“If I ever become a Saint–I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven–to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”
–Mother Teresa of Calcutta
The canonization of Mother Theresa on Sunday reminded me of the occasion about seven years ago when, for Lent, I read Come Be My Light—a collection of the private writings of Mother Teresa.
Reading this book was a humbling experience. Mother Theresa founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950. It was to be an order devoted, in her words, to “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.”
Mother Theresa and her sisters served the poorest of the poor by living among them as one of them — first in Calcutta in India, and then eventually throughout the whole world. By the time she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Mother Theresa had reached the conclusion that “Calcutta is everywhere.” By that, she meant that even those who were materially well off could be spiritually impoverished.
In her Nobel lecture, Mother Theresa underscored this particular paradox by contrasting the smiles on the faces of the dying beggars she nursed in India, with the sad expressions she encountered when she visited comfortable nursing homes in the West:
“I saw in that home they had everything,” she said, “but everybody was looking towards the door … And I turned to the sister and I asked: How is it that these people who have everything here, why are they all looking towards the door, why are they not smiling? I am so used to smiles on our people, even the dying ones smile. And she said, ‘This is nearly every day ….They are hoping that a son or daughter will come to visit them. They are hurt because they are forgotten.’ … This is where love comes…. Maybe in our own family we have somebody who is feeling lonely, who is feeling sick, who is feeling worried….Are we there to receive them?”
The lives of saints are invariably paradoxical. Whenever Mother Theresa was asked how she kept the adulation that came with being an international celebrity from infecting her with the sin of pride, she would reply that Jesus had given her a great grace: the deepest conviction of her total nothingness. “If He could find a poorer woman through whom to do his work,” she said, “He would not choose me, but He would choose that woman.”
In the same spirit, she remarked on another occasion that God had been able to accomplish so much through her because she had completely emptied herself to let Him work His will.
Mother Theresa belongs to that very select company of whom the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The mass of men worry themselves into nameless graves, while here and there a great unselfish soul forgets himself into immortality.”
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