man descended from apes; the century when the workers of the world were starting to unite around a revolutionary manifesto by Marx.
The saint God chose to raise up in this century was a bourgeois girl who entered a Carmelite convent at fifteen, was dead of tuberculosis ten years later, and never showed a whit of interest in the tumult shaking the world outside her cloister. She spent her days praying and doing the laundry, reading the Bible, and counseling novice nuns. She wrote some letters, a few plays and poems. She was known for her goodness, but accomplished so little that a fellow nun worried aloud that Thérèse would be hard to eulogize at her funeral: “She has certainly never done anything worth speaking of.”
Thérèse was asked by her Mother Superior to write her life story, which she dutifully did, expressing in simple language her philosophy of life, which came to be called “the little way.” This “little way” meant living with a childlike sense of wonder at God’s gifts, with a child’s sense of dependence and trust. It meant, Thérèse said, finding the true divine significance “in the least action done out of love.”
Published a year after her death, the book became a surprise best seller. It was translated into countless languages and catapulted Thérèse to the ranks of the most beloved and important saints ever. Canonizing her between the world wars, at a time of social unrest and uncertainty, Pope Pius XI declared that if everyone followed her little way, “the reformation of human society would be easily realized.” A few years after that, Pope Pius XII called her “the greatest saint of modern times.”
This was the saint Agnes chose as her patron. Not the big Teresa, the bold reformer and mystic who mapped the soul’s interior mansions, landing herself in hot water with the Spanish Inquisition. Agnes chose the path of Thérèse the Little.
Born roughly a decade after Little Thérèse died, Mother Teresa took up the Carmelite’s torch and bore her little light farther down the trail into the darkening recesses of the modern world, the world remade in the image of Nietzsche, Darwin and Marx.
Daughter in spirit to Thérèse, Mother Teresa showed us that the world was not what we had made of it, that there was more to life than what the philosophers, scientists, and revolutionists told us. It was all so much simpler, so much more lovely.
Mother Teresa told us that we were children born, not of the chance survival of fitter ancestors or the determining struggle of economic classes, but of a God who willed and desired each one of us to be. We should live our lives like children of God, she said—trusting that our Father will provide, loving Him with little acts of love, and loving all people as sisters and brothers.
She preached this gospel of childlike love in words and deeds that were uncomplicated and elegant, repeating them day in and day out, like water dripping on the stones of our uncomprehending hearts:
Jesus came into this world for one purpose: He came to give us the good news that God loves us, that God is love, that He loves you, and He loves me. He wants us to love one another as He loves each one of us.
You and I have been created for greater things. We have not been created to just pass through this life without aim. And that greater aim is to love and be loved.
All is grace, she said, echoing Thérèse—God’s love above us, God’s love below, God’s love stretched all around us like the arms of Christ on the cross. Love was her theory and her practice. She translated Thérèse’s little way into a way of life that could be lived outside convent walls by anyone and everyone. A way of life by way of love.
“Live life beautifully,” she told us. This is what attracted people to Mother Teresa. They could sense that she was trying to practice what she preached. They could see that she tried to make everything she did, even her smallest thoughts and tiniest gestures, an oblation, an offering of love. She would tell us all to do likewise: “Offer to God every word you say and every movement you make.”
Mother Teresa believed that there is nothing so small that it can’t be offered to God. The littler the better. The smaller the more beautiful. “There are many people who can do big things,” she said, “but there are very few people who will do the small things.”
Her life was made up of doing these small things: saying her prayers, going to Mass, washing clothes, cleaning the house, reading a letter to a blind man, holding the hand of a dying woman, changing diapers on an AIDS baby. These weren’t chores for her, but little gifts of herself, things she did for Jesus.
Everything we do, she said, from the time we rise up in the morning until the time we lay ourselves down to sleep, can be done for the love of Jesus, can be offered as something beautiful for God. The whole day can be a prayer, a dialogue with God. She asked, “Do you play well? Sleep well? Eat well? These are duties. Nothing is small for God.”
In a century of “total war” and mass movements of violent social engineering, God sent us a saint who not only sweated the small stuff but told us that the road to heaven was paved with it. It was as if He had decided that the last thing we needed was one more great leap forward, one more manifesto for the creation of a new kind of man. God sent us a saint who preached a new kind of crusade, a little revolution of love.
She told us of a kingdom of love that enlarges its borders one touched heart at a time. In an age where so many had plunged the world into bloodshed trying to create heaven on earth, she showed us that heaven was already here, if only we had eyes to see it.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta was the saint of ordinary time, of the divine found in the routine. She reminded us that God comes to us not like a bolt out of the blue but in the din of the everyday, in our families and workplaces, in all the struggles and joys of our daily doings. Most of the time, though, we miss Him because we never expect God to be so darn ordinary.
She knew we tended to have big ideas about meeting God, as if He was to be found only in dramatic, mettle-testing, high-noon-at-the-crossroads, down-on-our-knees kind of moments. But she told us that God seeks us in the usual—in the people He puts in our path, in the trials and sufferings He sends our way.
Sometimes, she said, the greatest offering of love we can make to God is to hold our tongue, or to smile. “Often just one word, one look, one action—and darkness fills the heart of the one we love,” she would remind us.
Probably no other saint spoke or wrote as much about smiling as Mother Teresa did. For her, smiling was a medium for divine communication. A smile could heal, change lives, turn the world around.
A smile is the beginning of love.
Let us not use bombs and guns to overcome the world. Let us use love and compassion. Peace begins with a smile. Smile five times a day at someone you don’t really want to smile at at all. Do it for peace.
What she said sounded so puny, so insignificant. Sometimes it could seem that she was just putting us on, seeing if we were really paying attention. But she was on to something. How hard it is to muster a smile when you feel hurt or snubbed, especially by somebody you love—a parent, a spouse, or a child. How your mood can be knocked down to curb level when you smile at somebody, and your smile isn’t returned.
How could we expect peace among nations when we couldn’t find it in our hearts to smile at a person who had offended us? It started to make sense, then, when she said, “We can never know how much good a simple smile can do.”
Mother Teresa taught us that in the divine scheme of things we can never know the significance of anything we do. But we don’t have to, and we shouldn’t worry about it. This was the big wet blanket she threw on our results-hungry world. Love as if you’re sowing seeds, not expecting anything in return, was her message. It is not what we do, but how much love we put into what we do.
Could the parish priest in Mother Teresa’s hometown ever have known that by simply doing his job—celebrating Mass reverently, hearing confession with patience and mercy, teaching kids to pray and care about the Church’s mission—he was planting seeds, cultivating the sanctity of one of the century’s great saints? And what of the anonymous editors and writers of those Catholic magazines Mother Teresa read as a girl; could they have known they were stirring a zeal for souls, inspiring a heart for the lowly, helping to make a saint?
In her gospel of childlike love, actions speak louder than words. But motives speak louder still. Everything depends on having the right intention. You can do really big things, she would say, but they won’t mean a thing if you don’t do them with love. “Unless the work is interwoven with love,” she said, “it is useless.”
By Way of Love
Karl Stern, the Catholic psychoanalyst, credited St. Thérèse of Lisieux with discovering what he called the “Law of the Conservation of Charity.”
This law, he explained in his great essay on the saint, states that “nothing which is directed either toward or away from God can ever be lost.” Further, he said, “in the economy of the universe,” there is an “inestimable preciousness . . . [in] every hidden movement of every soul.”
In laymen’s terms: God has so made the world that everything we do or don’t do has cosmic significance. With each new moment, we are presented with a fundamental option—to either direct our acts and intentions toward God or away from Him. To love or not to love. And our little decisions in these matters have spiritual consequences we can scarce imagine. When we are mean, we increase the sum total of meanness in the world. When we are indifferent, the world’s indifference to love spreads. But when we love, even in the littlest things, we fill the world that much more with the radiant fragrance of God.
This was the law of the universe that Mother Teresa was sent to explain. But hers was no new doctrine. It was as old as the Bible, which, along with the prayers of the Mass, seemed to be her sole font of inspiration and wisdom. She was only saying what St. Paul said: That we should pray without ceasing, that whatever we do, even we’re just eating or drinking, we should do it for the glory of God. Mother Teresa said only what Jesus had said: Unless we love like little children we won’t see the kingdom of God.
Mother Teresa wasn’t a theologian or Bible scholar. As is so often the case with the saints, however, she shined a new light on the Gospel, helping us see passages we had overlooked and connections we couldn’t see before. Reading Scripture in her little light, we see how God always works through the lowly and the least likely—making His covenant with Abraham, a 75-year-old herdsman; founding His kingdom on the shoulders of a shepherd boy named David; redeeming the world through a quiet virgin from Nazareth; building His Church on a team of ex–tax collectors and fishermen.
“God is truly humble,” Mother Teresa marveled. “He comes down and uses instruments as weak and imperfect as we are. He deigns to work through us . . . to use you and me for His great work.” She taught us to see what she called “the humility of God”—how He stoops down to our level, speaks to us in words we can understand, even goes so far as to become an infant in the womb, all to show us His love and to share His life with us.
She helped us to see the patterns of humility and littleness in the life of Christ, who until His last three years lived the same workaday life most of us live. “How strange that He should spend thirty years just doing nothing, wasting His time. . . . He, a carpenter’s son, doing just the humble work in a carpenter’s shop for thirty years!”
Mother Teresa saw in the Eucharist a daily reminder and continuation of the Bible’s story of God’s humility, a living memorial of His example of love and self-sacrifice.
When Jesus came into the world, He loved it so much that He gave His life for it. He wanted to satisfy our hunger for God. And what did He do? He made Himself the Bread of Life. He became small, fragile, and defenseless for us. Bits of bread can be so small that even a baby can chew it, even a dying person can eat it.
This was the good news she brought to a world hungry for God and hungry for love. We have to walk the path that Jesus walked, a path that begins in giving yourself away. She told us that love begins where the self leaves off.
“You must first forget yourself, so that you can dedicate yourself to God and your neighbor.” That’s what she told Subshasini Das, who came to her in 1949 during the first days of Mother Teresa’s ministry on the streets of Calcutta. A privileged Bengali girl, she presented herself to Mother Teresa decked out in jewels and a fine dress and saying she wanted to give her life to the poor.
Sent away with those cutting words, she returned after weeks of soul-searching shorn of her fineries and clad in a plain white robe. Subshasini went on to become the first nun in Mother Teresa’s new religious order, the Missionaries of Charity.
You must first forget yourself. That was Mother Teresa’s message for a narcissistic generation, to people self-occupied yet still strangers to themselves.
She watched patiently as wave after wave of young women and men shucked off their parents’ Christianity and turned their hearts east, following some star they thought was rising, some new wisdom they thought would save them from the phoniness and soullessness of their consumer-material world. “People come to India,” she would say, “because they believe that in India we have a lot of spirituality and this they want to find. . . . Many of them are completely lost.”
Her idea of selflessness was the opposite of that preached by others in what Orwell called our “yogi-ridden age.” The gurus and sages of the East preached liberation through negation, through a progressive detachment from all desires and passions until the person arrives at a spiritual state of egolessness, free from and indifferent to the cares of the world.
For Mother Teresa, detachment and self-denial were not the end goals of our striving. She said that we deny ourselves, struggle against our selfishness and fancies, in order to purify our vision, to give ourselves totally to God, and be joined to Him in the most intimate embrace of love. We do not empty ourselves in order to be nothing, free of desire and need, but in order to be filled with divine life, to see and live with Jesus.
“Once we take our eyes away from ourselves—from our interests, from our own rights, privileges, ambitions—then we will become clear to see Jesus around us,” she promised.
One of those lost seekers who crossed her path was Morris “Mo” Siegel. In 1969, the summer of Woodstock, he launched an herbal tea company, Celestial Seasonings, Inc., that caught the first wave of the all-natural, organic health craze and rode it all the way to the bank. By 1985, he had sold his company for $40 million and was desperately seeking meaning, his midlife crisis manifesting itself in outfits with names such as Earth Wise and the Jesusonian Foundation.
He wound up, as so many of his generation did, in Calcutta, trying to find himself as a volunteer at Mother Teresa’s home for the destitute dying. She poked him in the chest and sent him home with these words: “Grow where you’re planted.”
Mother Teresa knew it was easy to be selfless for strangers, to love people we don’t know. So easy that it was no love at all. When it comes to love, she knew we are all big-picture people. We like love in the abstract—the poor, the sick, the handicapped—but we’re afraid of close-ups, the flesh and blood poor people and sick people, the family members and friends whom God plants in our midst.
“It is easy to love the people far away,” she would say. “It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start.”
She sent us all home to learn how to love again. Long before anybody else had begun warning about the disintegration of the traditional family, Mother Teresa was telling us that our families were dying:
The world today is upside down, and is suffering so much, because there is so very little love in the homes and in family life. We have not time for our children, we have not time for each other; there is not time to enjoy each other.
That was her diagnosis—God’s diagnosis, if we believe she was a special rider carrying a message to our day and age. Mother Teresa judged the health of our civilization by our ability to smile or hold our tongues; by whether parents had time for their children, husbands for their wives, the young to listen to the stories of the old; by whether we knew how to laugh and play, to be tender, to be still and to know that God lives in every person.
“Love starts at home and lasts at home . . . the home is each one’s first field of loving, devotion, and service,” she said. And from the bosom of the world’s poorest families, she brought us tender stories of heroic love. She told us of the sacrifices made by leper parents, who must give up their newborns immediately upon birth or risk infecting them for life with the disease. She told us the story of one couple saying good-bye to their three-day-old baby:
"Each one looked at the little one, their hands going close to the child and then withdrawing, trying, wanting to kiss the child, and again falling back. I cannot forget the deep love of that father and mother for their little child. I took the child, and I could see the father and mother as I was walking. I held the child toward them, and they kept on looking until I disappeared from their eyes. The agony and pain it caused! . . . But because they loved the child more than they loved themselves, they gave it up."
She told us of the little girl she met in one of her schools in Calcutta. The girl had been hiding the free bread that the nuns gave students each day, and Mother Teresa wanted to know why. The girl told her that her mother was sick and there was nothing to eat in the house, so she was bringing the bread home to her. “That is real love,” Mother Teresa said.
Real love is what she came to show us. The love of the little. A love that cracks the shell of all our self-delusion and flings open the doors of our hearts to Jesus. A love that takes as marching orders the words of John the Baptist: “I must decrease so that Jesus might increase.”
Mother Teresa told us that we could be—in every moment of our lives—God’s answer to somebody’s prayers. We could be Jesus. If only we would let ourselves.
This is why we know so little about her, why she seems to have come to us with no childhood, no past—and why her biography seems to begin and end when she gives her life to Jesus. She wasn’t trying to throw us off the trail or cover anything up. She was giving good directions to the lost.
We wanted her to talk about herself. But she was just trying to be a reflection. That’s why whenever we asked about her, she pointed us to Jesus.
She knew it wasn’t her we were looking for.
Meet the Author
David Scott’s essays and reporting have appeared in L’Osservatore Romano, National Review, Commonweal, beliefnet.com, and elsewhere. He holds an advanced degree in religion and the Bible, and he was formerly editor of Our Sunday Visitor. Currently, he is editorial director for The St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology (www.SalvationHistory.com) and contributing editor to Godspy.com. He resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
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