Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta was in many ways a study in contrasts. The diminutive founder of the Missionaries of Charity was at once the epitome of humility and yet a towering figure in the world at large. She was the definition of compassion toward others while taking on tremendous sufferings and sacrifices. She struggled with darkness in her own prayer life but remained a beacon of light to others. She promoted a spirituality that was on its surface so simple but at its core so profound.
It would be easy to get caught up in the awesomeness of Mother Teresa and think that what she preached was beyond anything that “regular” people could practice. But the real message of this “saint of the gutter,” whose 100th birthday will be celebrated with much fanfare and some controversy around the world on Aug. 26, was that we are all called to be saints, and we can begin right where we are at this moment.
Small things with love
“Holiness is not the luxury of the few, it is a simple duty for each one of us,” she once said, emphasizing that peace and love and compassion must begin first at home, among the people closest to us.
Her writings on how to love God, serve others and live out the spirituality she taught are compiled in a new book, “Where There Is God, There Is Love” (Random House, $24), edited by Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, postulator of Mother Teresa’s cause for canonization and director of the Mother Teresa Center, which has offices in California, Mexico, India and Italy.
In a recent interview with Our Sunday Visitor, Father Kolodiejchuk stressed that the beauty of Mother Teresa’s spirituality is its simplicity and the fact that it can be practiced by anyone, regardless of vocation, family situation, location or life’s work.
“Mother used to always say, ‘You don’t have to come to Calcutta to serve the poor.’ You can be a co-worker wherever you are, even if you can’t leave your house. … She used to tell people to look at your own family, those who are right around you and need some loving care,” he said, stressing that Mother Teresa’s spirituality was “very much in line” with that of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. “Do small things with great love.”
Father Kolodiejchuk, who was associated with Mother Teresa for 20 years, said that her earlier book, “Come Be My Light,” which he also edited, gave people a new appreciation for Mother Teresa’s spirituality. The letters that revealed her decades-long struggle with spiritual darkness have given “greater meaning” to her message, he said.
“Now we see the heroic faith, the pure faith she lived through all that darkness, and she lived it joyfully. Those simple things we heard before now take on new meaning. ... Her spirituality is simple in principle. It’s not something we can just look at and admire. We can live it ourselves,” Father Kolodiejchuk said.
Humble saint in our midst
And therein lies the attraction to what Mother Teresa preached.
She stressed that people could do what she did — not by physically serving the poor in India, but by serving the poor right at home. And by “poor” she meant not only those suffering from physical need but those in need of love, companionship, care and understanding.
“Mother Teresa was a humble saint in our midst who through her extreme love for Jesus taught the world how to truly love the poor. She opened our eyes to the fact that the poor aren’t only those she and her sisters ministered to in Calcutta and in Third World countries, which are starving for food. But the poor are also those who we may know in our own families, neighborhoods and communities who are starving for love,” said Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle, author of “Mother Teresa and Me: Ten Years of Friendship” (Circle Press, $14.95) and a lay Missionary of Charity. “She many times preached that a far greater disease than leprosy or cancer is the pain of feeling unwanted and unloved.”
O’Boyle, who corresponded with Mother Teresa, met with her in person and spoke to her by phone, said that even though Mother Teresa seemed unreachable, “her feet were firmly planted in her sandals.”
“She was undeniably unpretentious and humble, a sensible and holy woman. Her head was not up in the clouds, and she was certainly no stranger to all of the modern-day nastiness occurring around us. She ministered to all she met with a one-on-one and a one-by-one approach, no matter what the need,” she told OSV.
“Busy moms, dads, students and anyone devoted to Christ can do the same as Mother Teresa by opening their own hearts to their own call to holiness, grounding themselves in deep prayer, asking for God’s graces and then reaching out in love to all God puts in their midst. And this means to love even the seemingly unlovable — those who ‘push your buttons’ and go out of their way to annoy you or antagonize you,” O’Boyle said.
The first section of Mother Teresa’s “Where There Is Love, There Is God” is focused on the need for daily prayer, especially silent prayer. She emphasized that service to the poor needs to be more than social work; it has to be grounded in a love for Jesus Christ, in the Eucharist, in prayer.
David Scott, author of “A Revolution of Love: The Meaning of Mother Teresa” (Loyola Press, $18.95), said that the saintly nun’s spirituality was “incarnational, eucharistic.”
“She discovered — not from theology books, but through her lived experience in prayer and ministry — the deep connection between ‘the Word made flesh’ and the coming of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist,” Scott said. “She would say that every morning she received Jesus under the appearance of bread and wine and that in her work with the poor she received him under the appearance of their flesh and blood.” Mother Teresa once said, “Our lives are woven with Jesus in the Eucharist.” According to Scott, that one line is “a great summary of her spirituality and a great approach to life.”
“It makes our lives a kind of entertaining of angels or a divine hospitality,” he said. “We have to be always open to receiving the Christ who comes to us — in the Scriptures, in the sacraments, and in the people he sends our way every day, especially those who are harsh or unpleasant to deal with. She would say these are all Christ, waiting for our love.”
After reading or hearing about Mother Teresa’s letters that described her dark night of the soul, many people saw for the first time that the ever-present smile on Mother Teresa’s face masked the deep pain she felt in her soul. Cynics said it was a proof that she wasn’t all that people believed her to be, but those who knew her best realized more than ever that she was going through a kind of “spiritual martyrdom,” a trial of her faith.
“Remember, we never knew Mother Teresa was suffering until those letters were released after her death. She was always smiling, always talking about how important it was for Christians to be cheerful; she always appeared so serene,” said Scott, former editor of OSV. “The lesson for us is to try to have that same attitude toward struggles in our own lives, even the little ones. To understand them as tests of our faith and our love, tests sent our way by a Father who loves us and wants us to grow in holiness and righteousness.”
Day of honor
So the world will celebrate the birth of this incredibly private woman with numerous public celebrations this month. Blue and white lights will decorate the Peace Bridge that links New York and Ontario, Canada, although the Empire State Building, at least as of this writing, will not be lighted in her honor despite a firestorm of controversy and thousands of names on a petition. Benedictine College in Kansas will light its buildings blue and white and name a new building for Mother Teresa. The U.S. Postal Service will issue a stamp in her honor.
The list goes on and on, and one has to wonder what Mother Teresa would say about all the fuss, especially in light of the fact that she considered her real birthday to be Aug. 27, the day she was baptized.
Father Kolodiejchuk, for his part, said the heart of who Mother Teresa was and what she preached was summed up best on her business card, which read:
“The fruit of silence is prayer; the fruit of prayer is faith; the fruit of faith is love; the fruit of love is service; the fruit of service is peace.”
Mary DeTurris Poust is author of the upcoming book “Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship” (Ave Maria Press, $13.95).
Words of Mother Teresa (sidebar)
“There is a terrible hunger for love. We all experience that in our lives — the pain, the loneliness. We must have the courage to recognize it. The poor you may have right in your own family. Find them. Love them.”