Much has been written about St. Teresa of Kolkata (also referred to as Mother Teresa of Calcutta) especially in the weeks surrounding her canonization on September 4th. Because she lived within the age of media technology we have had great access to her both while she was alive and also in the years since her death. For someone as humble as she was, it must have been difficult to be the object of worldwide attention, especially since she made it clear that what she did was for each individual person pulled out of the gutter and that she and the Order she founded did not do their work for public acclaim. Mother Teresa of Kolkata did not see herself as any sort of a saint, but only as someone who tried to give every person, regardless of religion or background, the dignity that they deserved in life and especially in their final days. In choosing to work surrounded by the poverty and filth of the slums, she saw the richness of each life and the value of each person in the same way that Jesus sees each person as a child of God. I would even go so far as to say that she saw beauty where no one else saw it because she had a heart filled with love in the midst of her own personal spiritual darkness. She, who could find no light in her own life of prayer, was a light in the darkness for many.
Mother Teresa was born in 1910 as Agnes Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Albania, now Macedonia. She entered the Sisters of Loreto at 18, traveling to Ireland to learn English so that she could become a missionary in India where her ministry was to teach lessons in English. After about twenty years in India she found herself questioning her ministry and the focus of her true calling. She experienced a ‘call within a call,’ as she described it, which led her to leave her congregation and to begin picking up the poorest of the poor out of the gutters in the most disgusting, filthy slums imaginable in Kolkata, taking them off the streets and helping them to die with dignity. She took the most unloved, abandoned people, at first mostly Hindu, and gave them a clean place to die with someone to care about them and for them. She took the forgotten and helped them to feel remembered. Amidst adversity, she soon attracted some followers who helped her in the work of helping the poorest of the poor, eventually founding the Missionaries of Charity.
One of the most remarkable things about St. Teresa of Kolkata was her ability to see what no one else saw; she noticed what others either failed to notice or refused to see. She saw the ‘invisible’ ones, the nearly naked, starving, disease-ridden people who were literally dying in the streets, and she was moved to action. She could see the light of God in those poor ones despite the intense spiritual darkness she experienced for years. It was well documented by Teresa herself that at almost the precise moment when she accepted the call from Jesus to minister to the destitute, she ceased to feel His presence. For the rest of her life she felt as if Jesus had not only abandoned her, but that He did not want her at all. Although this caused excruciating interior suffering, the flip side of this circumstance was that it gave her deep insight into what the forgotten poor must have felt like, forsaken by all. It also gave her a sense of how abandoned Jesus must have felt when He went through the Passion. The suffering she experienced was heart-wrenching and continuous, but day after day she ministered to “Jesus in His most distressing disguise” [her words] despite the darkness in which she personally lived.
St. Teresa noticed those who were in great need, the abandoned and alone, because she had learned to see the beauty within the souls of all people. She disciplined herself through long hours of prayer, all of which may have felt empty in her darkened spiritual state. But because she had faith in the promises of Jesus, the result of her prayer was that she was able to see as if with His eyes. What others saw as ugly, she saw as beautiful; what others saw as impossible, she saw as possibility; and what others saw as futile, she saw as opportunity to share mercy. Because of this, we can learn much from Mother Teresa. We do not have to make grand gestures such as beginning a religious community or saving every poor person we encounter, but we can do “small things with great love,” as she used to say. Small gestures can add up to become something very large, as in the case of St. Teresa. In her wisdom she did not expect others to do exactly as she did, but simply taught that we are each to follow the call we are given, especially the basic, universal call given through Baptism. All of us are called to make those small gestures of love and compassion in daily life whether it means helping the materially poor in a tangible way or if it is in a kind action for the emotionally or spiritually impoverished, the forgotten or lonely, by noticing them and then acting on alleviating their pain as best we can. Whatever it is, St. Teresa teaches us to trust God, have faith in the presence of Jesus even in the darkness, and that small acts done with great love are the works Christ calls us to do.
What is especially helpful about St. Teresa of Kolkata is that when we feel like we are stumbling around in the dark with no discernible sense of the presence of Jesus, He is, in fact, right there. In St. Teresa we have a friend in whom we can trust to intercede when we are feeling alone on our spiritual journey. Like her we can continue to pray, trusting that Jesus is guiding and inspiring us with graces which we simply may not feel at the time. She teaches that when we feel a lack of connection to God, counter-intuitively we must push against that feeling. If we trust Jesus and we continually ask Him in prayer to show us how to see Him in ourselves, others, or reflected in creation, our awareness will grow so that we begin to see light in the midst of darkness, beauty in the midst of what might otherwise seem bleak or overwhelming. We are united to Christ at all times: we received this gift at our Baptism and it is nourished by the Eucharist. (See Romans 8: 35-39) Poverty in parts of India (and elsewhere in the world) is rampant and yet St. Teresa never gave up on a situation so dire that her early attempts may have seemed futile. But after a number of years there were so many helping her in this work that today the Missionaries of Charity are found all over the world dealing with one abandoned soul after another. A small gesture became a huge one, but it all started with picking up one dying person.
I think St. Teresa is a remarkable friend for us to have. That is, we should ask her intercession whenever we feel like we do not know what direction to turn or when we are having trouble seeing how we can serve God. She can show us the way to the small actions which will make a difference for one person at a time. These little gestures can aid us in developing a habitual attitude of mercy, and likewise, we should not hope for any acclaim other than the desire that at the end of our life Jesus will meet us at the gates of Heaven and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” St. Teresa was a model of humility: whenever someone would imply that she was a saint or holy, or that her work was exemplary, she would almost recoil in horror. This was because she was truly humble and therefore never thought of herself as holy. Rather, she wanted to alleviate suffering in the people who came to be her own, her only intention to serve Jesus for His sake and not for any self-aggrandizement. For her, the work done in Jesus’ name was more important than she was. It was the light of His love which she could neither see nor feel that she was able to radiate humbly to others. In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, she is truly a beacon of the light of mercy, compassion, and exemplary dedication to Jesus Christ in the midst of personal darkness. St. Teresa of Kolkata, who could find no light, continues to be a light in the darkness for many.
May we ask for the intercession of St. Teresa of Kolkata especially when we feel like we are in darkness! May we pray for St. Teresa’s intercession that we might be moved to help the poor among us, whether they are in material, emotional, or spiritual poverty! May we imitate St. Teresa in taking on the challenge of reaching out to those who are different than we are, especially the marginalized, so that we can help one person at a time to come to peace and healing! May we realize that our efforts, small or large, do elicit change, even if we do not see the results! May we learn to do small things with great love, just as Jesus taught us in His gospel message! And may we offer our efforts to Jesus as an act of love, that He may use our hands, feet, and hearts as His own to minister to His beloved people! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next post will be Sept. 26.
The first photo was found at http://whhspatriotpress.com/3892/news/mother-teresa-made-a-saint/
The second photo is one of mine, an unknown insect sitting on the leaf of a potted plant outside the information center in Anacostia Park in Washington, DC. It actually struck me as a whimsical photo at the time I took it, but I chose to use it here because it seemed to fit the theme of noticing that which many others do not notice. The insect is actually quite vibrant and beautiful in its own way, (even for one like me who does not have a particular fondness for insects.) Yet of all the photos I took that day, this remains my favorite. It goes to show that with a little noticing, things do begin to look different...and that which would not originally be seen as beautiful, truly has its own exquisiteness and worth, transformed in the eye of the beholder.
Next is also one of my photos, taken in Orange Beach, Alabama. I chose it because it shows the shadow of an encroaching fog as it was simultaneously getting dark one evening. Without the lights on the pier there would be great danger, both for those who might walk out upon it and for boats trying to find shore. Because of the lights, the people on the beach could discern the location of the pier, as was true for the fishermen who were out on the water, though unseen in the angle of this shot. It made me see just how important light in the darkness really is. It keeps us safe.
It makes sense that after the photo of the pier I chose to use the lovely icon, Mother of God Light in All Darkness by Fr. William Hart McNichols. As intercessor, Mary leads us to her Son Jesus who is the Light of the World. In this icon we see Mary holding Jesus in her lap; in His hand is a lit candle which she is helping to shield as if from a draft (an attack?) which threatens to extinguish it. Of course, the Light of God cannot be extinguished, but symbolically we see that her prayers are important for us and offer guidance and protection. Both Mary and Jesus look outward to us in this icon; they have their eyes fixed on us, noticing what we need in the midst of any darkness which may be surrounding us, lighting the way home with mercy and love. This icon can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/mother-of-god-light-in-all-darkness-016-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Finally, the last photo is also one of mine, and also taken at Kenilworth Marsh in Anacostia Park in Washington, DC. It shows lotus plants blooming in the ponds with their massive leaves open toward the light of the sun. Many of the flowers are not yet in bloom, but rather are still buds. But the light will do its work and assist in their flowering. I chose this because the lotus is often associated with India and with spirituality: these seem to be showing us that we need light to blossom so that what is small can become great in the eyes of God. That is, our works may seem insignificant to us, but to God they are magnificent works of mercy and love, especially because we are bringing Jesus to His people.
Heart Speaks to Heart