Bl. Teresa of Calcutta: A Sign For Our Times

It has often been said that every age is given the saints that it needs.  Saints are signs, works of art fashioned by the hand of God, given by Him to speak to their world by their beauty and their love.  If this is true, then it is for each age to discover why it has been given the saints it has received.  Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, known during her lifetime simply as Mother Teresa, has in a special and evident way been given to our age.  Pursuing a life of quiet service, she was plucked from the obscurity of the Indian slums and was thrust upon a world stage, ultimately becoming one of the most famous and admired people of the twentieth century.  She did not seek the limelight, and she found its hard glare profoundly uncomfortable.  For a time she avoided it, and finally, when it became clear to her that there was a mysterious providence in her wide renown, she resigned herself to enduring it as an expression of love for Christ.  It was the path laid out for her.  She was given to us.

At first glance it would seem a simple matter to understand the appeal and importance of Mother Teresa.  She is a signpost pointing with blazing letters toward the little ones, the lost and forsaken of the earth.  Even those who know very little of her know that Mother Teresa is associated with love for the poor, and especially for the poorest of the poor.  To an age that has been scrambling madly after material success, and has trampled underfoot the dignity of humanity, she brings the profound message that every immortal soul is of immeasurable value.  She sought out the most destitute, the least loved, the invisible, the ones left behind.  And having once found them, she held nothing back, but poured herself out for them.  She lived among them, she shared their lot and tied her life entirely to theirs, as Christ tied Himself in an absolute way to an impoverished humanity.  Here then is one message of Mother Teresa: reach out in true solidarity to the poor, love the unloved, embrace those who are so often overlooked.  And how rare it is really to love the poor, to identify with them to the point of becoming poor oneself, to serve them not in hidden pride or condescension but with true humility, to recognize Christ in them and therefore to see them as brothers and sisters among whom we ourselves belong.  By her life and work Mother Teresa did much more than establish a charitable society. She gave new eyes to the world.  She made the invisible visible.  She taught us to see others with the vision of Christ.

But there are other aspects of Mother Teresa’s life, less obvious to the casual observer, of importance for understanding why she was given to us.  Here I will mention two: one is what might be called her ordinariness, and the other, her experience and understanding of darkness and suffering.

As to the first: No one doubts that we are dealing, in Mother Teresa, with an extraordinary woman.  Admired the world over, receiver of countless tributes even to the gaining of the Nobel Peace Prize, foundress of a religious society thousands strong, her blue and white habit a beloved modern icon; such distinction could come only to a person of very rare quality.  Yet the special character of Mother Teresa’s greatness is, paradoxically, of an ordinary kind.  She was not extraordinary in the ways we often mean when we use that word.  Though certainly clever, she was not extraordinarily intelligent.  She did not have the advantage of an impressive social background or education or family or early life experience.  And though possessed of a strong and decided character, she had no extraordinary personal magnetic power.  She was not one of those people whom the world marks out from an early age as “someone who will go far.”  In all these matter she was very much like many people we all know.  There are those who, looking at her life from her later position of fame and accomplishment, seeing her success in founding a dynamic religious order or her spellbinding attractiveness as a “media personality,” have ascribed to her some special hidden talent, a CEO in a sari, a masterful manipulator of world opinion in the guise of a simple nun.  But this betrays a lack of understanding as to the true source of her power.

Nothing shows her ordinariness in these matters more clearly than the attitude of the sisters of the religious order among whom she lived for some twenty years before founding the Missionaries of Charity.  Her Sisters of Loreto would have attributed to her a cheerful and hardworking spirit, a loving heart, a deep life of prayer, an administrative bent, a special knack for working with children.  She was a good, an exemplary Sister.  But if you would have asked them whether she had the marks of greatness about her, whether she was someone destined by her personal gifts to rise to world fame and to be counted among the great ones of the earth, they would not have seen it.  Because the one thing in which she was truly extraordinary was of a hidden kind, not easily discerned, belonging to the realm of the spirit: she was extraordinarily ambitious in love.  She gave herself away to her Lover with an abandonment and a completeness of the rarest kind.  She burned inwardly with the desire to love Christ as he had never been loved before.

Here then is another of the signs given us in Mother Teresa.  We see what God can do in and through a soul such as this, one who gave herself to Him with utter abandonment, who followed the call of love to its furthest reaches. The way of Mother Teresa is of the same kind as that of her chosen spiritual patron, her namesake of Lisieux.  Great love, expressed in cheerful obedience to God in small matters, constitutes true greatness.  The beauty of this message is that such love is within the reach of everyone.  Our talents and our situation in life are largely given us, and we can do little about them.  But it is for us to determine how much we will love.  Mother Teresa’s ordinariness is providential. She has been given to us to show us just how far love can take us.

But it is when we touch on the matter of suffering that we come to the very heart of Mother Teresa’s message.  Always cheerful, ever smiling, eyes dancing, she gave to the world a vision of sunny love.  Yet at the center of that love was a piercing understanding and experience of suffering.  In this she stands squarely in the long Christian tradition that has understood suffering as mysteriously redemptive.  But in Mother Teresa this truth, that life comes through death and salvation through suffering, reached extraordinary depths.  She understood that to be embraced by Christ meant to be drawn into His suffering, and the warmer that embrace became, the deeper would be the communion of suffering.  She called suffering the kiss of Jesus Christ, and she taught her Sisters cheerfully to embrace whatever suffering came to them, in the knowledge that it was the privileged path for Christ to come into the world.

This attitude was for Mother Teresa more than a theological truth; it was a lesson written by Christ upon her own heart.  Hidden to all, even to her closest Sisters, revealed only to her spiritual directors, she experienced a mystical insertion into the crucifixion of Christ and into His insatiable thirst for souls.  In every house of the Missionaries of Charity next to the crucifix above the altar are the words, “I thirst.”  Spoken by Christ on the Cross, these words echoed in Mother Teresa’s soul.  She found herself ever more parched by that thirst, and experienced mystically the anguish of Christ’s cry, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”  Filled with energy for apostolic work and relentlessly pursuing holiness, she experienced inwardly a darkness which she came to understand as the close embrace of her Beloved in that mysterious realm of the Spirit, that place where God woos and courts, in his often bewildering way, those whom He has chosen and who find the grace to respond to that choice.

Here then is yet another sign for us.  Our age is confused by, we might even say offended by, suffering.  We have made it our aim to curtail it by all the means in our considerable power, and we dream of a world, fashioned by ourselves, where suffering will have been banished.  Yet in spite of gains in comfort and in physical health, the world still lies under an insupportable weight of suffering, even and especially in the centers of modern scientific technology and economics and social planning.  We still suffer, but we cannot understand why, and our suffering embitters us and drives us to despair.  Mother Teresa has been given to us to show us that light and darkness are, in this still-fallen world, inextricably linked, that joy is found in the midst of hardship, that life is resurrected from death, that cheerful love is rooted in the soil of suffering offered to God and joined to Christ, the Suffering One.  She is a beacon of light in darkness, a sign of hope to all those who are hemmed in by pains, by trials, by bereavements, by disappointments and darknesses that they cannot avoid and sometimes cannot even name.  She reminds us, by her joyful witness, that suffering, offered in love, has saved and continues to save the world.

She is indeed a saint, and a sign, for our times.


Fr. Michael Keating is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. He is Associate Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. He received his BA and MA (Education) from the University of Michigan. He has an MA in Theology from the Angelicum in Rome, and a PhD in Modern European Intellectual History from the University of Notre Dame. In addition to teaching, he is the founder and current Director of the Habiger Institute for Catholic Leadership at the University of St. Thomas. Fr. Keating has been involved in many apostolic initiatives, especially with youth and university students, and has been a speaker and retreat director in national and international venues.

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